How To Read The Bible - Knowing Its Cultural Context Reveals Its Hope

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Wednesday, June 4, 2014 0 comments

by Logan Ames

For those who don’t already know, my full-time job is with Children’s Protective Services in the county where I live. My main work is investigating reports of child abuse or neglect, but through some of the more serious cases I also get a chance to meet and interact with foster parents. This part of the job has been a real eye-opener for me. While there certainly are cases out there of parents who foster for the wrong reasons, the vast majority of the ones I’ve met have showed me what a true and selfless calling it is. Foster parents have to be willing to take into their homes children who have been abused and neglected and who usually don’t want to leave their families. While many can’t imagine why kids would want to stay in an abusive situation, it makes perfect sense to me. It’s what and who they know! Children are taught not to talk to strangers without their parents around, yet a lack of suitable relatives often forces an agency like mine to place children where everything and everyone is “strange”. The best foster parents are the ones who ask the children questions, do research, or use any method possible to determine what was normal for the children. Then, the foster parents have to make every effort to see each challenge in the eyes of the children. If the parents ONLY see things through their own culture and norms and force them onto the children, they risk further alienation.

It may seem like a strange segue to you, but I was thinking about how foster parents sometimes get frustrated with their inability to connect with children or the children’s inability to get used to their rules and norms and how it’s like when people get frustrated with certain things in the Bible that they either can’t understand or misunderstand due to not knowing the culture. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the words you read in the Bible, you have to be willing to look at them from the eyes of those who wrote them and lived them. Culture can refer to ethnic differences as well as family dynamics and home environments. All of these can be found in the stories in the Bible and they are all significant.

I’m not saying that you MUST know everything about the culture to get anything out of reading the Bible. The beauty of God’s Word is that you can dig as deep or as shallow as you want. If you learn nothing else, you will still see that, as the old children’s song says, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. If you choose to pursue further studies, you will never get to a point where there is nothing else to learn. I know this because I know Dr. Gary Staats, a seminary professor who has translated at least one verse of the Hebrew Bible every day for something like forty years and still says he feels like he is “just scratching the surface”.

If you just pick up the Bible and start reading it in any English version or a version in the language you speak, you will get something out of it. If you’re truly interested in “studying” the Bible, there are a ton of resources that can help you. Katie shared many of them in her post on Monday on this same website, so I’m not going to repeat them. For me personally, commentaries are the best way to learn about cultural context. I also love to look at several different versions of the Bible in one sitting to get a broader idea of what is written. The dominant ethnic culture in the Bible is that of the Jews, so anyone who has a chance to study Jewish history, law, or customs and anyone who has a chance to actually visit Israel will have a deeper understanding of the Bible.

One area of the Bible where cultural context gives us way more than we get on the surface is with Jesus’ calling of his disciples. The Scripture appears to be very vague. In Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus calls the first four in Peter, Andrew, James, and John. All four of these guys were fishermen by trade and the latter two were with their father. When Jesus called them, he said very little, but they still immediately abandoned everything to follow him. Why? What kind of crazy man just walks up to people while they’re working and says, “Follow me”? And what kind of person actually follows? There had to be something more than what’s just in the words.

I always assumed there was some special presence about Jesus that made it obvious to these guys what the right decision was. While it’s true the Spirit has always worked to accomplish God’s purposes, I learned something very practical about this when I began to understand the Jewish concept of discipleship a few years ago. In that culture, it’s considered an honor to be a disciple of a rabbi. All Jewish boys go through some schooling, a smaller number get further education, and an even fewer get to be considered for discipleship. Those who are considered for discipleship essentially have to prove themselves and their intellectual abilities to the rabbi. If the rabbi is impressed, he welcomes the boy as a disciple. If not, he encourages him to return to his father’s trade. Either way, it is typically determined by about age 13 or so whether a boy will be a rabbi’s disciple or have to “settle” for his father’s trade. This is significant because those first four disciples were fishing, meaning they had already likely been told they couldn’t be disciples and were back to the family business. Add to that the fact that disciples sought a rabbi and not the other way around, and you begin to see the significance of Jesus calling them. He SOUGHT them, not the other way around. When others had not been impressed, Jesus told them they were good enough for him. Their hope may have been fading, but Jesus gave them a second chance. On this new journey, one’s own choice to walk away would be the only thing that could separate him from his beloved Rabbi. I hope that speaks to you as it does to me.

When Jesus called Matthew, a despised tax collector, to follow him as a disciple in Matthew 9:9, the cultural context makes it obvious to us why a Jewish man hated by both his own people and the Romans would jump at the chance to follow someone who invited and accepted him. It also shows why that hated Jewish man would be so excited at this news that he would invite Jesus to his house to meet all of his “tax collector and sinner” friends (v. 10). Cultural context also gives us insight into the mind of Peter after he denied Jesus and Jesus was killed. In John 21:3, after he had been called AWAY from his father’s trade and spent 3 years with Jesus, he decided to go back to fishing and the other disciples followed suit. When we feel like we have failed Jesus, the enemy tempts us to give up hope and just accept that we don’t amount to anything and aren’t good enough for God. He tempts us to return to whatever we were before we knew Jesus. Once again, Peter cannot contain his excitement when Jesus comes to him AGAIN (John 21:7), showing that even his worst mistakes didn’t seal his fate.

Everything that is true about those first disciples is true about you and me. Even when we don’t seek Jesus, he seeks us. Even when you give up on yourself and look in the mirror and see what a miserable wretch you are, he doesn’t give up on you! When others reject you or tell you that you don’t qualify, those judgments are irrelevant to Jesus. Next time you read God’s Word, try to take some time to study and learn about the cultural context. It is loaded with stories of hope and restoration that can help you just as you are right now!