I guess I think that conversations about Biblical context are fun, so it may not be a surprise that I get into these conversations quite a bit. By context I mean the idea that when we read Scripture, it was not just dropped out of the sky directly to us. It was written thousands of years ago to a different audience living in a different culture with different events going on. Scripture still has something to communicate to us, but perhaps it is something different than what it communicated to the original readers.
But, as anyone who has ever talked to a first-year seminarian will know, this can open a can of worms. It's really easy to pull out the "context" card when you run into a difficult passage, or one that is not your favorite. You could pull out some sort of context argument for every chapter and verse of Scripture, arguing that the Bible never actually says what it means. Which can lead us to ask: Is context just a cop out? Is it just an excuse for ignoring parts of the Bible we don't like?
I want to show you why context is still important by turning it over to world-renowned Bible scholar, Miley Cyrus. As you read the following exert from the Epistle of Miley, I want you to keep a running total of all the references that might be confusing to someone who is not a young white female in the 2000s.
Get to the club in a taxi cab
Everybody's looking at me now
Like "who's that chick that's rockin' kicks?
She's gotta be from out of town"
So hard with my girls not around me
Its definitely not a Nashville party
Cause all I see are stilettos
I guess I never got the memo
My tummy's turnin' and I'm feelin' kinda home sick
Too much pressure and I'm nervous
That's when the D.J. dropped my favorite tune
And a Britney song was on
Imagine going back to Biblical times and showing these lyrics to ancient readers. You'd have to explain what a chick rockin' kicks is, and that it is has nothing to do with rocks or chickens. You'd have to explain the cultural difference between tennis shoes and stilettos. You'd have to explain the regional differences between the West Coast (LA) and the South (Nashville), and how parties would differ in both of these places. You'd have to explain who "Britney" is and why her songs are a good thing. Then your audience would walk away, shaking their heads and saying "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"
You see where we're going with this? If we are not immersed in the culture in which something was written, it will be confusing. And there are all kinds of references, words, laws, instructions, stories, etc. in Scripture that we just completely miss because we're not immersed in the culture.
I say all this to tell you that if you are not a Biblical scholar with academic competency in Greek and Hebrew, you are screwed. Just kidding. Actually, I tell you this to say that we don't have to be scholars. The most important thing is that we come to Scripture aware that our knowledge is limited and that we need help understanding it. We must be aware that there are cultural differences between us and the original audiences of the Bible, and then we must pray and ask the Spirit to give us clarity and understanding. I am convinced that He actually wants us to understand His word.
We have to remember also that context is important to understanding the text, but the context itself is not the text. God's word--and getting to know Him through it--is the point, not the knowledge we can amass because of it.
And finally, when we are stumped or confused, it is okay to seek outside wisdom (e.g. commentaries, concordances, reference books, etc.). We don't have to depend on it, but we don't have to avoid it out of fear that it somehow diminishes the importance of God's word. Outside wisdom is not necessary to study God's word, but it can be helpful to learn from others who have a little more understanding.
I'm working on putting together some posts and resources that will help sort through some of this. Until then, when you start to wonder if you are considering the context of what you're reading in Scripture too much, think of Miley, and realize you are probably doing okay.