This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.
How Do We Read the Bible? : The Importance of Context
Many Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Webster’s defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. Consider, for example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.”
If we shouldn’t read every part of the Bible literally, then how should we read the Bible? I would suggest that we seek to read the Bible contextually. What does that mean? That means that when we read the various types of literature found in the Old and New Testaments we should read them according to their historical and theological genres. For example, when contextually reading a parable of Jesus, you might need to do some research to better understand what a talent was, how economic transactions occurred in Jesus’ time, learn something about the general economic climate of the Roman Empire and Palestine, and pay attention to any literary features of the text which may or may not be immediately obvious when reading a translation. Reading a parable contextually also means considering the theological and social implications of the text and noting any meaning(s) that has typically been taken from the passage.
Another important component in seeking to read the Bible contextually is attempting to understand how a message would have been heard by its original audience. When Jesus delivered a message, he was speaking to a real live audience full of human beings who would have been expected (at least in most circumstances) to understand something about what he was saying. On this note, I sometimes hear people say, “Well, God says that he speaks in riddles and Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that people don’t understand. So can’t just assume that Jesus would have spoken in such a way that a first century Jew living in Palestine would have understood him.” And while I’m willing to grant that at times God’s messages are not clear, this type of thinking doesn’t really persuade me for a couple of reasons. First, if you believe that the Bible is important/scripture/the Word of God/inspired/etc. then you’re already assuming that something is being communicated, no matter how wrong the occasional interpretation might be. Second, if you read the gospels (especially Luke), it’s pretty clear that Jesus was a popular fellow in his time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who are excitedly following someone who only speaks in unintelligible riddles. So it seems likely that, while clearly not everyone understood everything Jesus said (even the disciples), the things that he was saying made enough sense in their original context to warrant our being interested in how they would have been understood. All that to say: understanding what a message meant in its original context is an important component of understanding the context of a passage.