Reading the Bible in Context


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We read the Bible, with writings going back to the Bronze Age, through the lens of our modern experience, understanding and knowledge, often without considering that we need to adjust our lens to understand what we are reading.

I do believe that the Bible is Scripture, conveying an accurate understanding of a timeless, changeless, faithful God, but it is written through the eyes of men who lived at particular times in history in particular cultural and historical contexts. It was written by about 40 men, to be more specific, over a period of about 1500 years with the last writing penned about 1900 years ago.

While Paul tells us that Scripture is inspired by God (“God-breathed”),[1] he means that Scripture was “translated”, written out and conveyed through the vessel of people. I don’t mean to get into the subject of inerrancy or whether the Bible must be read literally in all respects. The way God communicated through people in the Bible is different from the claim that Mohammad made, for instance, in regard to the Quran: that he took down the dictation word for word from Allah.

The Bible does not claim to be a word-for-word communication from God (as if God speaks in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek). God inspired what was written, but He didn’t dictate it.

I find this at once remarkable and hopeful. God was willing to entrust His communication to people. He was willing to use people to communicate Himself to mankind, albeit through the glass darkly of their own understandings, knowledge and experience.

I believe in a sovereign God. If He wasn’t sovereign, He wouldn’t be God. As such, He is certainly capable of protecting and preserving the integrity of that communication, even though it is made through the imperfect filters of people.

I have said before that God could have carved all of His communications out on stone. He could have communicated in the clouds in the sky or by use of any of the natural objects He created, but He chose to use people through whom to communicate Himself. In that way, he invited us to participate in His communication.

When we read the Bible, we need to come to it with the understanding of what it is and what it is not. It isn’t a dictated treatise from God. It is the inspiration from God spoken through the vehicles of different people at different times through the course of about 1500 years. Because this inspiration was filtered through people who lived in particular times and places, we need to be humble enough to attempt to understand that inspiration, filtered as it is, without imposing our own, modern understandings and knowledge on it.

When we do that, our knowledge of God comes alive in ways we couldn’t imagine. With that backdrop, consider how God inspired uncivilized men to protect and value women in the Bronze Age, when all of their experience and understanding suggested that women should be subjugated and objectified (to use a modern term). This countercultural inspiration became the seeds for treating women with dignity and equality, though it took more than a millennium for people to grasp that inspiration and take it to heart.

The root of this seed actually goes all the way back to God creating men and women, male and female (together), in His image. This principle was at work even when Paul instructed the women of the church who prophecy to cover their heads. Through our 21st Century eye, this instruction seems backward, but it was actually very forward thinking if we understand the context.

The following is taken from Wendy Alsup’s article, Of Old Testament Haircuts and New Testament Head Coverings, where she explains the context behind the head covering verse. But before you go back and read the whole article, consider the following:

“When God gave the laws to Moses, civilization was not very civilized. In this survival-of-the-fittest culture, God restricted Israelite men from using captive women as sexual slaves. If a man desired a female captive sexually, he must marry her. This restriction seems to be the first in history limiting the sexual exploitation of captives. Earlier Egyptian laws and later Roman laws prohibited rape, but only against a citizen in good standing. Female captives and slaves, well into Paul’s day and even into early American history, were viewed not as citizens but as property without rights over their own bodies.

“In Roman law, the rape of a captive by the owner wasn’t considered a crime at all, and rape of someone else’s slave was seen only as a property crime against the slave’s owner. But God set up a different ethic—if a child of God wanted a female captive sexually, he had to make vows to her in the covenant relationship of marriage, which obligated him to protect and care for her. At the very least this included ‘food, clothing, and marital rights,’ and if a man failed to provide, she could leave him with no penalty (Ex. 21:10–11). While this is a far cry from the mutuality we expect in modern marriages, especially considering these women were captives or slaves, it ensured even a captive woman’s right to a livelihood, property, a sense of dignity, and a future, something not found in other ancient cultures.

“Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright notes in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God that this restriction in Deuteronomy 21, along with other laws, ‘privilege the needs of the vulnerable (a woman, a foreigner, a captive) over the customary rights of the powerful (a man, a soldier, a victor, a husband).’ The Law’s ethic for a vulnerable captive woman was distinct from the rest of the culture of Moses’ day, Paul’s day, and even Thomas Jefferson’s day.

….

“The instructions of both Deuteronomy 21 and 1 Corinthians 11 also refer to restoring and protecting a woman’s dignity in her community through the obedient practices of the people of God. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible instructs God’s people, particularly men, to treat those over whom they have power differently than how pagan cultures treat them. Women who were viewed as property in pagan cultures were prime targets for sexual exploitation.

“In contrast, God’s children were to protect vulnerable women from exploitation by others in their culture and to refrain from using such women for their own sexual gains. Again and again, the Bible emphasizes a theme of restraint of authorities over those they protect—fathers with children, masters with bondservants, bishops or elders with parishioners, and husbands with wives—crucial protections in cultures that devalued the vulnerable. The Bible particularly emphasized sexual restraint, sex being allowed only between a man and his wife bound by covenant commitment.”[2]

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[1] “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The Greek word that is translated “inspired” or “breathed out by God” is theópneustos (from theós, “God”, and pnéō, “breathe-out”), meaning, literally, breathed-out-by-God.

[2] Excerpt from Of Old Testament Haircuts and New Testament Head Coverings by Wendy Alsup August 18, 2017 posted online by Christianity Today.

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