We often hear others stress the importance of context, especially in regard to studying Scripture, but how often do we stop to consider how much is included in that one little word? Even if we look up the definition of the rod in the dictionary, we are still likely to miss the greater meaning of ‘context.’ Again, this is especially true when we are dealing with Scripture. So, what — exactly — do we mean by the word, ‘context?’ I suspect that, if you think about it, you will discover that it means a great deal more than we may have realized.
If we were to try to explain what ‘context‘ means, no doubt, most of us would say that it includes things such as being aware of who is speaking, and to whom that person is speaking. It also includes such things as being aware of what is being said and why. What is the speaker trying to say? But is this all there is to the meaning of ‘context?’ What about the importance of culture?
Understanding something of the culture from which a speaker comes is very important to helping us better understand what that person may be trying to say. This is because a person’s culture shapes the way they think, as well as the way they speak. If a person is raised in a collectivist society, they will naturally think and speak in ways that are foreign to a person raised in a society based on the individual. What’s more, this works both ways. The speaker needs to know something about the culture of his intended audience. This way, the speaker can structure his message in a way his audience is more likely to understand. It is no different for us when we study Scripture, only we start out knowing that every culture mentioned or connected to every passage is foreign to us. Therefore, we should make some effort to at least familiarize ourselves with the various cultures connected to whatever passage(s) we may happen to be studying.
But ‘context‘ involves more than just the speaker, audience and their respective cultures. ‘Context‘ involves the language, as well. The first thing we need to understand is that words do not always translate directly from one language to another. Often times, a great deal is lost in translation (which is a good reason to have an Amplified Bible). But a language can also influence the way we think. For example: the ancient Hebrew language was very materialistic in nature. In conveyed meaning through pictures of real objects. An example here is the Hebrew word for anger or to get angry. The literal translation of the Hebrew word we translate as ‘anger‘ was ‘nose.’ This is because, when we get angry, our nostrils tend to flare. Therefore, the ancient Hebrew used the mental image of a flaring nose to represent or convey the feeling of anger. On the other hand, the Greek language was much more abstract. Words such as ‘logos‘ might not be easy to translation into Hebrew because they have no real or concrete form or image. Consider how difficult it would be to take an abstract idea such as the unseen, all-controlling hand of God and His laws — all His laws — as well as His will, and explain it in terms of pictures from this material world. Well, this is what is required to explain the Greek notion of ‘logos‘ to an ancient Hebrew who does not speak Greek. We would have to use the Hebrew’s picture-based language to explain our abstract idea. But this is not the only aspect of language connected to the notion of ‘context.’
Another aspect of language we must consider is what we would generally consider to be ‘figures of speech.’ These include things such as references to a cultural thought or memory. The Exodus is a good example. An ancient Hebrew could make a passing reference to the Exodus and the whole story would immediately be drawn to the forefront of a Hebrew audience’s mind. Thus, there would be no need to re-tell the whole story. It would be enough to make mention of it in a way the speaker would know would be sure to remind his audience of the bigger story. Then there are things like analogies and idioms. Here is an excellent example of this point. Most believers have heard the saying, ‘Steel sharpens steel.’ The problem is, the original Hebrew is ‘Nose sharpens nose!’ So, where we think it means that testing each other makes everyone stronger, to the ancient Hebrew, it actually meant that getting angry with your neighbor only made your neighbor angry with you in return. So, in this case, we can see how both the problem of translation and the problem of idioms can sometimes lead us astray. We have translated this well-known passage incorrectly because we did not fully understand the language or culture which wrote it.
We’re still not finished with the problems of language and ‘context.’ There are many who do not recognize this aspect of Scripture, but a plain reading of prophecy will reveal that the prophetic language is symbolic in nature. By this, I mean that is uses images to represent abstract concepts of ideas. An good example here is found in Daniel. Daniel sees many beasts, but when Daniel asks the angel to explain their meaning, he is told they are kingdoms or kings. There is a double symbol in this explanation. In ancient times, a kingdom was often identified with its king, but they were not the same thing. In the story of Daniel, we are told that a beast is a kingdom or a king, but then we are told that the beasts Daniel saw represented Babylon, Persia and Greece. Well, in all three cases, the kingdoms outlived any one king, which leaves us to consider whether or not we should understand a beast to be a kingdom or a person, or both — and when do we know which is which? Luckily, most prophets define the symbols in their prophecies for us. We just have to be watching for the explanations.
There are still more aspects of language we must consider in connection to ‘context.’ The Hebrew mind was fond of things such as symmetry and parallelism. They were also fond of numbers. As a result, we will often find parallel themes and numbers running through a story or narrative. Many scholars believe that this fondness for symmetry and parallelism is the basis for several forms of Hebrew poetry, such as a bifid or a chiasm. Once we learn to recognize these aspects of the Hebrew culture and poetry, we will find that they run throughout Scripture and, many times, connect events that are far apart in time. But this also points to another aspect of ‘context:’ being aware of when we are reading poetry. Bifids and chiasms are unique forms of Hebrew poetry, and they may be written in plain language, or — at times — in the language of prophecy. But there are other times when Scripture is clearly poetic in a more familiar way. It is important to recognize when we are reading the type of poetry that is meant to convey feelings and emotions. When we are reading this type of poetry, it can be a big mistake to read it literally. If we do so, we may find we have created something from the text that has no relation to the author’s original intention or meaning.
Finally, we should be aware of a few other additional aspects of ‘context.’ We must be careful to note ‘when‘ an author is addressing. By that, I mean, what time is the author addressing: past, present or future — or a combination of the three? We must remember that nearly one-third opf Scripture is prophecy, and prophecy deals with future events. At the same time, many passages in Scripture deal with prophecies that have been fulfilled. This is why we need to know if we are reading about the past, present or future. Otherwise, we can come away with a hopelessly flawed understanding of what the author was trying to tell us.
So, as we can see, there is a great deal to understanding the ‘context’ of any passage in Scripture. We need to familiarize ourselves with as many aspects of the people, places, times, languages and cultures involved as possible. By doing so, we can better place ourselves in the shoes of the original audiences, which then makes it much more likely we will come away with an understanding closer to the one the speaker originally intended. Ultimately, this not only edifies us, but it also helps protect us from error.
OH! There is one more aspect of ‘context’ I forgot to mention. Never forget Who the ultimate Author of all of Scripture actually Is, or that the whole of Scripture is about His plan to redeem those who will recognize and accept Him as their Lord and Master. 🙂