Engaging Exposition (13): Issues Concerning Context

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The inspection stage of exegesis moves toward completion once we have identified the genre and developed a genre-specific outline. These two elements are required to properly examine the content of a text.

The next stage can be called the inquiry stage. “Inquire” means to ask a question. In this stage, our attention shifts from observing the content of a text to inquiring about its context. Understanding the author’s context is important for understanding his content. Consequently, you must be prepared to study the particularized context of every biblical text to the best of your ability and the available evidence.

When interpreters think about the context, they are focusing their attention upon the unique cultural, historical, geographical, and theological factors that existed when the author recorded his particular content for a particular audience. The biblical authors addressed the specific needs of their own day in their writings. Consequently, the significance of the historical context of every biblical text is important. A failure to understand the context of a text may lead the interpreter to misinterpret the author’s content. There are four questions which can help us discover the context of the text.

1) Who? – The Cultural Context

The author and readers of every biblical book lived in a particular context-often it was the same, but sometimes it was very different. When attempting to discover the cultural context of a biblical text, you should consider three specific areas.

Author
In most cases, you will know who the biblical author is with a great deal of historical certainty. In other cases, opinions on authorship may vary. The author’s personal circumstances can also add insight into his particular place in the culture. There are three questions to ask about the author and his place in the culture: a) Who wrote the book? b) What do we know about him? c) How did his unique experience in his culture shape his purpose in writing?

Actors
Much of the Bible is written as Historical Narrative. Every author had to make choices about which characters or personalities to include in the story and what dialogue and events to highlight. As a result, the characters themselves often provide insights into the unique culture of the time. For instance, both David and Goliath provide a window into the different military cultures of Israel and Philistia. When studying Historical Narratives, you should ask the following questions: a) Who are the characters in the story? b) How are they described? c) What unique, culturally relevant factors are revealed by how the characters speak, dress, and act? d) How do those factors contribute to the meaning of the text?

Audience
Every biblical text was written with a specific audience in mind. Often, understanding the cultural context of the audience is the key to understanding the meaning of a text. When analyzing the audience, you should focus on these questions: a) Who is the primary audience for this text? b) What is the unique cultural setting for this audience? c) What cultural issues are discussed in the text? d) How are those cultural issues addressed in the text?

2) When?-Historical Context

The author and readers of every biblical book lived at a specific time in history. As a result, every biblical event took place in a specific historical context. There are several areas to consider when assessing a text’s historical context.

Time
It is important to place biblical accounts into the world calendar when possible. While biblical interpreters are focused primarily on God’s redemptive plan for the world as revealed in Scripture and God’s Messiah, his plan is accomplished within the context of human history. In fact, God uses world events, even the choices of pagan nations, to accomplish his will on earth. For example, Habakkuk struggles to understand God’s use of the Babylonians to judge Israel for their idolatry. When analyzing the time of a text, there are some questions you should ask: a) When is this story or event occurring in secular history? b) Does any event in secular history influence the story or event? c) Where does this story or event fit in redemptive history? d) How does this story or event contribute to our understanding of redemptive history? However, when precise historical information is not possible, it does not negate the legitimacy of the text or hinder accurate interpretation since the location of meaning resides within the text, not behind it or in front of it.

Political Climate
Political realities are often the backdrop against which, or because of which, certain biblical events occur. God routinely accomplishes his will through the political drama and intrigue of Israel as well as pagan nations. When considering the political climate in any biblical text, consider the following questions: a) What is the dominant nation during this time? b) What, if any, is Israel’s relationship to this nation? c) Are there any unique, localized, political issues in play in the text? d) Does politics have a direct impact on the characters or events depicted in the text?

Religious Climate
The Bible reveals God’s redemptive plan accomplished through the nation of Israel. As you study Scripture, however, you will discover that Israel had encounters with nations that had unique religions and gods. When you study the historical context of a book or passage, you should ask these questions about the religious climate: a) What religion did a nation practice? b) What gods did they worship, and what does history reveal about those gods? c) How were their religious beliefs different from those of Israel? d) Did the religious climate of a secular nation influence the characters or events in the text?

3) Where?-Geographical Context

Just as every biblical event occurred within a specific cultural and historical context, it also occurred in a specific region of the world. Understanding these regions often increases an interpreter’s understanding of the events themselves. As you study the geographical context, pay close attention to the following locales:

Cities

When you encounter the cities mentioned in the Bible, you should ask the following questions: a) Where was the city located? b) What was the size and scope of the city? c) Were there any unique features or historical landmarks associated with the city? d) Has the city been discovered through modern archeology? e) Does the city exist today?

Region

When you are studying a region mentioned in a biblical text, you should ask the following questions: a) Where is the region located in a nation? b) What cultural factors define the region? c) Is the region unique in some way topographically, industrially, militarily, or religiously?

Country
You should ask the following questions when you encounter the nations mentioned in the Bible: a) What nation is mentioned? b) Where is that nation geographically in relation to Israel? c) What is the relationship of that nation to Israel? d) Is that nation used by God to further his redemptive plan for the world in any way?

4) Why?-Theological Context

Theology is the final contextual element to consider as you conclude the inquiry stage of Exegesis. This is one of the most challenging aspects of your interpretive work. It is important to remember that the Bible is first and foremost a book of theology. Every event in the Bible has a theological purpose. When you begin analyzing the theological context, you should consider the following areas:

The Text
As we noted earlier, all biblical interpretation must begin at the level of the individual text. You will discover the theological context as you reflect upon the significance of the content and context of every biblical text. Further, you will discover that the individual texts in a book are working together to communicate the message of the entire book. Finally, the theological themes you discover in individual texts will be connected to the primary thesis of the book as well.

When searching for the theological context of a text, you should ask the following questions: a) What theological themes are mentioned? b) What theological themes are implied? c) Which of the stated theological themes are developed? d) What do the theological themes reveal about God and his redemptive plan?

The Canon
Every individual text is part of the canon. As a result, you must attempt to discover how the truths revealed in a particular text fit within the totality of Scripture. Every text in the canon is revealing truth about God and his plans for creation. Furthermore, every text adds important information to the developing story of redemption.

When you are contemplating a particular text within the theological context of the canon, you should ask the following questions: a) How would the reader have understood this theological theme within his own canonical context? b) Does this theological theme have some level of correspondence within the other testament, either Old or New? c) How does this theological theme point to Jesus or reveal Jesus?

  1 Comment

  1. Nathan Creitz   •  

    If I picked up someone’s mail and didn’t know who it was from, who it was for, or the occasion for which it was written there wouldn’t be a whole lot of reason for reading or responding to that letter.

    I think this is one of those steps that often get overlooked when a pastor is rushed to put together a sermon week after week. Yet, some of the most important insights come by understanding not just the words written on a page but actually knowing something about the author, context, audience, etc.

    Thanks for this series of posts!

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