That's Just Weird

shepherdOne of my favorite Old Testament stories is found in Nehemiah. When the Jews returned from Babylonian exile (c. 539 BC), they had trouble rebuilding Jerusalem. It took some years to rebuild the Temple, and several more decades passed before Nehemiah returned to Palestine to help rebuild Jerusalem's walls. But when he and the people had succeeded in such a large-scale project, it was a cause for celebration So it was appointed that on a certain day, the people would assemble in Jerusalem and listen as Ezra the scribe read the Law to them. So hungry were the people of Jerusalem to hear a Word from the Lord that they stood for nearly six hours as Ezra read the Law to them. But there is a small detail in the story that should not be missed; indeed, it holds great wisdom for any teacher of God's Word. Ezra had stationed various Levites throughout the crowd to "read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read" (Neh 8:8).

That detail seems puzzling on its face. Why would the Jews need their own Law explained to them? Couldn't they hear what was read and interpret it on their own? Obviously not. Nearly a thousand years of cultural change separated those Jews of Nehemiah's day from the Israelites who had first received the Law at Sinai. And in case you haven't noticed, things sorta change in a thousand years. No email. No cars. No Angry Birds.

If the Jews of Nehemiah's day needed help interpreting God's Word that was a millenia old, how much more do Christians need help understanding those portions of the Bible that remain obscure to us because of we are separated by 2000-3500 years of history and cultural change? Granted, certain passages in Scripture need no explanation or interpretation. John 3:16 is a perfect example.

But other well-known passages are not as immune. Consider Psalm 23. Unlike biblical times, ours is a world in which a person can live and die and never have a clue what it means to be a shepherd charged with care of sheep. Think about it: what you know about being a shepherd has likely been gleaned from sermon illustrations, Sunday School demonstrations, etc. You likely have never spent a day on a sheep ranch, nor have I.

Other examples abound; certain verses are, forgive me, just weird.

  • Why exactly does the OT reference urinating against a wall (1 Sam. 25:22).
  • Why does the oath of 1 Kgs 19:2 seem so silly?
  • Why did men put lotion on their head?
  • Why was Israel forbidden from wearing a cotton/poly blend garment?
  • What good did it do to tear clothes while grieving?

God deliberately chose to reveal His inspired Word at a specific point in history. And that Word was not spoken in a vacuum; it came wrapped in a cultural and historical context. As readers of that inspired Word in the 21st century, we must seek to understand the Word in its context so that we rightly divide or discern it (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15).

If you are a teacher of the Word (as a preacher, Bible class teacher, small group leader, etc.), I want to challenge you not to ignore a passage's historical and cultlural context. Arm yourself with resources that will bring these details out (such as the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament we gave away last week).

In fact, historical/cultural details are a crucial feature of the Bible guides I am authoring. In The Epic of God: A Guide to Genesis, I sought to illuminate ancient creation myths and their connection to modern evolution. I also found intriguing the contrasts between Noah's Flood and the Flood story in the Gilgamesh Epic, the method of establishing contracts/covenants (e.g. Gen 9, 13, 15), and the custom of taking a second wife if the first proved barren. In my upcoming book on Daniel, I will give similar attention to various historical/cultural details that help us better understand the text. I believe doing this is essential if Start2Finish Books is to be successful in becoming a trusted, engaging guide to God's Word.

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