As Christians, it’s easy to skim through our Bibles without realizing the cultural significance of the stories we’re reading. We’ve read through them—or heard sermons about them—so many times that we forget the real-life complexities and layers of information behind certain historical people, places, and events.
Pastors, Seminary professors, and Sunday School teachers often talk about reading scripture within context, but have we really grasped how important it is? Imagine if the Bible was written today?
For example, the following is the exact text of Judges 16:1-6 from the NIV translation of the Bible (the story of Samson and Delilah). I’m not going to change any wording—except the character’s names:
Judges 16:1-6 (NIV)
One day Tim Tebow went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. The people of Gaza were told, “Tim Tebow is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.”
But Tim Tebow lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.
Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Kim Kardashian. The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.”
So Kim Kardashian said to Tim Tebow, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.”
If someone from a remote uncivilized island read this text they would interpret ‘Tim Tebow’ and ‘Kim Kardashian’ as simply another man and woman. But for Westernized Americans, this story has a completely different meaning because we have a unique cultural understanding of who ‘Tim Tebow’ and ‘Kim Kardashian’ actually are—pop icons!
Images of football and reality television and gossip magazines flash through our minds—thousands of opinions and emotions and mental images are associated with just their names. And so it is with many historical Biblical accounts: real people were involved, and these people each had relatives, friends, and enemies—living within a specific time and place and culture.
That’s why it’s important to understand the context of Biblical texts as much as possible—they often add layers of profound meaning. We can’t just rip verses off the page and attach our own agendas to them. We can’t assume we know exactly what’s going on without realizing what’s happening within the context of that passage.
So if you don’t have a Bible Background Commentary yet, go get one, because it’s a good place to start. Obviously, you could devote a lifetime studying the Bible and still not grasp all of the cultural subtleties and meanings—it demands knowing ancient languages, customs, history, and their specific beliefs—along with a litany of other skills. Even those who do devote their lives to it still disagree among themselves about verses, interpretations, meanings, and theology.
We won’t become experts overnight—or maybe not even in our lifetimes—but we should take the Bible seriously enough to start humbly studying it with the intention of better understanding God (and the scripture He’s provided humanity with). He’ll mercifully and gracefully help us along the way.