An Introduction Into Biblical Context (1/2)

Last updated on November 10, 2023

As any Christian who has ever had the privilege of studying Scripture in the presence of a Jewish individual or someone of Middle-Eastern descent can confirm: there is a wealth of information in the New Testament that (Western) Christians sadly fail to appreciate or even recognize. That is because many Christians are not familiar with the cultural and linguistic backgrounds that are obvious to anyone from the ‘Biblical’ region or with roots in that part of the world. The following are a couple of examples that might encourage you to delve deeper into the riches of Scripture!

1. Perceptions change the story

When a friend texts us in the morning that they intend to travel from London to Rome later that day, we will assume the friend to be in Rome by the end of the afternoon. That is because we know what the trip will involve. The message ‘Now in London, traveling to Rome today’ will put images into our mind of an airport, a plane, and 2-3 hours in the air before touching down in Italy. Had this same message been written in 1823, the images in the head of the recipient would have been very different. A voyage from London to Rome would have taken weeks; traveling by horse drawn carriage, a steam ship, and – in the absence of a railway network – many more days in carriages along slow dirt roads.

So, identical information (‘Now in London, traveling to Rome today’) creates a completely different picture depending on how much we know about the ‘how and when’. Depending on what we know about Jewish culture and ‘period customs’, Bible verses can create different mental pictures, as well.

2. The implications of seemingly simple details

Luke 5:1-11 tells how Jesus instructs a number of fishermen including Peter, James and John – first, to go out and catch fish, subsequently, to follow Him. In Luke 5:11 we read, “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him.

Modern readers (who aren’t fishermen) will likely miss the importance of this verse. After each fishing trip, fishermen have to wash their nets. If they don’t, organic waste will remain stuck to the nets. This will start to smell and will damage the fish caught with the nets, and the nets will corrode. Nets must be cleaned and repaired immediately, or the fisherman risks losing his livelihood. After all, the nets are his tools and with broken nets, he cannot fish. This means that walking away from dirty nets, means giving up an income. With this in mind, we can appreciate that the disciples made a truly momentous decision when they decided to follow Jesus.

3. How simple details can have a grand effect

Sometimes, the detail has happened before we enter the story. John 4:4-42 tells us about the conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. The woman herself already points out that a Jewish man wouldn’t normally ask a Samaritan for something, and as we read in verse 27, it is also very unusual for a man to engage in a conversation with a woman on her own. But why was this woman there in the first place? It is the sixth hour, the hottest time of the day, and she is alone. Normally, women would visit wells earlier in the day and together with other women, as a group, because that was much safer.

So is it her living arrangements with the ‘man who is not her husband’ that have forced her to venture out to the well alone and at that time? Was she not welcome in the group? The reason remains undisclosed. But her questions and responses indicate that she has more than an average knowledge of God’s promises – specifically in John 4:25 where she says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.” Whatever the case, her circumstances put her at the well when Jesus passes. It enables her to meet Jesus and because of this, the citizens of the Samaritan town are saved. God miraculously orchestrated this meeting!

4. Symbolism indicating a grand future

Sometimes we create our own version of events based on how others interpreted them before us. Matthew 2:1 says, “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Note how the text doesn’t mention that there were three wise men. There could have been ten; there could have been two. What we do know is that they offered three types of gifts: “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

In case you were wondering: these are not typical gifts for an infant. Each gift has a symbolic meaning. The gold represents kingship on earth, whereas frankincense is symbolic for deity, or a priestly role. Myrrh was used to embalm the dead – it symbolizes death. The gifted gold would soon prove to be a very practical present: after the wise men departed, Joseph was told to flee to Egypt with Mary and the Child. The Holy Family will have found this gift particularly useful for travel expenses and food. The frankincense and myrrh were gifts for further into the future, symbolizing Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:14, Luke 1:35) and His role as our High Priest (Hebrews 2:17; 4:14; 5:6; 7:26-27).

5. Context brings to life what we read

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus shares the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The youngest son leaves his father and brother, having taken receipt of his share of his father’s estate. He spends the money abroad, realizes that he has made a mistake, and returns to a warm welcome.

When the Pharisees and their company heard this parable, the picture in their minds would have reflected their cultural understanding. “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” To them, this would have meant that the son declared the father dead and demanded his inheritance. A great insult, in particular since he was the youngest son who, according to the Hebrew law of inheritance, would have received only half of what the eldest son inherited. This means the father would have been forced to estimate the value of his estate, and find the money to pay the son.

In verse 15, the son is sent into a field to feed pigs. Pigs, to Jews, are unclean animals: the son, who proudly took his father’s money to celebrate, is utterly humiliated. Then in verse 20, the father runs towards the son to welcome him. We see a likable father; first century Jews saw extremely shameful behavior. Because while running, the father would have exposed his bare legs, and this was completely unacceptable. Furthermore, the son had lost his inheritance in a foreign country. In Jewish culture, this wrongdoing would have resulted in a special ceremony, the ‘kezazah’, to cut him off from the community. But by taking his son’s shame upon himself, the father prevents this ‘community rejection’.

Of course, to Christians, the parable of the lost son is not primarily about shame and humiliation. What we can rejoice in, is that the prodigal son who was lost, repents, and is welcomed unconditionally by his loving father. What a wonderful prospect!

Thanks to GospelImages for the wonderful image!

Share post