Context is important! In 20th and 21st Century Biblical scholarship there has clearly been a strong trend of emphasizing the dangers of trying to read the descriptions of the ancient Israelites literature that stretch from about 1000 B.C.E. and extending to about 110 C.E. (the Biblical Civilizations) without a clear understanding of how “different” those civilizations were from our 21st century views of things.
As scholars such as N. T. Wright (and many others) have begun to tell us, context matters, an understanding of biblical history matters, and the way those ancient societies were structured , economically, socially, and culturally really matters.
And language really matters. Not only the original languages of ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek, but the language that most of read - English.
First point – The Hebrew Bible is ancient literature. It was written almost 3000 years ago in a far away land, in a culture we do not really understand, in an ancient language called Hebrew which we are still learning about. And it was written in a narrative style. It is in a sense a collection of stories – stories most of us know very well because we grew up learning them. It is written in prose. The significance of that is all the other religious literature of the ancient near east was written in poetry. But the ancient authors of the Hebrew Bible for the most part rejected poetry as unsuitable for telling their story. So because it is literature we will try to bring literary analysis to the stories to help understand why they were told in the way they were.
The lenses we look through. As we do our bible studies and try to interpret what we are reading we begin to see things we perhaps missed when we were younger and did not study as seriously as we have done later. And the more lenses we look through the more things we begin to see.
As we read through a historical lens we seek seek to uncover the history of ancient Israel and the surrounding cultures in the ancient Near East-that is to say, at times, this course will look and sound like a history course.
And part of what we see there is as the worship of a single deity. Which was revolutionary in the ancient near east. But it also presents its ideas on the relationship of God to nature, to the human race in general, and to the people Israel in particular in ways that are, however, foreign to the expectations of most modern readers. It is therefore all too easy to miss the seriousness and profundity of its messages.
Because the vehicle through which the Hebrew Bible conveys its world view is neither the theological tract nor the rigorous philosophical proof nor the confession of faith. The vehicle is, instead, narrative. Wonderfully complex stories. Any theology must be inferred from stories, and the lived relationship with God takes precedence over abstract theology. Those who think of stories (including mythology) as fit only for children not only misunderstand the thought-world and the literary conventions of the ancient Near East; they also condemn themselves to miss the complexity and sophistication of the stories. These narratives that have evoked interpretation upon interpretation from biblical times into our own day and have occupied the attention of some of the keenest thinkers in human history. And the continue to be reinterpreted today!
Related to this we will need to discuss aspects of ancient religion, ancient cult, and ancient theology-because ancient Israelites were completely surrounded by other religions on a daily basis. So at times , this course will look and sound like a religion course.
Questions We Might Ask as We Study
1. What was the author's original intent, and how did his or her original audience understand the text? This will be our main emphasis throughout this study. To successfully answer this question, we must immerse ourselves in the world of ancient Israel by attempting to live and think, as well as we can, like an ancient Israelite thousands of years ago.
2. How has the text been interpreted by the two faith communities who hold the Bible to be sacred, namely, Judaism and Christianity, throughout the ages? This question requires a different approach, as we will illustrate with a few examples. Before moving to these illustrations, however, note that the formative periods of Jewish and Christian interpretation largely coincided: Jewish midrashic writings from the rabbis and early patristic writing from the church fathers both date to the late Roman or Byzantine period (4th through 6th centuries A.D).
3. What does the text mean to me today? For me this is the Baptist Sunday School approach – because I grew up in a Baptist church and from about the age of 8 until about 12 or 13 I learned a lot about the Bible stories – and we tried to learn moral lessons from those stories.