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What Does It Really Mean to Read the Bible in Context?

bible out of context

Cuneiform tablets changed my life. I’m not kidding. As I look back on my 15 years of graduate school in biblical studies, the turning point in how I view the Bible was my course in Ugaritic, a cuneiform language very similar to biblical Hebrew. This class compelled me to transform “read the Bible in context” from a naïve platitude to an issue of spiritual integrity.

A Bible Study epiphany

I had the impression that interpreting the Bible in context meant learning about a piece of pottery here, an odd custom there, or having a factual acquaintance with who was alive, and what those people were doing at the time of the biblical events.

But in my Ugaritic course, I learned that all of that can divorce the Bible from the ancient world in one critical way: It can exclude religious or theological ideas from all the “context talk.” It’s easy to presume that most of the Bible’s theological content was unique to Israel. I basically thought that Israel shared some cultural customs with pagan Gentiles—like diet, dress, marriage, and family structure. But I thought Israel’s religious worldview was handed down from heaven, having no common links with paganism. Not true—and the content of the tablets I had to translate in my graduate school course was Exhibit A.

For starters, the people of Ugarit, a city-state in ancient Syria, described their gods with words and phrases that were in the Old Testament—in a number of cases word for word. Their chief deity shared the same name (El) as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (But the El of Ugarit could hardly be called holy by biblical standards.) The honorary titles and other descriptions of the Ugarit El and his primary assistant, Baal, are applied to the God of Israel in many passages in the Old Testament.

There are other examples. The behavior of prophets and the use of divination (casting lots, consulting the ephod) have clear ancient Near Eastern parallels. The design and purpose of the ark of the covenant align well with the use of sacred boxes known as palanquins in ancient Egypt. Trial by ordeal—such as that found in Numbers 5, where a woman accused of adultery must drink a potion to test her fidelity—occurred in surrounding cultures.

Terms for Israelite sacrifices are found in ancient Gentile religious texts. The belief that the sky was solid is part of the ancient Near Eastern cosmology shared by the Bible (Job 37:18; Prov 8:28). The notion that the seat of our intellect and emotions was our kidneys or intestines was common throughout the ancient world.

Spiritual lessons and implications

Discovering all this was a little shocking. But God used that temporary discomfort to produce honesty with the biblical text. I needed to think like an ancient Israelite to understand the Old Testament.

Israelite religion had some significant divergences from the religions of other surrounding nations, but on the whole, there were more similarities than differences. I came to the realization that the correct interpretive context for the Bible is not the early church, the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans, or modern evangelicalism. Those historical contexts are alien to the Bible. Rather, the context for understanding the Bible is the historical, literary, intellectual, and religious context in which it was written.

Although he could have done so, God didn’t change Israel’s culture when dispensing his truth. He didn’t give Israel a new culture that was dramatically distinct from Israel’s neighbors. That choice would have produced something indecipherable to the people of the time. That would have undermined the whole enterprise of communication.

What this means is that inspiration operates within a cultural context chosen by God in his sovereign wisdom. We cannot honor God’s choice of communication strategies if we refuse to ignore the deep worldview connections shared by both Israelites and pagans.

The profound contextual overlaps between Israel and her pagan neighbors was a wise theological tactic on God’s part. When divergences in Israel’s theology appear in the text—and there are some dramatic, stark points of contrast—they scream for attention on the part of the ancient reader. Unlike the pagan deities, Israel’s God could not be cajoled like an idol; Yahweh could not be brought down to earth and tamed. Laws about sacrifices were set in specific covenant contexts, giving them a unique theological dimension. Yahweh would rather have faith and loyalty than sacrifice.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser (1963–2023) was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He had a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He was a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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Written by Michael S. Heiser