Understanding the Power of Cultural Context

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how understanding the historical context of a passage of Scripture can help us in interpreting and teaching that passage. I used the sons of Korah, who wrote several psalms, as an example.  You can read that post here.

This week I wanted to continue the discussion on the power of using context to understand and teach a Bible passage by talking about the power of cultural context. According to George Guthrie in his book Read the Bible for Life, "all cultures have values and patterns of behavior that have an affect on interaction and communication in those cultures".  These values and customs can involve anything from the particular way you greet a friend or relative (shaking hands or hugs) or how you show respect or esteem for something or someone (e.g.; standing during the national anthem or putting your hand over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance).  It is these patterns and nuances that set people and places apart, and it helps immensely to understand a certain group of people if you understand their culture.  It was no different with reading and interpreting Scripture.  It helps us better understand a passage or book of the Bible if we also understand the cultural context it was written in. Lets look at a couple of  examples.

The Parable of the 10 Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)

Jesus is trying to teach his disciples the importance of being ready for his return. To understand this parable you must first understand the culture of ancient Jewish weddings.  Jewish weddings would begin when the groom arrived to observe the wedding ritual.  The groom would then take the bride to his home to complete the festivities. Often if it was a night wedding, bridesmaids would take lamps and light the way of the procession from the brides home to the grooms.

So in this parable 10 virgins (or bridesmaids) were tasked to wait for the groom.  They each had a lamp, but 5 of them ran out of oil.  They were ill prepared.  While they were away getting more oil,  the groom came for his bride.  Because the 5 bridesmaids were ill prepared they missed the procession and the wedding banquet.

Jesus was using their modern understanding of a Jewish wedding festival to underscore the importance of being ready for his return.  Just like the groom in the parable, he could return at any time, and those who will enter into his kingdom are those who persevere and are alert and ready for his coming.

Take Up Your Cross (Luke 9:23-24)

In this familiar passage Jesus is telling his disciples that in order to follow him they must deny themselves and take up their cross.  Understanding the cultural view of the cross at the time is vital.  Today Christians wear crosses as charms on bracelets or necklaces.  We decorate them and make them look beautiful.  For us, the cross is a positive thing.  But during Jesus' time, the cross was a symbol of punishment and torture.  To carry a cross meant you were a criminal, and no one wanted to be associated with that.  It was a brutal and grotesque way to die.  Carrying a cross wasn't just suffering it was certain death.  Jesus was implying that following him might cost you your life.

These are just a couple of examples out of many of how understanding the culture of biblical times can help us read, study, and interpret a passage of Scripture.  It can be a powerful tool when preparing to teach.  So take some time and look into the cultural context of the passage your are studying.  If you come across a phrase or custom that doesn't make  sense to you, look into that.  The Bible is the eternal word of God but it was written by people at a specific point in history, and understanding the culture of that time helps immensely in studying and teaching a passage.


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