Over the next few days, we’ll be considering how the circumstances of Bible characters and writers influenced their writing. We’ll also think about how their circumstances should influence your understanding of what they wrote. Specifically, we’ll talk about:
“…physical features of the earth and of human activity as it relates to these.”
“The past events connected with someone or something.”
“The customs, institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or group.” (Oxford Dictionary)
Today, we’ll look at some tips for understanding the impact of circumstances on your interpretation of the text. We’ll also talk about some tools you can use to discover the circumstances of the Bible text you’re studying.
Tips for Researching Circumstances
Carefully consider the immediate context of the passage. Sometimes all it takes to clear up your understanding of a passage is to read it carefully, and read the text around it. Let’s say, for example, that you read this passage:
“Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” (Mat 6:16-18)
You might focus on the phrase anoint thine head when you read this passage about fasting. Maybe after reading this you think you should put oil in your hair whenever you fast. But if you reread the rest of the passage, you see the point Jesus was making – That thou appear not unto men to fast. The point of the passage was that you should not let people know when you are fasting.
Putting oil in your hair is not a normal part of grooming in our culture. If you put oil in your hair in our day, you’ll draw attention to yourself. That’s just the opposite of what Jesus had in mind.
Let the author’s clear statements determine whether or not a command is limited by circumstances. Paul said in his first letter to Timothy:
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1Ti 2:12)
The Life Application Bible claims that this ban is culturally limited. It says, in part:
“To understand these verses, we must understand the situation in which Paul and Timothy worked. In first-century Jewish culture women were not allowed to study. When Paul said women should learn quietly and humbly, he was offering them an amazing new opportunity. Paul did not want them to teach because they didn’t yet have enough knowledge or experience. … Paul was telling Timothy not to put anyone (in this case, women) into positions of leadership who were not yet mature in the faith (see 5:22).” (The Life Application Bible, p. 2128)
The problem with this comment is that it ignores the two specific reasons Paul gave for the command. It’s as if the commentators didn’t even read the next two verses:
“For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (1Ti 2:13-14)
Notice that neither of the reasons Paul gave had anything to do with culture. Also, if Paul was thinking along the lines of the Life Application Bible, he would have told the women the same thing he told Timothy in his next letter:
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2Ti 2:15)
Look for parallel passages about the same subject. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible cross-references this passage to 1 Corinthians:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (1Co 14:34-35)
This cross-reference has some similarities to the 1 Timothy passage. Both talk about the proper conduct of women in the general assembly of the church. The context of both passages is educational – teaching and learning. And neither passage tells women to get a better education before they begin to teach the general assembly.
(Side note: I know many women read this blog. I’m not trying to provoke you by using this example. I really included it to point out the problem with comments like the one made in the Life Application Bible. If you write to disagree with me, please include the biblical basis for your position. Thanks.)
When it doesn’t make sense to apply a passage literally in your situation, find the underlying principles of the passage and figure out what it looks like lived out in your circumstances. The preceding anoint thine head example illustrates this point, so I won’t illustrate it again here. We saw that the underlying principle of the passage was that we are not to make a public display of fasting. Obeying the letter of Christ’s statement would clearly violate the principle He was making.
By the way, you should not consider the Bible’s teaching on any matter limited by circumstances just because you don’t want to obey it. For example, God commands believers in every age to share the gospel with the lost. You can’t say, “That doesn’t apply to me, because I’m uncomfortable talking to people. Besides, people today just don’t want to hear it.” It’s always been challenging to tell the good news. Some folks have strongly resisted it in every time and place. There is nothing in Scripture that would justify your abandoning the job of bringing the good news to a needy world.
Tools for Researching Circumstances
The Bible dictionaries in eSword will give you some help researching the background of the biblical places and practices. On day 11 of this study, I mentioned two Bible dictionaries I use:
Here are some other books I’ve found helpful for getting to the bottom of the circumstances of Bible characters:
- The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times
- The New Manners & Customs of the Bible
- The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Available for eSword.)
Read More About It
To get a little practice getting the background on Bible passages, read Matthew 2:1-4 and do some research to answer the following questions:
- Who were the wise men? What did they do? Where were they from?
- Who were the chief priests and how were they different from the scribes?