Pay Attention to Context

A tribute to two influential teachers.

Whenever I try to understand a Bible passage I am reading, I follow an important principle of interpretation: Pay attention to the context.

Sometimes that context is all the other words that surround a specific word or sentence. Sometimes it is the paragraph or paragraphs that precede or follow the passage I’m reading. Sometimes it is the flow within a whole book of the Bible. Sometimes it is the cultural environment in which the author is writing. And sometimes it is the dialogue of one passage with other passages in the canon of the Bible.

I learned this principle from two teachers who have left a significant influence on all my work with the Bible.

Learning to read in a class on poetry writing

The first teacher was an English instructor at Wheaton College, when I was an undergraduate. His name was Douglas Olson. One semester he taught a course in poetry writing. I decided to take it. I don’t remember why. I learned from the class that I was not a particularly gifted poet, but I learned something else much more important.

Each week in class we read and discussed poems written either by one of the great English or American poets or poems written by ourselves. As each of us students would boldly set forth our particular interpretation of a poem, I can remember vividly Mr. Olson (as we called him) saying, “An interesting interpretation. Now show me exactly where in the text you got that idea.”

If we wanted our interpretation to remain on the table, we had to point to the specific word, the odd turn of phrase, the allusion, the surrounding context, etc. that supported our position. If we could not do that, our interpretation did not merit consideration. It was an exercise in the close, attentive reading of a literary text.

When I got to seminary and started my training in Bible exegesis, I found I had already learned many of its basic tools from Mr. Olson. I have been using those tools ever since, not only in reading the Bible, but in reading any written document. Mr. Olson’s class in poetry writing turned out to be the most influential course I took in all my undergraduate education.

Learning to pay attention to diverse voices

The second teacher was Dr. Brevard Childs, my professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. He was a giant in the field of Biblical studies and an exponent of a process of Bible interpretation known as canonical criticism. He proved to be the most influential teacher in my theological studies.

One way he taught me was to be a model. I learned from him how to listen carefully to the diverse voices of Biblical scholarship and criticism but to retain a respect for the Bible as the church’s scripture.

Once again I learned from him the importance of interpreting the Bible within its context. Except this time, the context was the flow of the whole book in which a particular passage was to be found. I learned not only to read a text in isolation, but to search for its function and meaning within the wider flow of a whole book.

Also he taught me to listen to the dialogue that goes on within the canon of the Bible. That can include, for example, the dialogue that takes place among Ezra/Nehemiah, Ruth, and Jonah on creating a religious identity. And the dialogue that takes place between the Old and New Testaments.

I can no longer hear in the Bible one unitary voice. The Bible has many voices, and they are not always in agreement. In those diverse voices, however, we hear the Bible’s authors and editors bear witness to the rich complexity of God’s revelation and of Israel’s and the church’s experience with that God.

Why the lesson these teachers taught me is so important

Why is this principle of paying attention to the context so important to me? For one thing, because it guards against that process where I read my own subjective meaning into the text rather than paying attention to what it actually says. It steers me away from forcing the text to say what I want it to say rather than listening carefully to what it really says.

Of course, I recognize that one can never fully escape one’s personal bias in reading a Biblical text. That bias comes not only from our personal experience, but also from our upbringing in a particular religious, social, ethnic, economic, or national context. That’s why it is so important to expose ourselves to interpretations that challenge our own. I find that very hard to do at times, but so productive in the insights it brings.

The principle of paying attention to context also calls into question the common practice of careless proof-texting. Proof-texting is a practice when both scholars and ordinary Christians support a particular theological position by quoting an isolated verse or passage from one of the Biblical books. It is usually injected into a discourse with the introductory phrase “the Bible says….”

All too often the one quoting the text lifts the verse or passage out of its context and then makes the text say what the one quoting it wants it to say. In this way we can claim the Bible’s authority behind any number of theological positions that go against the grain of the Bible’s over-arching message of grace.

This is a practice that we also see all the time in social and political discourse in the form of the media or sound bite that politicians, social advocates, or media commentators love to use to either support their own position or attack another’s.

There is a reason why we are attracted to the short sound bite. It is hard work for most people to follow a complex argument, whether it is theological, social, or political. We want someone to boil it down into a pithy sound bite that is easily to grasp and hold onto. Jesus did exactly that when he boiled down the whole of the Torah into two commandments of love (see Mark 12:28-34).

But when anyone of us does this, we must be especially skillful and sensitive to what we are doing. When we extract a sound bite from what a person says or writes and ignore the richness of the context in which that sound bite is found, then we easily abuse the author or the speaker. Such abuse can do great damage to the church, society, or the political process. Likewise when we do this with the Bible, we abuse the authors and editors of the Bible… and the Spirit that inspired them.

Pay attention to the context. Yes, indeed, if we truly seek understanding.

When a Bible Story Appalls Us

How do we handle the Bible’s grim stories?

Over the last year I’ve made a practice of reading some of the books of the Bible I seldom pay attention to. For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Leviticus, and Numbers. It has given me several surprises. Some have been pleasant; others not.

In the latter category stands Numbers, chapter 31. It recounts an appalling story, at least to my sensibilities. It tells of a raid that the Israelites make on the Midianites, a raid that takes on the cast of genocide.

The Israelites are nearing the end of their 40-year exodus wanderings through the desert. They are camped on a plain of Moab, ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.

As they prepare for this momentous move, they take care of some unfinished business. Moses organizes an army of Israelite warriors and sends it off to massacre the Midianites. (In the story the Midianites and the Moabites seem at times to be conflated. They are called both.)

The purpose of the raid is vengeance. The Israelites are to avenge an incident recounted in Numbers 25, where a group of Moabite and Midianite women entice the Israelites into some sacrifices to their pagan gods. The Israelites’ participation violates the First Commandment that Israel is to worship no other god than the God who has freed them from slavery in Egypt.

The Israelites attack and slaughter all the Midianite men and boys. They also slaughter any women who are married and have borne children. However, unmarried, virgin women are separated out and carried off captive as personal booty of the Israelite soldiers. The soldiers also carry off vast quantities of the Midianites’ treasure.

If one were to substitute ISIS for the Israelites and the Yazidis, Shiites, and Iraqi Christians for the Midianites, you would feel you were reading a news story fresh out of the Middle East today.

Why is this story even in the Bible?

What makes the story even more appalling is that the text says in its opening sentences that God himself orders this attack. For Jews and Christians like myself raised upon the many other passages of the Bible which proclaim God as loving, merciful, and compassionate, then we are going to ask: What is this appalling story doing in the Bible? How do we come to terms with it?

The answer is easy if you believe that all religion is violent and intolerant at heart. Many despisers of religion so argue. I know because some of them have told me. But that’s not an answer a believing Jew or Christian can give. So I must wrestle with the questions. I also must wrestle with them as a pastor for they are questioners that parishioners will sometimes bring to me. Let me share some thoughts on a tentative answer.

First, I start by recognizing that the Penteteuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is a composite work. Editors at some point stitched together stories from a variety of sources to create the integrated narrative that we have today. So the question I start with is: Why did the editors who compiled the Penteteuch consider it important to include this story?

One answer might be because it happened exactly as they write it. Maybe God did command it as the text says. The writers of the Bible show themselves unusual in acknowledging the darkness in their stories as well as the light. Take the story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). How many times will you find the crimes of Pharaoh inscribed on the walls of Egyptian temples? Only his glorious exploits are recorded.

But if the incident happened exactly as it is told, then we are going to have to acknowledge there is a dark side to God. We do not understand God as well as we think.

Are we dealing with a primitive concept of God?

A second approach is one that has deep roots in Christianity. It stretches back to Marcion in the second century. This is the attitude that the picture of God in the Old Testament is imperfect compared to the picture we get in the New Testament. We hear it all the time when people talk about the God of the Old Testament being a God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.

This approach will argue that the editors of the Penteteuch are still operating with this more primitive understanding of God that we find in the Old Testament.

But that doesn’t hold water for me when I recall that the editors of the Penteteuch also present us with some of the most sublime pictures of God in the whole Bible. They include the majestic picture of God the creator in Genesis 1. He creates with loving power a cosmos of order and beauty.

Also we have the amazing revelation of God at the burning bush on Mount Sinai. The dialogue between God and Moses (Exodus 3-4) contains some highly exalted views of God, especially the revelation that the name of God is the mysterious I AM. And again during his dialogue with Moses (Exodus 34) on the peak of Mount Sinai, we are presented with another sublime description of God as the merciful and compassionate one.

The editors of the Penteteuch are not incapable of any more exalted view of God than a vengeful tribal deity.

Is the story a morality tale?

A third option is that they tell the story as a kind of morality tale. Hebrew religion demanded a strict monotheism, an exclusive devotion to the God who had covenanted with them at Mount Sinai. The great danger to this monotheism was religious syncretism.

One way religious syncretism crept into Israelite life was through intermarriage with non-Israelites. Spouses often enticed their partners into participating in the worship of their own gods. The classic example is King Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess, Jezebel. Jezebel seeks to supplant the worship of God by importing the worship of her native god Ba’al. (1 Kings 16:31-33).

In the incident recounted in Numbers 25, it is Moabite women who entice the Israelites into the worship of their pagan gods. The story therefore highlights the constant danger of religious syncretism creeping into Israel through inter-marriage, or in this case, through sexual fraternizing with Israel’s neighbors.

The editors may have included the story of Numbers 31 in the Penteteuch to warn its readers about the risks of religious syncretism by sexual engagements outside the boundaries of the Israelite people. We encounter a similar fear about the dangers of assimilation through inter-marriage in the post-exilic policy of Ezra requiring Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10).

If this is the case, it will not be the first or last time when religious leaders have used the name of God to enforce social or religious solidarity.

The important question: How do we understand Biblical inspiration?

I incline towards option 3, but I am not sure it really answers the question that troubles us most. Why does the text say God ordered the attack? How is this consistent with the picture of God unfolding in the rest of the Bible?

To tackle this question, we may have to tackle the issue of the divine inspiration of the Bible. This is a widespread belief among Jews and Christians. But what can we legitimately assert if we adhere to it?

When Christians assert the doctrine of divine inspiration, what they usually say is that the Holy Spirit so guided the process of composition of the Bible that it provides a trustworthy revelation of God’s character, purposes, and will. But Christians like myself would also assert that that does not mean the Spirit dictated the composition. The authors and editors of the Bible were not God’s amanuenses who wrote down what they heard the Spirit speaking directly into their minds or ears.

The composition of the Bible was a very human process, involving human authors and editors who worked out of their own specific cultural contexts. If the Spirit was inspiring their work, he was doing so in a divinely subtle way.

If this is correct, then the composition of the Bible involved an undetectable partnership between the Spirit and the human authors/editors. Undetectable in that the human partners would not likely have been aware of any divine influence. That the text was inspired would have been detected only after the process was complete. It would have been evident in the impact that this text had on nurturing faith in the communities who read and cherished it.

But God’s human partners in this process would have always been fallible, morally flawed human beings, as all of us are. They did their best to bear witness to the God they had come to know in not only their personal lives, but in the history of their people, and for Christians, most especially in the person of Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a possibility for inadequate perceptions of God and God’s will to be included in the Biblical text. The corrective on these inadequate perceptions is not a gift of infallibility, but the presence of a plurality of theological viewpoints in the text. That plurality corrects inadequacies through the give and take of dialogue and debate. There is wisdom, for example, in the fact that the church canonized not just one gospel, but four.

So as we read the Bible we must keep alert to the fact its witness to God is a mixed one. We can never read any one passage as an authority in isolation from all the rest of the Bible. We must join in this dialogue by bringing our own challenges and questions to the text and listening to alternate interpretations.

When I do this, I find that the picture of God that I get from Jesus’ teaching is dramatically different from the picture I encounter in Numbers 31. So I cannot read Numbers 31 without challenging its picture of God. This does not mean I am able to reconcile Numbers 31 with Jesus’ teaching. It simply means that the key to reconciling Numbers 31 with the gospels still eludes me.

If any of you my readers have thoughts on this dilemma, I welcome hearing from you.