Ahhh, those guys knew how to do special effects! In a modern evangelical landscape where seeker sensitivity has gone mad it would seem only natural to stay away from every conceivable Star Trek illustration. Though I am not, nor ever will be a “Trekkie” (why learn Klingon when Hebrew and Greek are hard enough as it is), Captain Kirk’s iconic phrase “beam me up Scotty” has become a catch cry for those of us who need a rapid evacuation from a foreign situation.
But the Bible interpreter needs just the opposite. In order to rightly understand Scripture in its full context there is a cultural bridge that must be crossed. Rather than evacuate a situation that is foreign to us, the exegete regularly needs to be teleported (or beamed down) into the historical cultural setting of the text he is trying to faithfully handle. J. Scott Duvall says that:
The Christian today is separated from the biblical audience by differences in culture, language, situation, time, and often covenant. These differences are a river that hinders us from moving straight from meaning in their context to meaning in ours. The width of the river, however, varies from passage to passage . . . It is obviously important to know just how wide the river is before we start trying to construct a principlizing bridge across it.
The Toolbox When reconstructing an historical background our first port of call should always be the text itself that we are referring to. From this we can piece together many pieces to the hermeneutical puzzle. Carefully reading and re-reading the surrounding text or entirety of that particular book of the Bible will usually yield many clues. We may also find parallel passages in other books of the Bible. The Chronicles parallel much of Samuel and Kings. It is not unusual to find a passage from one of the prophets having a corresponding historical information in narrative found elsewhere. The book of Acts has “crossover” points with Pauline Epistles and we even have the four Gospel accounts which complement each other so beautifully in giving multiple camera angles on the same event.
There are times, however, when the interpreter may need to draw on other tools at his disposal. Most commentaries contain vital information regarding who the author was, when he wrote it, who he was writing to, the historical circumstances, and the author’s purpose in writing. Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias can provide tremendous help in our excavations of Scripture. Geographical research can also serve the exegete well in adding power and dimension to his preaching. Drama and impact can be heightened when we know how far Jesus had to travel to get from His tomb to Emmaus Road or the average speed required, and calories burned, for Elijah to run from Beersheba to Mount Horeb during forty days of purpose fasting. Bible Atlases can really get the job done here.
The Goalposts Reconstructing the culture, customs, and circumstances of an ancient civilization requires that we, the interpreter, understand the original situation that instigated the Scriptural account. Primarily, we want to know the circumstances surrounding the author and his audience. The interpreter becomes an investigator trying to piece together and recreate the drama as it originally happened.
The interpreter should seek to determine the date that the biblical book was written. This helps greatly in ascertaining what important historical events had transpired (or were transpiring) when the text was written. When this is known, obscure happenings can come to life and bring significant meaning.
It is also important to know who the author of the book was and who his audience was. This brings many relational and circumstantial factors into play. How is the author connected to Jesus? Is he in prison? Is his audience in the midst of intense persecution even to the point of death? This sort of research is vital in our historical immersion.
We should also seek to discover the purpose for the book being written. Historical and cultural information help to paint a clearer picture of the motivating factors and grounds for the book being written in the first place. Knowing the political situation, the customs of that time period, the state of the surrounding cultures, and the spiritual health of that society, all help the exegete to faithfully handle the text and beam his audience down into the world he has re-created!