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Do we need Backgrounds study?
Background studies involve research into history, archaeology, geography, manners and customs, and ancient literature. Sometimes such studies seem trivial and largely irrelevant in our goal to understand the Bible better. It could be claimed that many times we can understand the Bible just based on what is in the Bible. The rest might be intriguing to some, but non-essential.
"Comparative studies" is a branch of background study that compares Israelite thinking and literature to that of the rest of the ancient world. We know that Israel had many unique ways of thinking because of the revelation they received. Therefore we expect to see some significant differences between Israel and the world around. At the same time, Israel was one of many ancient cultures and shared lots of the same ways of thinking. After all, God did not give them revelation about everything—just those areas where he wanted to reveal himself in new ways. He intended to change their belief, not give them a new culture.
Many of the ways in which Israel shared the common worldview are evident in the Bible. For example, it is obvious throughout the Bible that Israelites, as in the rest of the ancient world, found their identity in their social group rather than inside themselves (not unlike many cultures today, but different from American ways of thinking). The resulting fact that honor and shame were important to them can be found throughout the Psalms.
We find, then, that there are many occasions where our interpretation is more informed and incisive when we are able to bring background studies to our research. Furthermore, sometimes we might find that without background studies, we may be inclined to assume that the Israelites thought the same way that we do about certain issues. Investigation may lead us to discover that there were significant differences. Once our perspective is corrected, we will find new light for understanding the passage.
I would contend that background studies and comparative studies are often essential to arriving at a sound interpretation. The fact is, that though the Bible was written for us and for everyone, it was not written to us. It was written to ancient Israel. God revealed Himself in ways that the Israelites could understand in their own culture and language. Just as we need to translate the language, we need to translate the culture. If we are to benefit fully from God’s revelation, we will seek to put ourselves in the circle of those to whom the Bible was written.
Each phrase and each word communicates by the ideas and thoughts that they will trigger in the reader or hearer. We can then speak of these underlying ideas as gaps that need to be filled with meaning by the audience. The writer or speaker assumes that those gaps will be filled in particular ways based on the common worldview he shares with his audience. Interpreters have the task of filling in those gaps, and when interpreting authoritative text, it is theologically essential that we fill them appropriately. As our interpretation of the text requires us to fill in the gaps, we have to be careful to consider the option of filling those gaps from the cultural context before we leap to fill them with theological significance or our cultural ways of thinking.
Successful interpreters must try to understand the cultural background of the ancient Near East just as successful missionaries must learn the culture, language and worldview of the people they are trying to reach. This is the rationale for us to study the Bible in light of the ancient Near East. What we would contend, then, is that comparative studies has three goals in mind:
We study the history of the ancient Near East as a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
We study Archaeology as a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
We study the literature of the ancient Near East as a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited the ancient world that Israel shared.
In the end the interpretation of the Old Testament as an ancient Near Eastern document is necessary for the recovery of lost dimensions of the text and meaning, even the recovery of a more robust and vibrant theology in the text. Comparative study does not impose something foreign upon the text; rather it seeks to rediscover that which is intrinsic to the text. This dimension may not be taken for granted because in many ways we are foreign to the text.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
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