Thursday, August 23, 2018

Scripture and Culture

"Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves" (Matthew 21:19a).

Today we want to consider the problems that arise from the fact that the Bible was written in terms of a culture different from our own. We can think, for instance, of the problem of teaching the Bible to inner-city children, who may have no idea what a sheep is. Or the missionary who takes the Gospel to a tribe whose gods are terrifying demons and have no concept of a loving God.

Sometimes we get tripped up when we read the Bible because we don’t know the customs of the ancient world. For instance, when Jesus approached the fig tree in Matthew 21:18–22, He turns around and curses the fig tree because it is barren. We can take this story as an object lesson concerning Israel, which it clearly is.

But historical incident seems very peculiar until we learn about figs in the Near East. There is a season for figs when most kinds of fig trees bear fruit, but there is one kind of fig tree that gives fruit at a different time of the year. The sign indicating that this variety of fig tree has fruit is that it has leaves. Thus, when Jesus saw that this off-season variety of fig tree had put forth leaves, He was perfectly right in assuming it should have fruit also.

The problem of the Bible and its culture becomes more acute when we realize that not only is the Bible conditioned by its cultural setting, but we are likewise conditioned by ours. It is often difficult for us to understand what the Bible is saying because we bring to it a host of extra-biblical assumptions. This is one of the biggest interpretive problems we face.

We who live in the present have a tremendous advantage when it comes to reading the Bible. We have access to books on the customs of Bible lands, along with Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias, concordances, annotated Bibles and many other helps. If we are going to read the Bible profitably, we must learn how to use these tools.

Make an effort to familiarize yourself with the cultures of the Bible. Begin gathering resources which will aid you in this lifelong study.