The Bible is a compilation of 66 books that were written and edited over thousands of years. These writings were put together by various individuals, who were part of different cultures, and spanned over hundreds of miles. Because God chose to communicate his word through people within different historical contexts, we find that we are aliens to these contexts and as a result, often miss a lot of what the authors are trying to communicate. This can cause a lot of confusion when dealing with the more difficult texts that seem to encourage slavery, genocide, and human sacrifice. Many of these apparent controversies are used by non-Christian scholars to argue a moral inconsistency within the Christian belief system. By not properly understanding the historical context, or worse, trying to impose our context upon scripture, we find ourselves missing the original message of scripture and end up coming to morbid conclusions.
One of my favourite examples of a potential controversy in scripture is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In Genesis 22:2 we read, “He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Although we know that God doesn’t require Abraham to go through with the sacrifice of his son, this would appear to be quite a disturbing request.
Understanding the historical context around a passage of scripture not only prevents us from coming to wrong conclusions, but also helps us to catch what the Biblical authors were trying to communicate in their portrayal of the events. In the example of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, we need to look at what this would mean to someone living in ancient Mesopotamia. Within Mesopotamian religion in the time of Abraham, human sacrifice was a large part of worship. Both child and adult sacrifice was often used to appease the gods in response to drought or famine. By God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son and then proceeding to provide a sacrifice in his place was a means of separating himself from the religions of the time. God distinguishes himself as a God who not only doesn’t require human sacrifice (which was a big deal at the time) but as one that will provide a sacrifice in our place. As believers today, we also understand this as a foreshadowing of the death of The Lord Jesus in our place.
Although we find ourselves over 3000 years past this narrative, as well as many others found in scripture, we have many tools available to us that can equip us to properly understand scripture. Nowadays, many Bibles include commentaries, or they can be easily found in many book shops. There are fantastic free online tools available to us that provide detailed commentaries, maps, Greek or Hebrew dictionaries and much more. My personal favourite is blueletterbible.org. These commentaries are easy to use and make studying and learning about Biblical narratives refreshing and exciting.
By Stuart Stark