Are You Reading The Bible In Context?

One of the things that I’ve noticed in some sermons, and in many religious debates, is a failure to deal with passages from the Bible in context.  For example, I have discovered what is “obviously” a contradiction in the Bible!  Lev 26:4-5: “I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.  Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.”  However, in Lev 26: 20 we find, “Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.”

Well, now that we know the Bible does, in fact, contradict itself, it’s time for us to put away Judaism and Christianity, right?  Wrong!  If you start reading in Lev 26:1 and continue through you will discover that the first passage is part of a blessing for obedience and faithfulness to God, while the second is part of a curse for disobedience.  The context removes the apparent contradiction.  If you keep on reading, you will quickly reach a passage that should be quite familiar to Christians who live in the United States.  Lev 26:40-42: “‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers—their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.'”

I have heard this passage used many times over the years as part of a call in America for an end to abortion, a call to righteousness, and a general return to “the good old days”.  Again, this is being taken out of context.  What is the context?  God is speaking to a very particular group of people, the new nation of Israel.  He has just rescued them from Egypt, given them His law, and is preparing to lead them into a new land.  It is part of the blessings and curses we just mentioned.  What it is saying is that if the nation of Israel screws up (and they would), and they start to feel the effects of God’s discipline on them (and they would), they can repent and God will relent.  It is a declaration of God’s mercifulness.  It does not, however, have anything to do with the United States.

There are pastors in America (and probably around the world) who take passages out of context regularly.  The worst case I have seen are those pastors who will pluck a verse here and a verse there, all out of context.  They will then take the apparent meanings of those passages and apply them to a new context.  There are many, many passages in the Old Testament that do not apply to Christians directly.  There are some that can only apply to Jewish Christians, and many more that no longer apply to anyone!  I’m not Jewish; I’m a Gentile.  As a result, any promises made strictly to the nation of Israel cannot be applied to me directly.  I am guilty under the law, so some apply, but I am also saved by grace.  Nothing in the Old Testament gives me a promise of an easy life, riches, or property, however.  The nation of Israel had those promises, not me.

Now, you might be starting to think I see no value in the Old Testament.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  I have spent the last six years slowly reading through the Old Testament, Genesis to Malachi.  I have used commentaries, reread some passages in as many as eight different translations, and generally moved at a very slow pace.  During that time, I have had the pleasure of discovering the beauty of the Law.  I have discovered the wonderful rich history of the nation of Israel.  I have read beautiful poetry, and raunchy poetry (Song of Solomon).  I have read prophecies that came true long ago, prophecies about Jesus, prophecies about more than one time at once, and prophecies that have yet to come true.  I have read of the heart of God for mankind in the Old Testament.  Not all of it applies directly, but it’s very, very good!

One final word of warning: I have heard a few preachers do one thing worse.  Some will refer to a passage, not quote it, and proceed to summarize its meaning for you.  The last time I heard this happen, I looked up the passage.  The “meaning” it supposedly contained could not be gleaned from the completely unrelated passage at all!  This was one of those TV preachers who likes to ask for money a lot.  As you may have guessed, he got none of mine.

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3 Responses to “Are You Reading The Bible In Context?”

  1. blainesch Says:

    If you really look at it there are numerous flaws in the Bible. Not saying the Bible is wrong, but the people who wrote them were. Language was very under developed, and translating that to a more developed language is a bit hard and of course their will be flaws.

  2. WingedPanther Says:

    Umm… Do you have an example or two? I know there are a lot of things that can appear to be flaws, but that doesn’t mean they are. Also, Hebrew and Greek were both far more advanced languages than English. The problem is going from advanced languages to less advanced ones.

  3. Sentinel Says:

    “Not saying the Bible is wrong, but the people who wrote them were” is pretty much saying that it’s wrong, as far as I can see?

    I believe strongly that the Bible is internally consistent, but only if each book is understood in context of its cultural and historical setting and the theological issues which it is written to illustrate.

    I’ve written a recent post on this topic – you might be interested:

    http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/matters-of-interpretation/

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