Discovering the Bible in its Context

In the Footsteps of Joseph

by Brandon G. Withrow | December 13, 2006
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In a recent pre-Christmas sermon on Mary, it was suggested that fathers should take their sons to see the movie, The Nativity Story. By seeing this movie, it was said, young men will see how they can be loving husbands, like Joseph, and protect their wives in difficult circumstances like these—“these” circumstances referring to their long trip to Bethlehem. I don’t know exactly what the preacher meant, but in the context, it made me laugh. I don’t anticipate making that kind of journey with a pregnant, God-Man bearing wife riding on a donkey anytime soon. Those circumstances belonged to someone else.

It also reminded me of something else, that is, the many times I’ve heard someone appeal to the biblical narrative (or any biblical passage) without regard to the context or genre. At times, what is merely description in the Bible is taken as prescription. By way of example, one might look to the Old Testament patriarchs with that sentimental feeling of missing the days when men were men. The hierarchicalist, for example, who longs to be like an Old Testament patriarch, may praise his patriarchy as an example of true biblical manhood. I know of some who want to emulate it so badly, they even set up arranged marriages for their children.

It is true that there are lessons to learn from these lives in the Bible and how they served God (or failed to). Through them we learn about the history of redemption and are pointed toward Christ’s death and resurrection. Of this, I have no doubt. What I do doubt is that all that is described in the narrative is intended to show us exactly how to live in our culture today. After all, should a man have more than one wife? The Bible is written in a context and is speaking to a context. We would do well to understand that context. When Paul writes Timothy to fetch his cloak for him (2 Timothy 4:13), I find no reason for this to mean that I must fetch it as well, nor that I should leave my cloak behind so that my young mentor may retrieve it for me.

As the immediate context sometimes appeared “irrelevant” to Christians of other eras, the early fathers looked for the deeper meaning in the text, that is, the allegorical sense of the text, hoping to find some value in the mundane. Perhaps the cloak symbolizes something from the spiritual world and that is the timeless meaning. The problem is, of course, that there is no standard for interpreting the spiritual sense of the text. It is left purely in the hands of an arbitrary interpreter. In reverse, while it is patriarchy that may seek to return to the family life of the Old Testament (though often it seems that it is painted with the brush of Victorian England or Puritan New England), there is little attention given to how the Bible should be applied in our current context. How should we live today?

To argue that Scripture demands our respect of its world and culture before interpreting and applying it to our world is not the same as saying that the Bible is outdated, outmoded, or less authoritative. It is to enjoy it in full color. It is also to recognize that we don’t always have the full picture. “The world presupposed by our text,” reminds Gordon Fee in his “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18–6:9” (available at CBE’s free publications section), “is a world so radically different from ours culturally that it is difficult for us even to imagine our way back into that setting.” I think of this when I read 1 Timothy, for example. Paul’s letter is not a creed, a confession, or doctrinal standard. It is not a systematic theology. It is an epistle, and it is written to a church leader in a specific historical context. It is much like a one-sided phone call, from which we only find meaning if we pull together clues, based on what we know about the callers, their lives, friends, family, the place they live, the words chosen, the tone used, and the facial expressions expressed. The other side of the conversation is always left out to some extent.

In the context, Paul is addressing false teachers (possibly influenced by the cult of Artemis), who are teaching “myths” and “endless genealogies,” and are only eager to promote “controversies,” rather than “God’s work” (1:3-4 NIV). These dangerous people are apparently more interested in the “meaningless words” of their false teaching and disturbing the church than they are in sound doctrine and peace (1:6-7). By verse 18 of chapter 1, we are told some have “shipwrecked their faith” and blasphemed (19). Clearly, it is a letter written to a church in need of peace, for Paul follows his description of these troublemakers by calling for prayer for “kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2:2). Paul is writing to Timothy on handling a context of anger, fighting and rebellion. Men are told to “lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (2:8). There are, apparently, widows, roaming from house to house, spreading rumors and talking about things “they ought not to” (5:13), some of which had “turned away to follow Satan,” presumably like the false teachers Hymenaeus and Alexander (1:20).

I would take this context into consideration when wondering what Paul intends to say to women in chapter 2. That women are targeted by these false teachers and that they might have joined them in their unruliness, sheds light on why he might urge them to learn in “peacefulness” and “submission” under church authorities (2:11). I would also take this into serious consideration when reading that Paul does not permit women “authentein” (2:12). Should the Greek word be taken as “to exercise or have authority” or should it be translated “to dominate or usurp”? The latter makes better sense in this context and of Paul’s concerns about living peacefully. It allows us to avoid unbiblical applications and hierarchicalist interpretations that see this text as an opportunity to bar women from ministry or even speaking altogether.

We must understand that all life situations are unique. Paul’s teaching is directed at those unique situations. For one person, Paul might permit circumcision (Acts 16:3), but for another, he would not (Gal. 2:3). Part of interpreting the text is getting into a culture and context often very strange to us, and recognizing how what is said and done can be applied to our lives today, without casting the Bible aside as some archaic human text.

Like Joseph, I too want to obey God. From him I’m reminded that I too should be a servant to my wife (as to all human beings) and to Christ. And as his life was full of trials, yet he continued to follow the path God placed before him—thorns, thistles, stones, and all—I too plan to endure and hopefully one day gain that crown. But I’ve never guided a donkey before, and Bethlehem is not likely to be literally on my map.

Note: For further reading on the context of 1 Timothy 2 see Linda Belleville’s “Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11-15” in Discovering Biblical Equality, available at the Equality Depot.