When reading the Bible, it’s very helpful to answer this question: “How would the original readers of this passage have understood it?”
We can do this by learning the history and culture of that time and then bringing the meaning the author intended into our time and place.
It would be wrong to think that the cultures and times and places where the Bible was written were just like ours.
Therefore, we will be talking often about what people living in Egypt and in the Ancient Near East (ANE) believed. The Ancient Near East includes modern Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan.
To show why it is important to understand the original culture when reading Scripture, think about this situation:
If I told you that a young man swam in a pond at night—without giving you any other information—what would you guess had happened?
People who live in the northern parts of the United States gave varied answers to my question.
“It’s not important.” “I’d want to know why he did that.” “Everything is calmer and more relaxing at night.” “He is allergic to the sun.”
After twenty years of living in the state of Florida, my immediate reaction to hearing of a night swim is “Oh no!”
One person who lives here was correct: “In Florida that means being attacked by an alligator.”
Another local woman said that the man must have been drunk.
Based upon what I have seen, those who swim at night have been drinking alcohol, are under the influence of drugs, or are running from the police.
People who live here know not to swim where the water isn’t clear all the way to the bottom, as we have many alligators, and they are hard to see in the water. No one with a clear mind would do that.
The Bible contains many situations like this which puzzle us.
Sometimes we miss important points if we don’t understand the original culture when reading Scripture.
Have you ever noticed that Gen 1 never mentions the words “sun” or “moon”?
Instead, Moses wrote, “God made two great lights: the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars” (Gen 1:16).
When Moses wrote Genesis, the Israelites had just escaped from Egypt after living there for 430 years.
Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra as the one who created everything. They also believed that the moon god Khonsu ruled over time and helped Ra form the universe.
Based on this information, why do you think Moses wrote Gen 1:16 without naming the sun or the moon?
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking the original culture of Scripture is just like ours. To understand this, think about this opposite swimming situation:
A few days after arriving at university, one of my daughters—who does not remember living anywhere other than the state of Florida—got very upset when she saw some students swimming in a pond.
She was about to yell at them to get out of the water when she suddenly remembered that alligators don’t live in the cold climate of her new state, and that it was safe to swim there.
She would have been wrong to apply her childhood culture to the new place where she lived.
Many people today look at Gen 1 as a record of how God created the universe.
But the main point is to speak strongly against the idea that many gods made the world and then made people to take care of them.
Genesis 1 is about who created and why he created. Moses did not focus on how he did it.
Thankfully, we now have ancient writings and artifacts to us to help us avoid the two errors of not understanding Ancient Near Eastern cultural practices in the Bible and of adding our own cultural understanding to the Bible.
We will discuss the most important cultural issues in Scripture throughout this manual.
The Bible was written for us who read it today but it was not written to us.
The Apostle Paul wrote to churches with mostly Greek or Roman people who were not Jewish.
Paul wrote this about the Jewish people and events in the Old Testament, “These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come” (1 Cor 10:11).
Even though his readers came from a different culture, they could still learn from the Old Testament.
We can learn new things about the Bible by reading the Old Testament as if we lived in the Ancient Near Eastern culture.
Also, we will understand the NT better if we understand the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures at the time when the NT was written.
When we read the Bible, we are reading about people whose lives were very different from ours.
As we learn to understand their viewpoints, we will have a richer understanding of Scripture.
Image via Wikimedia Commons This photo is of an Ancient Near Eastern sun god named Shamash. His name is like the Hebrew word for the sun “shemesh.”
 Moses did not want the readers of Genesis to think that the sun god Ra or the moon god Khonsu were real gods that the Lord created.
 Thanks to my daughter for her permission to share this story.
Return to Chapter 3: Ancient Cultures and the Bible