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.

This keeps us from misunderstanding Scripture due to our own cultural ideas.

Therefore, we will often discuss about what people living in Egypt and in the Ancient Near East believed.

The Ancient Near East includes modern Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan.

To show importance of understanding the 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 fleeing 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. 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?



We can also make the opposite mistake of thinking that a situation in Scripture matches our culture.

Consider this example:

A few days after arriving at university, one of my daughters—who does not recall 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.[1]


Many people today look at Gen 1 as a record of how God created the universe.

Instead, that chapter strongly shows that the world was not made by many gods who created people just to feed them.

Genesis 1 is about who created and why he created. Moses did not focus on how God did it.

Thankfully, we now have ancient writing 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).

We can learn new things about the Bible by reading the Old Testament through the eyes of people living in their Ancient Near Eastern culture.

Also, we will understand the New Testament better by learning about Greek and Roman culture and about the culture of Jewish people in the first century.

When we read the Bible, we are reading about people who lived in very different circumstances.

As we learn to understand their viewpoints, we gain 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.”

[1] Thanks to my daughter for her permission to share this story.


Go to Ancient Literature


Return to Chapter 3: Ancient Cultures and the Bible


Return to the Old Testament Survey main page