The Cultural Background of the Hebrew Bible

The Cultural Background of the Hebrew Bible

You found it… For all the browsing on the internet, you have stumbled onto a page that helps you to connect biblical texts with their cultural contexts. If you believe in the Bible and feel that context is crucial to understand any communication then you are in the right place. Here we believe that context changes everything! The knowledge of cultural background opens the doors of understanding. It is easy to proclaim, “the Bible says” and then insert something well-meant. The more important matter is “what the Bible means when it says actually something…” That is a linguistic question in part and in part a matter of semantics.

Indeed, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are full of cultural and linguistic context which most people do not know or understand. The cultural background of the Hebrew Bible is unknown to many people, it is ancient, very ethnic and confusing, especially to western thinkers. It is also easy to be unaware of something we do not even know exists. After all, how many people have read the Bible in the original ancient languages? Most people rely on translations and many things can be lost in translation.

Think about communication, even in the most general terms for a few moments.  The Bible is a divine message, but it communicates in a human language. And most often humans who transmit messages tell stories. All human communication has a peculiar and often specific context, especially stories. Words are never spoken in a vacuum. Some knowledge is always implied and understood as implicit. In most languages, there are words with multiple meanings and meanings are often bound to the peculiar cultural background. Many years ago Edward T. Hall noted that “communication is culture and culture is communication”. It is very true. All communication is cultural and we are unable to communicate without the cultural definitions.

Linguistically, phrases and even sentences can be taken literally or non-literally. We use idiomatic speech constantly in our daily lives and so does the Bible. Some of our expressions and words are culturally loaded with meanings and can carry negative and positive connotations of various weight. Other phrases can arouse strong emotional responses because of what they mean to the audience or to the speaker. And the meanings of words even in the same language or culture never stands still. They change as cultural background changes. Each generation imbues words with their own meaning. The modern readers of the Bible may be missing that connection and feeling, simply because our modern world is so different.

Everything, including the physical context, the immediate surroundings change the tone and the very impact of what we say. What we mean by our words is often inextricable from the concrete setting of our message. The irony, the sarcasm or even slang play a big role in our emphatic speech, especially when we stress and exaggerate things on purpose. The Scriptures contain many emotional and exaggerated messages. We do this today to make strong points, to argue, and to convince. But those same exact words devoid of the deliberate emphasis we put on them may not be universally true. The context matters with our communication. The cultural background and the physical setting can change the meaning we perceive significantly.

Not knowing the context, and not being aware, makes it easy for anyone to misinterpret the gist of any message. Taking things out of context is human. We are limited in our perception. That is to be expected. Why should we expect this to be any different when it comes to the Bible which was written in diverse cultural settings over thousands of years, in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek? And even the Greek in the Bible is a reflection of the Hebraic Jewish thought.

There are so many situations in which our perception is built on key knowledge and keen understanding. When this occurs our perception and understanding of any situation are sharper and more precise, simply because we have more context, we are more informed. This is what we mean when we say “context changes everything!” True, we may be missing the cultural background of many ancient words, but it does not mean that all hope is lost. We can seek the context. Nothing stops us from seeking to recover the cultural background of the Hebrew Bible. Enough of rushing to interpret and understand the Bible ignoring the historical, literary and cultural context. Take the time to dig deeper before making conclusions. First, seek the context and open your perception to new possibilities. Rethink, reexamine, reimagine.

We must take our time. Enough rushing to interpret and understand the Bible ignoring the historical, literary and cultural context. Let’s pause, take the time to dig deeper before making conclusions. Seek the context and open your perception to new possibilities. Rethink, reexamine, reimagine.