Step 8 of the interpretive process moves us from “Observation” to “Context” as we consider, “Where does the passage fit?” This post considers the historical context, and the next will consider the literary context.
Starting to Assess Historical Context
By considering a passage’s historical context, we are asking, “Where does this passage fit in space and time, and how do these data points inform the reading of our passage?” Here we seek to understand the historical situation (temporal, social, physical) from which the human author composed the text and to identify any historical-cultural-geographical details that the author mentions or assumes. Some of the questions that we need to ask include:
- Who? The author, audience, and major figures and powers of the passage.
- When? The original date of the message in relation to major periods and powers, including assessment of what events precede and follow (with consideration of potential influence either way).
- Where? The physical location and geography pointed to in the text.
- Why? The cause and purpose for the message.
- How? The genre and thought flow of the passage. At stake here is answering, “Why did he say it that way?”
We gain answers to these questions mostly from reading the biblical text itself. The more we understand the Bible, the more aware we become of its ancient context, making it easier for us to cross the bridge from the modern world into the ancient word. For this reason, we must read, read, and re-read the Bible.
One Additional Question: Shared Assumptions
All this information is important to historical context, but we must also identify the shared assumptions between the author and his audience–elements that were clear to them but may not be as clear to us. Thus, there is one more question that is related to those above but whose answer assumes a little more from the reader.
- What? Here our focus is less on what is said and more on what is assumed with respect to detailed knowledge of at least seven areas:
- Linguistic familiarity: Every biblical author assumed others would understand his words. This requires either a shared knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek or the certainty of a translation into a known tongue.
- Worldview: Here I refer to the shared values, perspectives, mindset, and outlook of the writer, recipients, key figures mentioned in the text, or the society.
- Societal and economic systems: These are the relationships and social structures that determine everyday life: common history of families or groups, marriage and family patterns, gender roles, social status, ethnicity, trades and vocations, slavery, wealth and poverty. The author often assumes his reader will understand these features. Because we are so removed from the original setting, grasping the various societal and economic structures can be difficult.
- Behavioral patterns like dress, community, or family customs.
- Political climate: We mean the governmental power centers, structures, loyalties, and personnel. For example, biblical authors don’t always explain the distinction between an officer and judge. They assume that we know the difference.
- Religious practices: These are the convictions, rituals, affiliations, personnel, and sacred structures associated with Israel or their neighbors’ worship.
- Physical features like climate and weather, topography, architecture, transportation, plants and animals, etc.
Most commonly, the biblical text itself clarifies all the historical details we need to understand a passage. Nevertheless, there are times when knowing something about the created world or something from sources outside the Bible can aid our biblical understanding.
Learning about historical context can be fascinating. Yet interpreters must remember that the goal at this stage is to understand God’s word and not just learn about background information to the book or historical details to which the passage points. As such, if you are preparing a message, use historical data only in so far as it develops the main point rather than distracts from it.
When to Use Historical Context
There are at least four broad spheres that intersect with the question of historical context. Few Christians question the validity of looking for historical context amid the initial three, but the fourth raises more questions.
- A proper grasp of linguistic signs: At base, reading Scripture rightly demands that the interpreter, or at least a translator, rightly understand the linguistic signs in which God gave us his word (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and/or Greek).
- A detailed grasp of the persons, institutions, and events of Scripture: Knowing the key persons, institutions, and events of Scripture will make you a better interpreter. For example, knowing Israel’s covenantal history and their relations with the neighboring nations helps you grasp the prophets’ public condemnations.
- A general awareness of life in this created world: Exegetes need to be conscious of the world around them to properly understand the Bible. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). This kind of command demands that we know what an ant is and have an ability to “consider its ways.”
- A proper approach to extra-biblical data: Ancient Near Eastern extra-biblical data rarely if ever provide necessary details for grasping the message of the biblical text itself, but they do inform our reading and raise new rhetorical possibilities in our understanding that we would have otherwise likely not considered. Often these new interpretive possibilities express polemical theology by which the biblical text expresses Yahweh’s supremacy over rival powers or perspectives.
A Note on Scripture’s Clarity
While it is not always easy to know how much the authors assume of their readers, the very nature of God’s word demands that people can understand its message in any culture and age. Historically, the church has called this the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity, or clarity. Though not equally clear in everything, the Bible is sufficiently clear to allow us to grasp the portrait of God’s supremacy, his overarching kingdom purposes, and Jesus’s saving work. Wayne Grudem helpfully notes that the Bible itself testifies that we can understand it but …
- Not all at once;
- Not without effort;
- Not without ordinary means;
- Not without the reader’s willingness to obey it;
- Not without the help of the Holy Spirit;
- Not without human misunderstanding;
- Never completely.
Guidelines for Engaging Historical Context
Four guidelines help the interpreter study historical context effectively: Be clear, careful, restrained, and relentless.
- Be clear on the type of historical context information you are assessing. Does it answer Who? When? Where? Why? How? or What?
- Be careful when engaging comparative literature. Examine both similarities and differences with the biblical material seeking to discern the rhetorical purpose of the biblical message. Scripture’s tendency is to dispute and repudiate pagan myths, ideas, identities, and customs. The Bible often establishes the authentic original historical event that pagan cultures distorted through polytheism, magic, and violence. Be careful in your assessment of comparative literature.
- Be restrained in your use of historical context material. Before going outside the Bible for answers, wrestle within the Scripture itself, considering the Bible in its entirety to grasp the author’s message. As preachers and teachers of God’s word, our goal is to unpack the message of Scripture, not to major on the periphery that is interesting but ultimately unhelpful in understanding the author’s main point.
- Be relentless in your commitment to draw your message from the text. A proper use of historical context will support, not subvert, the text’s apparent meaning. One way to ensure that you are drawing your assertions of historical relevance from the text is to look for authorial clues regarding the purpose of historical data. This can serve to guide your assessment about why certain historical details may be present in the text.
The Historical Context of Zephaniah 1:4-6
So I will stretch out My hand against Judah
And against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
And I will eliminate the remnant of Baal from this place,
And the names of the idolatrous priests along with the other priests.
And those who bow down on the housetops to the heavenly lights,
And those who bow down and swear to the LORD, but also swear by Milcom,
And those who have turned back from following the LORD,
And those who have not sought the LORD nor inquired of Him.
(Zeph. 1:4–6, NASB)
This brief declaration of coming punishment introduces numerous historical and geographical features that interpreters must understand in order to properly grasp the nature of the people’s sin and Yahweh’s response.
- Jerusalem (v. 4) was the political and religious center in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kgs 11:13, 36). Yahweh had chosen it for his central sanctuary, where he sat enthroned over his people.
- The remnant of Baal (v. 4) referred to a holdout of Judeans––members of the Mosaic covenant––who were following “Baal”-Hadad, the false Canaanite storm/fertility deity (cf. 1 Kgs 17–18). Trusting counterfeit gods like Baal for help was always evil in Yahweh’s sight (cf. Deut 5:7; Judg 2:11–15; 3:7); such folly brought destruction to the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:16–18) and rendered Judah’s destruction imminent (2 Kgs 22:16–17; 23:26–27; 24:3–4).
- The idolatrous priests along with the other priests (v. 4). Against the NASB, the context suggests that both groups of priests were actually idolatrous; that is why they are both being punished. The same use of terms elsewhere suggests the first group were illegitimate, non-Levitical clergy (1 Kgs 12:31–32; 13:33–34; cf. 2 Kgs 23:5), whereas the second group were the Levitical priests, who, Zephaniah tells us later, had “profaned the sanctuary” and “done violence to the Law” (Zeph 3:4).
- The heavenly lights (v. 5). Worshiping the stars was a sin that corrupted the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:6) and that characterized Manasseh and Amon’s reigns (2 Kgs 21:3, 5–6, 21) in Zephaniah’s youth.
- Milcom (v. 5). The false god of the Ammonites, whose veneration was explicitly condemned (1 Kgs 11:5, 33). The Hebrew may instead read “their king” (see NETB), but this royal title would still be referring to a god, which in context would be “Baal.” The remnant of syncretists in Judah were making oaths to Yawheh but doing so by (i.e., under the highest authority of) their king, that is, by another god, invoking his power to serve as witness to the vow and to hold them accountable.
Knowing historical context really helps better understand the nature of Israel’s rebellion and the reason for Yahweh’s condemnation. All of these historical elements were discerned from within the biblical text itself. We didn’t have to go outside the Bible to understand the “who?” (the remnant of Baal, illegitimate priests, Milcom/their king), the “where?” (Jerusalem), the “why?” (the reason for the condemnation), or the “what?” (the Baal, the idolatrous priests, the heavenly lights).
The “remnant of Baal” in Jerusalem consisted of four groups: (1) legitimate and illegitimate clergy practicing idolatry (v. 4); (2) star-worshipers (v. 5); (3) syncretistic hypocrites (v. 5); (4) the self-ruled and self-dependent (v. 6). In his mercy, Yahweh was confronting them, urging them to revere him in view of the nature and nearness of his day of wrath (Zeph 1:7). While there was still hope, Zephaniah would call them to seek Yahweh together (2:1–3) and to wait for him (3:8).
 Adapted from Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 96; Craig L. Blomberg, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 84.
 Wayne Grudem, “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Them 34 (2009): 288–309.