March 20, 2009

Cultural Relevance

The inescapable Western culture is the biggest obstacle modern observers face in trying to understand the detail and nuance of the people of the Bible. Modern observers generally approach the Bible as they would any other book, reading it through the lens of their own culture and applying all of the preconceived notions of modern life and thought to the stories recorded in the Bible. In so doing they apply a culture that has become increasingly individualistic in all manners of life including: family, faith, and finance. In many ways these modern cultural developments are 180ยบ different from the ancient culture of Scripture. Smith and Benjamin comment on the difference between the two cultures this way,
“The world of the Bible is ancient; our world is modern. It is an Eastern world; ours is Western. The world of the Bible is virtually changeless; our world is ever changing. It is agricultural; ours is industrial. Biblical people think of their goods and resources as limited. We consider ours renewable. They think of themselves as households; we think of ourselves as individuals. In their world old age is a blessing; in our world it is a burden. Their favorite genre of literature is story; ours is history. And perhaps most difficult of all for us to understand, in the world of the Bible there is no separation between religion and daily life or between church and state.” [1. Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel (1250-587 BCE), (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), xiii.]

The culture of the Middle East (ancient and modern) is conservative only open to change through minor borrowing from other cultures. Stability is of utmost importance. So therefore, tradition and storytelling take on significant roles within the social framework. Family and land are the most important possessions one can acquire. The culture of the west is liberal and open to changes of all types. Diversity is of utmost importance. The wealth of a person is judged by his bank account and current possessions. Consequently the past is seen as unimportant and forgettable, because the focus is on the ever-approaching horizon of change. These differences make understanding cultural milieus and nuances difficult for westerners. Other difficulties for understanding the culture aspects of the Bible include:
  • The lack of complete textual evidence (nuances are usually not written, they are assumed by the writer (i.e. Judges 11:26)).
  • Proscription of standard vs. description of events (death penalty for murder and adultery – David impregnates Bathsheba and murders her husband 2 Samuel 11).
  • The lack of complete archaeological evidence (archaeology is defined as the recovery of randomly preserved material).
  • Over-generalization of the limited sources that have been preserved (the Hurrian texts are often used as the definitive statement on Genesis despite the fact that they are 400-500 years later and over 500 miles away). (Adapted from Cultural Backgrounds of the Bible - Paul Wright - JUC)
Comprehensive understanding of the ancient Near eastern culture may be beyond our grasp, however, that does not mean that steps cannot be taken to have a reasonably nuanced understanding of the culture. Besides, for all the differences that exist between our culture and that of the ancients, there is buried within the two a common thread of humanity. This understanding of commonality is touched on by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:19-20 which says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” This passage is normally used theologically to justify the universal perspicuity of God, but a point can be made that it has something to say anthropologically. Once a strand of common humanity is found we can begin to nuance aspects of ancient Israelite culture being manifested within the text.

Another aid in this discussion is the study of the ethnographic present. The ethnographic present is a term used by anthropologists for observing and studying modern people group’s customs and manners in order to understand ancient customs and manners. In the modern Middle East this is accomplished through studying Arab village and Bedouin tent life that may or may not have evolved over the ages.

The family dwellings in the Bible are one of the clearest examples of the vast differences between ancient Israelite culture and modern western culture. The space syntax of the dwellings is of particular interest. The most common dwelling of the Biblical period is the Israelite Four-Room house. King and Stager explain the characteristics of the Israelite four-room house this way,
“The typical Israelite house in the Iron Age was rectilinear and consisted of two, three, or four rooms, entered through a wooden door (analogous to wooden city-gates) from an exterior courtyard. A mud-brick oven for baking and cooking was located in the open courtyard. Two rows of stone pillars separated central, larger room from the two parallel side rooms. These three parallel rooms extended from a perpendicular 'broadroom' running the width of the building. This back room formed on of the main exterior walls of the rectangular house. The entrance to the house was on the short side and led from the exterior courtyard into the larger central room. The broadroom across the back served mainly for storage." [2. Philip King and Lawrence Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 28-29.]

The broad room at the back of the house was also the room where the family would congregate, eat their meals, sleep, procreate, give birth, and hide in times of danger. In reference to the Israelite dwellings Amos 6:10 speaks of shell-shocked Israelites hiding in the “innermost parts of the house.” Psalm 128:3a (NET) also hints at the privacy and intimacy associated with inner most room of the Israelite dwellings by writing, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine in the inner rooms of your house.” The biblical dwellings placed a premium on function over luxury and the space syntax of the dwellings reflect this.

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