Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 1

Noel Weeks
Editors' Note: This is the first of a two-part series on this subject. Part two will be posted next week.

I am sure all Bible readers are confronted at some stage with those enigmatic passages which either seem incomprehensible or so contradictory, either to other parts of Scripture or to common sense, that we feel we are missing something. That often leads to the suspicion: "I must be missing something. Perhaps if I knew the background which led to the writing of this passage, then all would be clear." Many handbooks to the Bible foster that notion that the solution to understanding the Bible lies in a better knowledge of the background. Also, when attacks are made on the historical accuracy of parts of the Bible, we wish we knew more of what went on at the time.

Such hopes are legitimate and often background solves those sorts of problems. Yet it is also true that the expectation that background solves problems, can itself become a problem. It can lead to people thinking they are wasting their time trying to understand the text because only the experts in ancient history know enough background to understand it.

It can also lead to believing wrong interpretations. Ancient History is a human fallible discipline.  Looking back over many years of university teaching of the history of the Ancient Near East, I know of how many incorrect things I taught my students. The balm for my conscience is that I also tried to warn them of the fallibility of scholarship.

With that discouraging introduction, the best thing I can do is to try to explain why historians make mistakes in matters of Bible background. With greater perspective, readers may then be less inclined to accept interpretations which go against the clear sense of the text. 

The Poverty of Background

If you have read books or heard talks that speak about all the light that has been thrown on the biblical text by recent discoveries, then it may surprise you to be told that very little of what archaeologists and historians have discovered in recent years is directly, specifically helpful in understanding the Bible. Often it gives a better feel for the general environment in which the people of God lived, but that is not the same as illuminating a particular verse. 

To understand the problem, we must think about the nature of the biblical text and the nature of recent discoveries, especially those that concern archaeologists and historians. Old Testament background raises different issues than New Testament background, so I will treat them separately.

Old Testament Issues

Imagine that you were digging up a town of the Old Testament period. You come upon the remains of a house. Obviously the Bible mentions houses, but how often is specific information about a house going to be crucial in explaining a biblical text? The things that are most likely to be of use in understanding the Bible will be in written texts; things such as practices, customs and beliefs. 

We have very, very few written texts, outside the Old Testament, coming from Palestine in the Old Testament period. That is because they were written on perishable materials, which have not survived. We have the Bible because it was repeatedly copied and passed down to us. 

By contrast, from other countries where the texts were written on clay (cuneiform writing) there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of texts. Such texts are largely from Iraq (ancient Babylonia and Assyria) and in lesser numbers from Turkey (the Hittites) or Syria. Many texts on stone have survived from Egypt and, because of the dry climate, some on papyrus.

If, from the immediate environment of the Old Testament in Palestine, very little survives, but from other countries, there is a lot of material, what will be the likely result? It will be to treat the material from other cultures as though it is relevant to the Old Testament. And sometimes that will be the case. The problem is that it is not always the case. Thinking through the possible situations may help separate useful background material from false leads.

Paradoxically it is both very common evidence and very specific evidence that will be most helpful. For example a number of countries of the region had a similar climate. Also technological levels were often similar.  Syria and Palestine had similar basic climates dominated by winter rain and summer drought. Hence, agricultural practices will be similar. In Iraq and Egypt agriculture was more dependent on irrigation, so those practices will not be so comparable with the Bible. Though not present in the earlier part of the Bible, the use of the chariot as a weapon of war became quite general in later times. A lot of such practices were present across a wide area. However, those things rarely make us stop and question the text. Thus, there are reasons why Rahab had flax on her roof or why David's men encountered Nabal's shepherds, but such questions tend not to perplex us.  More strictly social customs tend not to be so universal. When Abraham took Hagar the maidservant for bearing a child rather than his wife, he was following a very widely attested practice, but there are not many cases like that.

At the other end of the scale, very specific information can be useful. I am thinking of information on specific foreign kings who come into the biblical record. For example, we have an account of the Assyrian king Sennacherib's attack upon Judah. In using it we have a different problem: can we believe him? In their own inscriptions, no Assyrian king is ever recorded as loosing a battle. When we find a contradiction between the biblical and the Assyrian account, which do we believe?

Beware the Ancient Historian

The last example raises a fundamental issue which is rarely faced. Sennacherib makes various statements but the average Bible student, preacher or even some seminary professor is not reading Sennacherib's text in the original Assyrian script and Babylonian language. Mostly we depend upon the distillation or interpretation of the text given to us by some ancient historian. It is not as though we have an obscure Bible and crystal clear background information. Often it is the reverse. The simple question of whether we can trust Sennacherib has to be dealt with in terms of the tendencies of Assyrian royal texts in general and the more specific tendencies of Sennacherib's own texts. The scholar filtering and interpreting that will probably know that Sennacherib's text conflicts with the biblical account at some points. How he sees that conflict will in turn be influenced by his attitude to the Bible and, in turn, to the God of the Bible. Those of liberal theological persuasion are much more inclined to give credence to other ancient sources over the Bible.

Yet bias can also be less direct. When new texts are found, scholars will unconsciously tend to read them in terms of what they already know. The strange customs of Nuzi, a town in eastern Iraq, were interpreted in terms of the stories of the biblical patriarchs and widely quoted as indicating that the stories of the biblical patriarchs had a genuine historical setting. Yet as we learned more about Nuzi, it became clear that most of those customs were just the peculiarities of Nuzi with nothing to do with the Bible. It would be very strange for a custom to be attested only in one town in eastern Iraq and in the Bible. When the Ebla texts were discovered in northern Syria, a scholar reading an unfamiliar sort of text, thought he saw place names from Genesis. The most charitable explanation is that he was reading in unconsciously what he already knew.

There are also less excusable things that scholars do. The rise of the discipline of the Ancient History of the Old Testament world, overlapped with the rise of evolutionary dogma and Antisemitism. Each had considerable influence. A widespread theory about human evolution was that nomadic herding precedes agriculture. Thus, when the patriarchs are shown as nomadic herders, they must be at a certain evolutionary stage, indeed a similar stage to what we find later with Arab nomadic herders. It follows therefore that they will have the same customs as later Arabs. Scholars realise now that that particular theory of evolution was quite wrong. Nevertheless, the habit persists of trying to interpret the Bible in terms of Arab customs. A trivial example is the insistence that the few biblical references to face veiling can be interpreted in terms of modern Arab/Muslim customs. One example should suffice to show the problem. When Rebecca covered her face to meet Isaac, after going unveiled for the journey to Palestine (Genesis 24:65), was she following modern custom?

In the field of Ancient History, Antisemitism took the form of Pan-Babylonianism. It was argued that the originators of Babylonian culture were the Sumerians who did not speak a Semitic language. The later Israelites appropriated that culture without having the ability to form their own culture. Operative here are anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Jews such as "thieves" and "culturally barren". 

In consequence, biblical stories, such as the creation account, were said to be borrowed from Babylonia. While the ideological roots have been repudiated, a scholarly tradition remains that tries to derive biblical stories from foreign, generally Babylonian, origins. Some more conservative scholars have tried to give this tendency a different focus, arguing as in the case of the creation account, that it was written purely to refute the Babylonian story. The fundamental problem remains of not giving due credit for originality to the biblical authors and the Holy Spirit who inspired them.

Dr Noel Weeks earned a B.Sc. (Honors in Zoology) from the University of New England, Armidale (Australia), a B.D. and Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. (Mediterranean Studies, dealing with some of the Nuzi texts) from Brandeis Univeristy, Massachusetts. He is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Sydney, and is an Associate of their Department of Classics and Ancient History, with an interest in the Ancient Near East, specializing in Mesopotamia and Israel, and the Akkadian Language.