The lifestyle of Samuel the prophet and the importance of Biblical culture - Part One
Understanding that one needs to appreciate and learn more about the culture of the Bible is one lesson that I continue to learn even though I am fast approaching age 50.
The Bible is specifically a part of Eastern Mediterranean Hebraic culture. Those who acknowledge this and attempt to place themselves closer or into this Easter Mediterranean Hebraic culture have a big advantage over those who don't.
Why is this important?
Why should it matter? Why should we care? What difference does it make? In fact, it matters a lot, we should care and it makes big differences. This is because if we do not acculturate ourselves to the cultural environment that the Bible emerged from, what are the chances that we can be sure we accurately understand the true meaning of what we are reading?
“Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30 ESV)
This question is one we all have to ask ourselves and it is one I find myself often pondering. The fact is, the Bible is often cryptic, secretive, terse, disconnected from our time and space and just plain hard to understand sometimes.
I am not alone in this assertion. This is exactly the question that St. Philip asked the Ethiopian Eunuch some 2,000 years ago. He asked him "Do you understand what you are reading?" We all know the answer. The Eunuch did not understand and he said to St. Philip: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him." (Acts 8:31 ESV) The Ethiopian Eunuch needed help to understand.
There are many ways to learn about Scripture
This story of the Ethiopian Eunuch illustrates a point and it shows that there are many ways one can increase one's connection to Biblical culture. Being guided by someone who knows more than you do is one way.
Another way is to study and learn on your own. For example, Jesus taught us using a type of parable in Luke 9:62: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Now I can assure you that I have never even touched an actual plow, have no green thumbs and can count on one hand the number of times I have seen someone actually operating a plow, but I know that in studying this matter through reading books (by Professor Oded Borowski, for example) about ancient agriculture in the Holy Land, there is an important lesson here for us.
Ancient plows in this part of the world were operated with one hand (note Jesus used the 'singular' tense) holding the plow with the other hand free to hold a goad for the animal or the reins which controlled the movement of the animal pulling the plow. One had to take care to pay attention to what was taking place in front of them because if they did not do that, they risked running into a rock or some other obstruction which could break the plow head, which was strenuously to be avoided. Breaking a plow head was a serious error and looking backwards at the wrong time was one way that one could break a plow head.
So, Jesus here teaches us using a well-known principle in his own time in an agricultural context and using an expression and a comparison that people in his day would have been well aware of to illustrate a point. The point is, however, if you don't think this one through or get some guidance on what the meaning behind this parable is, it is going to just go right over your head. Only after studying this one through and learning about it did I finally see the meaning here.
Another way to learn is by observation. Here I have to admit a little advantage living in Jerusalem because where I live, the very hills and valleys, roads, vegetation, animals, etc. all can teach us about Biblical culture. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. Let me give a small example.
I’ve taken a great interest of late in one volume that was given to me by my Dad and it has become quite special to me as you might imagine. It is “The MacMillan Bible Atlas” by Aharoni and Avi-Yonah. Dad had the habit of making notes in the books that he had and this one is no exception.
In looking at this book recently in studying a really hard period which interests me greatly (that of the period of Samuel, Saul and the early Davidic period), I came across a text which I wish to share with you and when I saw it, I was really amazed. Only since I moved permanently to Israel in 2001 did I really begin to appreciate this book and before that time, this text was basically meaningless.
You know, one of the things that those of us who study the Bible must realize is that we have to use a variety of tools at our disposal when it comes to Biblical interpretation and understanding. When the Bible is not so clear on issues, you have to study the matter through carefully, but you can also use your intellect and try to piece together individual pieces to a puzzling question or an issue where the Scriptures do not have too much to say about a specific subject. This is where knowledge of the sciences (like meteorology, botany, zoology or geology), archaeology or especially geography are really quite important because with knowledge in these areas, we can help ourselves to understandings of Scriptures which are not always so clearly presented, but they are there for us waiting if we will only dig a little bit beneath the surface or do a bit of "fill in the blanks" using good tools to help us learn about Biblical culture. That is one of the things that I noted on this recent examination of this book I am referring to here.
Continued in Part Two - For more information, please feel free to write me: firstname.lastname@example.org