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Observation: Historical/Cultural Issues February 10, 2010

Posted by TJ Friend in Observation, OICA.
Tags: , , ,

Hello. Last week we talked about looking for specific words to help understand a passage better. Today, I want to talk about some other things to look for when you are trying to study a text. The Bible was written thousands of years ago to people with a different culture and worldview. One of the hardest tasks of exegesis is bridging the “gap” from their culture and time to our present culture. Although the Bible is applicable to us, it was written to an audience radically different than our own. If we are going to have any hope of understanding the message of a text we must try to understand it in light of its originally context in history.

Because this is still the observation stage, it is not necessary to figure everything out in regards to these issues. It is important to be aware of what they are and write them down. As you are reading through a text look for anything that relates to the history or culture of the time back then. Often, there are common things for us that were different back then. Here is a list of some of the things to look for:


Musical instruments


Articles of clothing – sandals, robes, armor, belts

Food – wine, salt, meat


Animals and their uses

Family roles (mother, father, son, slaves)

Professions – teacher, fisherman, shepherd, king, carpenter, farmer, rabbi, tent-maker, scribe, inn-keeper, guard, average wage

Customs – weddings, hospitality, feasts, laws, education, strangers, religious practices (sacrifice), governmental structures, jails/punishments, widows, cooking, inheritance/first-born, divorce, baptism

Travel – roads, inns

Money/currency and bartering

Beliefs – afterlife, monotheism vs. polytheism, idols

Housing – size, occupancy, cities, gates, what are they made of, roofs

Spices/minerals – gold, myrrh, perfume, oils, incense


These are just a few of the things to look for. Hopefully, this will give you an idea of the kinds of things to make note of. Also, make note of any historical figures or geographic locations. If there is a famous king or specific location named, mark that down. If you have a Bible atlas (or a map in your Bible), you can look at the area and check out the landscape and terrain. Sometimes, just knowing the geography of a region can help out a lot in understanding a passage. Some famous people, especially the kings, are documented historically and it is possible to learn more about them and their conquests.

Because this is still the observation stage, there is no need to look up information on any of these issues. The important thing is just to write them down so you can study them later. But, as you read your passage, you may come across information in the text that the author put in the text to help out the reader. If the author goes out of his way to explain something cultural this is important. You can also get clues from the text as to some of the cultural practices of the day.

One good thing about studying cultural/historical issues is that they are pretty much standard. Once you understand an issue, it is going to be basically the same when you come across it again in a different context. So, the more you study and understand about the cultural issues, the easier it will be to study future passages because there will be less to look up.


Think back to the year 1910. How has America changed in the past one-hundred years? What do you think life will be like in 2110? It is difficult to relate to our own society with only a 100 year difference in time. How can we expect to relate to a culture on the other side of the world, from over 2000 years ago.



1. Interpretation: Cultural Studies « How to Study the Bible - April 7, 2010

[…] have too much to say on this topic, as I have already said a lot about historical/cultural studies here. Today, I would like to finish up the discussion on these cultural studies. In the Observation step […]

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