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Growing Up Cultural: Three Ways to Stop Reading Modern Culture into the Bible

Recognizing Cultural Biases

When I was kid growing up in church I used to hear, “the eagle shall overcome the bear.” The meaning was supposed to be that America, the eagle, would defeat Russia, the bear, in war. Many evangelicals latched onto this idea and began espousing it. They were psyched because they believed that the bible was teaching America’s victory against Russia. The major flaw of this idea is twofold:

  1. The phrase is never found anywhere in the bible. No where! The only passage that mentions an eagle and a bear together is found in Daniel 7:3. The actual phrase comes from a “prophecy” of Nostradamus, a 16th century French seer.
  2. America is not found in any biblical prophecy. As a nation we were far from being formed. To think that the apostle John or Daniel, or Ezekiel, or any prophet for that matter, would foresee America as a key player in Scripture is sloppy hermeneutics and a disregard for biblical interpretation as a whole.

So then, why were people trying to interpret Scripture this way? They were interpreting according to their culture rather than the bible’s culture. At the time we were at the height of the Cold War. Couple in the fact that I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church (many are known for their whacky interpretations) and you had a theological molotov cocktail ready to be burned.

But such kinds of interpretations are uncalled for. One only need to be aware of the bible’s culture to make accurate interpretations. Problems arise when we read our own culture into a passage and then insist the interpretation a valid one because it appeals to us. The most important aspect of hermeneutics is observation, which includes understanding the culture as well as cultural nuances.

Safeguarding the Original Culture

How can we keep our own cultural biases from being the dominant factor in interpreting? Here are three key steps we need to take.

  1. Understand the theme & audience of the book. The thematic element of the book is extremely important because many times it ties into the culture of the book. Ruth is a prime example of this. We see many cultural inserts within this short book; the exchanging of sandals to seal a sell, for example, or Ruth laying down at the feet of Boaz during the harvest. One might overlook these seemingly minor things but they can be a great aid in interpretation as a whole.
  2. Invest in bible background books. These types of books dive deep into cultural nuances. Books like Manners and Customs of the BibleThe Cyclopedia of Biblical, Ecclesiastical, and Theological Literature, and the IVP Bible Background series are all excellent tools. Some of them go into great detail about the Near Eastern cultures and customs of biblical times. Most of them are arranged by a subject or alphabetical index so a particular topic can be quickly found.
  3. Don’t say what the text doesn’t say. This is probably the most crucial step as our cultural biases want to immediately take over. Resist the urge to bring the bible into our culture and let the bible remain in its own culture. Genesis 12:1 is good example. I’ve heard many preachers state that Abram disobeyed God because he took his nephew Lot instead of leaving him behind at God’s direction of leaving his kin. However, Abram was the patriarch and in that culture it was his duty to take care of the entire family. In their cultural eyes family was more than immediate family, as we are custom to seeing. Family included all those that were in the extended family as well. Abram, being the oldest, bore the responsibility of the entire family’s well-being.
If we take careful steps in considering he bible’s culture instead of transferring it to our own culture we will avoid the common pitfalls of cultural bias. Of course, the biases will always be there but being aware of them and taking the steps to avoid them will go a long way