The Bible is not a theology book, although it clearly speaks to theological issues. Neither is it a book of fiction, even though it contains some of the most fascinating stories ever written. The Bible is a collection of books, sermons, poems, letters, and other types of literature that all contribute to a grand, divine narrative. The important thing to understand about this amazing book is that it was written in the context of real Bible history and, more times than not, spoke to events taking place in that real history.
Interpreting in the Context of Bible History
As a result of this intense and real historical context, the Bible MUST be understood and interpreted within that historical context. Without that context, we will almost always spiritualize its content and turn its numerous stories into fables that simply tell us how to live. Such mishandling of God’s Word surely grieves Him.
That means any serious student of the Bible MUST give attention to its historical context. This is not always easy, however, because the historical context was always changing then just as it is always changing now. Every text of the Bible “lives” within a specific historical context that may be quite different from another text. When we remove a text from its historical context, it’s like trying to place a kidney where a lung belongs if not removing it entirely and tossing it in the garbage. Let me give you an example.
The Book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament, consisting of only 21 verses in a single chapter. The first half of verse 16 reads… “As you have drunk on My holy mountain, so all the nations will drink continually.” I would challenge anyone to accurately understand this sentence without its historical context. But, get the history and you’ll get the text…
Not long after Babylon conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem (God’s “holy mountain”) in 587 BC, Edom (the descendants of Esau) took advantage of the survivors’ weakened state by pillaging, attacking, and killing them in the aftermath of Babylon’s victory. At some point, a group of Edomites entered into Jerusalem and threw a party celebrating Judah’s defeat. Apparently they opened a keg (to use today’s terminology) and literally drank on God’s “holy mountain.”
Not long after that, Obadiah was preaching to the Hebrew survivors to encourage them. As part of his sermon, Obadiah prophesied against the Edomites… “As you have drunk on my holy mountain, so all the nations will drink continually.” In this prophecy, Obadiah was declaring that a day was coming when Edom would experience the same fate at the hands of other nations. Just as they had partied in celebration of Jerusalem’s destruction, so someday others would party and celebrate their destruction. We know from history that Edom has now disappeared. Understanding the historical context turns the light on when it comes to this text.
Start With The Basics
So, where do we start? Sunday School Zone has created a number of free items that can help any teacher (or student) begin to understand the basic history of the Bible. More items will be coming. I would encourage you to start with the free, printable Bible timeline that can easily be printed and assembled in a matter of minutes. There’s also a single-page handout that makes it easy for the individual to study the timeline.
As you find yourself listening to a sermon, participating in a Bible study, or preparing to teach a children’s Bible class, take a few moments to determine where the story belongs on the timeline. Consider the events that took place before and after the event you’re studying. Before long you’ll begin thinking differently about the text (and the Bible as a whole) because you’ll begin to naturally place every story in its appropriate historical context.
You’ll be amazed at how this will revolutionize your Bible teaching and preparation. Don’t dismiss the Bible’s history. It will unlock treasure boxes of insight from this amazing Book!
Author, Speaker, Bible Teacher
See a list of other articles by Rick Edwards.