Knowing the Rules of the Game Sure Helps – Literary Context Surveyed
A couple of years ago while I assisted my friend, Dr. Eric Mitchell, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, with an archaeological survey project at Tel Gezer. That year the soccer world cup series was showing on the Israeli television in our room and across the country of Israel.
It seems all of Israel sat glued to the television watching this soccer event.
I admit I was and I am still mystified by soccer. I do not know the rules and only surmise the aim is to kick the soccer ball into the net to score a point. I recognized some similarities with basketball. Both use a round ball – normally one is white and black/blue while the other is orange. Both have teams with members on them. It appeared that both games allowed their players to dribble the ball to some degree.
But I noticed a few differences. Basketball players dribbled with their hands while the soccer players dribbled with their feet. Only the goalkeeper could use his hands. The basketball team plays with only five players and soccer fields eleven players.
After some research I discovered a difference in positions the players played. Basketball uses three positions: guards, forwards, and centers. Soccer has four positions: a goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders, and forwards. It seems that in soccer the players specialize in either offense or defense while basketball expects the players to excel in both.
Having researched a little about soccer, watching the game means more than it did two or three years ago. I picked up some background context, so I understand some of the skill and strategy used by soccer teams.
The Warning of Ignoring the Rules of Literary Context
Without question if the interpreter ignores the rules of literary context, it is almost certain that he can make it say anything he desires. Cults often ignore the immediate
literary context and create absurd and wrong interpretations. The usually happens when just one verse is highlighted without any awareness or use of the immediate literary context.
Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, humorously illustrate the issue on page 149:
“Consider the example of the young man seeking advice from God Word about whether to ask his girlfriend to marry him. As he dances around the Scriptures, he finds a couple of verses that provide the answer he so desperately wants, with a timetable to boot.
1 Corinthians 7:36c: “They should get married.”
John 13: 27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
The young man sees in the first verse a direct command to get married and in the second, and in the second a timetable – get married now! God has spoken! What keeps us from taking this ridiculous example seriously? Context! Apparently the young man did not bother to read the entire context of 1 Corinthians 7:36c, where the apostle Paul gives advice to engaged men in light of the distressing circumstances in Corinth (notice the italicized portions):
“6 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.”
In light of the situation, Paul explains it would be better not to marry. The phrase “ do what you are going to do quickly is from John 13:27 and refers to Judas who is going to betray Jesus. It has nothing to do with marriage. So, do you feel the young man has any scriptural support to run and get married quickly? Why? Why not?
The Rules of Literary Context
When we approach the literary context of the Bible, we need to remember a few rules. First there are five contextual fields that need to be explored: 1) the immediate literary context, 2) the context of the entire books, 3) the context of other writings by the author (if any exist), 4) the context of the same testament, and 5) the context of the entire Bible. Briefly we will highlight each one and in later blogs, we will elaborate on each field. Our overarching goal is to discover the meaning intended by our author.
The Rule of the immediate literary context
The surrounding context – both before and following the passage or verse under study will exert the most influence. This may be as little as one sentence or as much as several sentences or a paragraph. The goal is to locate the sequence of the idea of your passage with the idea of the immediate surrounding ideas.
The Rule of the context of the entire book
This requires reading the entire book in one setting, possible taking notes as one reads. The reader will want to try to outline the entire book and see how the author connects ideas. The reader should strive to note the theme or purpose of the book, to grasp a basic outline of the book, and should mark passages that address similar ideas as the passage under study.
The Rule of the Other books by the Author
Not every passage will have other books written or attributed to the same writer. If there are other letters, like Paul’s letters, then research those and seek to gain additional insight into how the author addressed the issue of your passage. Make note of similarities and differences.
The Rule of The Rest of the Testament
This assumes the testament contains a unity even though several different authors wrote pars of the testament under review. Since the study of similar passages by the same author has already by discussed, there the goal is to study relevant passages to the one being studied. Are there parallels with our passage?
The Rule of the Entire Bible
The goal is to seek any additional parallel passages related to the original passage under study. Seek to ensure that these passages actually reflect the intended point of the original author’s intended. The essential meanings should correspond if this rule is to be applied.
Do you know of other scriptures that people take out of context? If so, post me a note telling what the scripture is and how people take it out of context. I wonder how many passages we can identify as being interpreted outside of the intended context?
6 thoughts on “Knowing the Rules of the Game Helps!”
K. A. Wypych
I agree that verses can easily be taken out of context! I did a series on approaching Scripture for that reason. Thank you for helping others to understand God’s Word!
Thank you for sharing these five rules of reading a Bible passage. Lots to ponder here in your post!
Useful information! Thank you for sharing.
Dr. Roy Lucas
Thank you Julie for reading and commenting.
Thanks for the reminder. Sometimes we are in such a hurry to hear from God we miss out on what the original meaning really was. Good reminder to slow down.
Oh, the one that drives me crazy is Phil. 4:13. Paul is talking about contentment, but people claim it for all sorts of victory-seeking situations.
Also, I think we need to include historical context in our studies. (Maybe you mention that elsewhere. I just realized this post is solely about literary context.)