An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: The Relationship of Text and Context

Chapter 4 of Reading the Old Testament by Boadt, Herrington, and Clifford, speaks of the oral tradition, higher criticism, lower criticism, form criticism, tradition history, and rhetorical criticism.  There are other biblical tools of ideational analysis as well.  The person who uses these tools to correctly interpret and properly apply the meaning of biblical texts is called an exegete (pronounced ex-ah-jeet).  Her/his efforts are called exegesis (pronounced ex-ah-jee-sis) or is called contextual biblical analysis.

Contextual biblical analysis and application is the opposite of what are called literalism or fundamentalism.  What the literalist or fundamentalist does is impose on a text some preconceived doctrinal or moral ideas to which the literalist or fundamentalist is already attached.  When a person interprets and applies biblical texts through this preconceived ideational haze, that person is called an eisogete (pronounced ice-oh-jeet), and what she or he is doing is called eisogesis (pronounced ice-oh-jee-sis).  The preconceived moral and doctrinal ideas adhered to by the eisogete become an ideational haze through which the eisogete views the text and which necessarily limits his/her understanding of the meaning of that text.

The exegete, using contextual biblical analysis, is attempting to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms, as it was understood by the person who wrote the text and as it was understood by that author’s original intended audience.

Exegesis, contextual biblical analysis, is an offshoot of or manifestation of a phenomenological attitude toward texts.  In phenomenology, a branch of philosophy, one attempts to see the thing/person/event/text as it is in itself.  One uses ideational tools to remove from consideration those extraneous ideas (those eisogetic ideas) which keep one from seeing the thing/person/event/text as it is in itself.  The eidetic reduction performed by phenomenology helps one avoid perceiving/taking-in the thing/person/event/text through a haze of extraneous preconceptions.

Things like maps and timelines, things like information regarding culture and history, give the context of the Bible.  These give us a broader picture, a context, which allows us and helps us understand the passages found in the Bible.

Context helps us understand, and even value, a Bible passage such as that found in the book of Joshua, chapter 6, verses 15 through 21

“On the seventh day, beginning at daybreak, they marched around the city [of Jericho] seven times in the same manner; on that day only did they march around the city seven times.  The seventh time around, the priests blew the horns and Joshua said to the people, “Now shout, for the LORD has given you the city.  The city and everything in it is under the ban [doom].  Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are in the house with her are to live, because she hid the messengers we sent.  But be careful not to covet or take anything that is under the ban; otherwise you will bring upon the camp of Israel this ban and the misery of it.  All silver and gold, and the articles of bronze or iron, are holy to the LORD. They shall be put in the treasury of the LORD.”  As the horns blew, the people began to shout. When they heard the sound of the horn, they raised a tremendous shout. The wall collapsed, and the people attacked the city straight ahead and took it.  They observed the ban by putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and donkeys.”

There are many things which are confusing and troublesome about this passage.  One of the easier conundrums of this passage is that it presents to us the madam of a house of prostitution who will be, with her family, the only resident of Jericho saved.  Another problem for us about this passage is that it indicates Jericho was destroyed at a time when archaeology has definitively shown that the city of Jericho was not destroyed.  But most troubling about this passage, revolting even, is that God commands Israel to commit genocide; the killing of every person, young and old, regardless of gender and physical condition.

Without a knowledge of the context of this passage, many very strange things can be justified by the reader.  Only with a knowledge of the context of this passage can one understand it, and even come to value it.

As we gain some contextual understanding, it becomes possible for us to correctly understand and usefully apply this passage in our homilies and catechesis.  For example, when we learn archaeology has determined Jericho was not destroyed at the time this passage indicates, this helps us in that it indicates God might not have commanded genocide.  However, this contextual fact does not help because it leaves unresolved why the writer of Joshua would have thought it good to depict God as one who commands his people to commit genocide.

Further, contextual investigation is needed.  This investigation can best be done by asking the questions, “During what period, according to this biblical narrative itself, was this genocidal command given?”  The answer is, immediately following Israel’s experience of being in slavery for many generations.  We should also ask the question, “During what periods of Jewish history was this story written?”  The answer to that question is that it was written when Israel was experiencing either the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom or the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom.  We now ask, “What do these real and perhaps mythic events have in common?”  The answer is that the audience to which these words of Joshua were written were themselves experiencing tremendous political oppression.  During these times their own thinking was slavish in many respects.  Like the abused animal, all they could understand was lashing out at any opponent.  In this/these contexts, it makes sense that God would not have delivered the Jesus’ message of “love your enemies”.  At these times in Jewish history, the Jews/Israelites would simply not have been able to understand, and absolutely not able to accept such a message from God.  So, God had to work with this people (or this writer) in the mental and emotional condition in which they actually existed at the time of the writing (at the time of the experience).  God works with people, where they are at.  God does not expect people to be capable of doing what they are not capable of doing.  This is the message of incarnation theology.  God entered the human condition as it is; in its messy potential-filled reality.  As people begin to embrace the message of love, then the morality of the people is elevated.

A text is anything used to communicate meaning.  A text can be a word or words, a book, a picture, a sculpture, a gesture, even music.

Context is that, within which a text is found, and which gives the text its meaning.  A context is made up of the information we get from things such as timelines and maps and commentaries and concordances and dictionaries and atlases and articles from biblical periodicals.

What follows now are some rules about the relationship of text and context.

A text has meaning only within a context.  Or, to say the same thing in a different way, without a context, a text has no meaning.  Without contextual information, not only can we not discover what the meaning of a text is; we cannot even determine if it is a text.  Only with the addition of context can we determine the meaning of the related text

If the context changes, or if our understanding of the the context matures, the meaning of the text will change.

As an example of one’s understanding of a text necessarily changing as one’s understanding of the text’s associate context matures, consider the nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosie:  “Ring around the Rosie, pockets full of poesy.  Ashes, ashes.  We all fall down.”   This is a nice children’s rhyming song, which brings a smile to the child’s face as they dance around the maypole.  But, when for the first time the child or adult learns that the words were formulated during the Black Plague, that smile becomes very sad.  “Ring around the Rosie”—a ring on the cheek, one of the first signs of having contracted the plague.  “Pockets full of posey”; stuffing the pockets with plants and flowers and herbs to ward away the plague.  “Ashes, Ashes”—bodies were burned outside the city, but inevitably, winds blew the ashes back into the city.  “We all fall down”—people literally died as they walked along the street.

But we can control the child’s or adult’s feelings again, by helping them understand a further context of this nursery rhyme—that is, by telling them that the reason this song was created by adults was to help children cope with the horror of the bubonic plague—this song was created as an act of love.  By informing the hearer of this new contextual fact, the nursery rhyme’s meaning (the meaning of the text) is again changed for the hearer; this time from something macabre to something still sad by consoling.

Again, “As one’s understanding of the context changes or matures, the meaning of the text will necessarily change for that person.”

Another interesting corollary of the relationship of text and context is that “whoever controls the context, controls the meaning of the text”.

Also, “a rigid attachment to an inadequate interpretation of a text, reveals a pre-existing attachment to some incorrect contextual assumptions.”

And finally, as was written a number of times by Saint Thomas Aquinas, “Whatever is perceived, is perceived in the manner in which the perceiver perceives it.”

These ideas about the relationship of text and context have practical applications for the homilist and catechist when addressing an audience attached to an inadequate interpretation of some given text.

First, the homilist or catechist must gain an understanding of the contextual assumptions of the intended audience.  This is an applied meaning of Saint Thomas’ “Whatever is perceived is perceived in the manner the perceives perceives it.”  If I want to help an audience gain a better understanding of a given text, my primary focus should not be on getting them to accept my understanding of that text.  Rather, I must first come to understand the contextual understanding out of which the intended audience is perceiving the text.  Once I understand that, I will be better able to formulate and articulate a contextual presentation which will make the intended audience more intellectually flexible.  So first things first; figure out the contextual assumptions of one’s intended audience.

Second, having ascertained the contextual assumptions of my intended audience, I can begin to loosen its rigid attachment to some inadequate understanding and application of a text, by gently asking questions which causes the audience to come face to face with contradictions found in their contextual understandings.  A good place to learn this type of questioning is by reading the Dialogues of Plato in which one is exposed to what are called Socratic questions.  Here one learns how to ask questions which reveal self-contradictory assumptions.

Third and finally, if an audience is particularly rigid in its inadequate understanding and application of a given text, I may have to avoid saying what the correct understanding of the text should be and instead, clearly present the correct contextual facts behind that text.  If a rigid audience’s inadequate understanding of a text is not challenged, the audience might be more open to listening to what the speaker has to say.  If then, the speaker shares with the audience a correct understanding of the context within which the text is found, the audience will not be able to get that context out of their minds.  It becomes like a melody you hear which you cannot get out of your mind.  The audience might for a brief time be open to hearing new ideas about the context in which the given text is found.  As they think about that new understanding of the context, on their own they will begin to discern inadequacies in their textual understanding.  It is at this point that the audience will begin to react and reject almost blindly various things then said by the catechist or homilist.  At this point, the catechist or homilist must not resist its rejection.  In fact, the catechist or homilist should just let the audience articulate its objections.  It might even be good to invite objections.  The reason this is a useful strategy is that the audience’s rejection is evidence the audience understood the matured contextual understanding presented by the catechist or homilist.  Not being able to get this matured contextual description out of their minds, after the catechetical presentation, the audience will begin to mull in their minds the matured context presented them.  This will lead them to a full appreciation of the correct meaning of the associated text; at which point they will choose to accept that meaning or not.

These three practical applications were based on the insight that it is very important for the presentor/speaker to first understand the contextual assumptions under which or out of which his/her intended audience is operating.  The way in which one comes to this understanding is through dialogue.  Hundreds of times in his various writings, Pope Francis has stated the importance of the homilist and catechist to engage in dialogue.


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