Writing for the Logos Talk blog, Michael Heiser makes an important point about the Bible’s context. When we study the Bible “in context,” we tend to focus on the literary context (surrounding passages) and historical context (what was going on in Israel’s culture at the time).
But another context is just as important, yet often overlooked: The socio-religious context. In other words, what was going on in the surrounding nations at the time? What did those nations believe about their gods and how to serve them, and how does the true God’s revelation to Israel relate or stand out?
The profound contextual overlaps between Israel and her pagan neighbors was a wise theological tactic on God’s part. When divergences in Israel’s theology appear in the text—and there are some dramatic, stark points of contrast—they scream for attention on the part of the ancient reader. Unlike the pagan deities, Israel’s God could not be cajoled like an idol; Yahweh could not be brought down to earth and tamed. Laws about sacrifices were set in specific covenant contexts, giving them a unique theological dimension. Yahweh would rather have faith and loyalty than sacrifice.
We can miss the punch of what the Bible says when we don’t grapple with how it would have sounded to the ancients in their social context. Heiser gives a number of examples of the similarities and differences that help our interpretation.