On an Appropriate Use of Background Studies for Biblical Interpretation

A co-laborer in a sister denomination (CanRC), Rev. Dr. Wes Bradenhoff, wrote an interesting post yesterday about John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 and I wanted to write a follow-up to it, not so much a post registering any disagreement with Wes, but more a “yes, although also …” type of post. I thought I’d use his post as a jumping-off point for some musings about the role of the comparative method in conservative and confessional biblical studies.

Wes raises an interesting point about the use of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies in interpretation of the Old Testament. This is called the “comparative method” and was perhaps made most famously practiced by the late William Albright. Wes writes: “The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies or the Hebrew language.”

Now on the one hand, this is entirely true. God’s word is indeed clear and perspicuous, even though not all parts of it are equally clear. Anyone looking to know how they are to escape God’s wrath will readily and easily discern from scripture who the Messiah is and what they must do to be saved. They do not need to study Hebrew, purchase James Monson’s topo maps, or read the Amarna Letters to know the gospel or, for that matter, anything else necessary for saving knowledge of Christ.

And yet this truth can also be nuanced. You see, language is a cultural phenomena. Analogies, imagery, genre, and the like, though often shared between cultural systems, do not always contain significant overlap. Along these lines, in his book, The Lost World of Genesis 1, Walton writes: “Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully” (pg. 9; emphasis added). (As a note, I found this book to contain some helpful observations, even though I personally do not find his overall schema to be a convincing interpretation of Gen 1-2.)

For example, unless we know something of ancient customs and culture, expressions like “put your hand under my thigh” (Gen 24:2) or the definition of a word as common as bamah (often translated as “high place”) will not be readily apparent. When we hear the expression “from Dan to Beersheba,” the import of this phrase is not very apparent unless we look at a map to see where those sites are located (i.e., in the far north and south of the united kingdom). Someone recently told me that it was only by going and standing on the top of Mt. Carmel in Israel that he came to fully appreciate just how visible were the events of 1 Kings 18 for miles and miles around!

Thus while background in the ANE or the Hebrew language is not necessary for some things, it is necessary for other things. In light of this, study of ancient cultures and languages is an important endeavor, not only for ministers, but for lay-people as well. And yet in our study of the ancient world, we must also be careful not to set up a “priesthood of scholars” who mediate for us the purportedly “true” meaning of God’s word. The essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ is entirely perspicuous. For that we need only “take up and read” (to cite the famous words of Augustine).

I have found it interesting, however, how instinctively we seek out cultural backgrounds in most of our reading, especially in our reading of the New Testament. Think of how many sermons describe ancient Jewish beliefs and customs so that hearers can more fully appreciate Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and Sadducees. These background studies also shed light on Jesus’ instructions to the Jewish audiences who heard him preach and teach. And while these inquiries do not magically unlock any salvific meaning of Jesus’ words, they do give us fuller understanding of those words unto his praise and glory.

I am not a dispensationalist and therefore a literal interpretation of scripture has never been a grab for me, at least without qualification about what the word “literal” means. (See this post for Kevin Vanhoozer’s “thick” understanding of the idea of literal interpretation.) In light of this, it is ironic that in my own thinking, ANE background studies are what have drawn me back toward viewing Genesis 1 as describing a week of sequential 24-hour days.

When studying the Keret and Aqhat epics, two narrative poetic texts from ancient Ugarit, I was struck by the fact that the trope “x, x+1” occurs so frequently.  (Sometimes this is even described as “6 days + 1 day,” other times simply as a duration of 7 days or years.) As I reflected upon the commonality of this temporal sequence, and began to consider biblical texts which also utilize it, discomfort I used to feel about viewing the creation days in Genesis 1 in the traditional, sequential way began to fade. Thus ironically, I felt I was better able to take the Bible on its own terms by seeing what those terms were in relation to other ancient literature.

And so it is both possible and advisable to uphold the importance of the analogia fide and the perspicuity of scripture, while also pursuing the benefits of studying the historical and cultural settings wherein the Bible was originally written. Such studies do not necessitate a plunge into liberalism. Instead, they can allow us to get a fuller picture of what is going on in the biblical text. Though John Walton’s work as it relates to Genesis 1 should not be used whole cloth, he does perform a wonderful service by drawing attention to things like temple imagery and accompanying motifs in Genesis 1-2.

Thanks to Wes for an interesting post which has served as the occasion for me to muse a bit about the role of background studies in biblical interpretation. At his recommendation, I also purchased Paulin Bedard’s book, In Six Days, and hope for a chance to review it on this blog sometime in the future. Though I think E.J. Young’s Studies in Genesis One is a more measured treatment of the creation account, I do appreciate many of Bedard’s exegetical observations.

If you haven’t seen Wes’ blog YINKAHDINAY, make sure to check it out!

Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

7 thoughts on “On an Appropriate Use of Background Studies for Biblical Interpretation”

  1. What a terrific proposal. I agree that the further I have studied ANE culture and literature I have been impacted by the literal (literariness) of the texts of the Hebrew scriptures particularly with regard to the opening chapters of Genesis.


  2. I too agree wholeheartedly with the above comment. As an instructor in the area of Science, Creation, and the Bible, with a background in biblical and ancient languages, your proposal is a breath of fresh air. I appreciate your posting. Keep up the great work!


    1. Nothing scientific, it just seems regular in the texts. Perhaps I should have worded it differently though. (I just edited the post above to reflect the comment below a bit better. I don’t want to be overstating anything here.)

      I see numerous examples of the formula “x, x+1” which happens in relation to quantity of time and objects (perhaps even actions, I can’t remember off hand). Several of these are examples of doing something for 6 days which culminate in a different action on the 7th day. Other times, these are just 7 days of something (or until something). (This is often the case in the Old Testament, less so in Kirta and Aqhat.)

      I was doing some research a few years ago about graded numerical sayings, mostly going off the article by WMW Roth from 1962, and tried to mark every time I came across one. It didn’t turn into a paper, but the trope “x, x+1” and the number 7 with regard to time just seemed so prevalent.


      1. Hey Andrew, I read that the Mesopotamians had sabattu similar to the sabbath. What do you think of that? Wenham believes they may have borrow it from the Mesopotamians.


        1. Hi Trent,

          I’m not really up on the debate. I skimmed Tammi Schneider’s new book on Mesopotamian religion, and she doesn’t mention weekly festivals like sabbath. Von Soden’s short book on the Ancient Orient is the same.

          Richard Hess, however, notes an Akkadian “shappatu” festival, which was reckoned according to the lunar calendar. Looks like it happened on the 15th day of the month. There are also Babylonian texts that note rituals happening on the 8th and 15th days of the month, but this isn’t really analogous to the regular observation of the 7th day. (Hess, “Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey,” pgs. 166-167.)

          Basically, Hess is saying it is unclear if there are any ANE parallels to the Sabbath. My thought would be that if we could find a parallel, that would be a nice illustration of the fact that mankind has these historical memories of Adamic traditions that have been warped and mutated over time. Sort of like the “tree of life” and “flood” stories that occur outside the Bible in modified forms.

          (PS: I’d be interested to read Wenham’s treatment though – where did you find that?)


  3. Thanks for responding. I found Wenham not saying this himself but John Lennox saying he did in Seven Days that Divide the world and I took his word for it (that Wenham said it) he gave a footnote citing his Genesis commentary.


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