SEEK THE CONTEXT: Biblical Texts, Language, Cultural Background & Meaning. Context Changes Everything!

General References in the Bible

General References in the Bible

Everyone knows that translations from one language to another can be misleading and sometimes important ideas and concepts get lost in translation.  When it comes to the Bible that is true as well. As hard as translators work the readers can still misconstrue the meaning of the text. The context becomes extremely valuable in such cases. All too often general references common to English can become the enemies of sound biblical interpretations. Simple words like any, all, every, everything, none, no one, always, never and etc. are very problematic in the Bible. We use such words rhetorically in speech, as exaggerations, as generalizations and most often not in a literal way. General and absolute words like these, when taken at their face value, when reading narrowly, literally and dogmatically, excluding sensible possibilities can make the Bible sound absolutely nonsensical.

Shell Gas Station
Shell Gas Station

On a road trip with my family, I make a stop. I walk into a gas station with my wife and say to her, “I am so thirsty!”. My wife asks, “What do you want to drink, Dear?” I say, “Anything! Please, get me something good”,  as I head for the restroom. I get back to the car and she hands me a quart of engine oil. “You said ‘anything’…” – she smiles at me. Well, I did say “anything” but I meant that “anything” within the scope of normal things I would typically drink. In my general reference, I implied water, juice, soda, lemonade, ice tea or something of that sort. So, yes, a quart of Pennzoil, a bottle of Windex and even some Tabasco Sauce are all liquids. Hypothetically they are all drinkable, but that is not what I meant by “anything”. My “anything” was limited in scope. There are natural contextual limits to interpreting general references like these.

This is a made-up story. It’s ridiculous. But that is exactly what people do with biblical texts and general references. They apply them too broadly! The moral of this story is that we should not build our narrow interpretations and especially theology on the verses with general references such as any, all, everything, never, always, and etc., taking them in the most literal and broadest way. When we do this we are prone to misinterpret and violate the natural and contextual scope of their meaning.

Now think for a moment how many Bible verses you know that use similar general references? I am going to have some fun with Apostle Paul. Warning! I will abuse these verses for the purpose of illustrating the idea…

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) – Wait a minute… has God sinned? Does this include Jesus? Holy Spirit? Angels? Well, it says “all” and that means all, correct? Wait… the context. Maybe “all” does not mean “absolutely all” and perhaps not every time. I think maybe it means “all people”, but why does it say “all”? Confusing… 

“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” (2 Thess 3:10) I see this is simple… Grandpa does not go to work anymore. He says he is old and tired. He worked enough in his life and wants to take it easy now. He is definitely not willing to work, so he should not eat! God’s word says it – I believe it.  And just to think, all this time I have been feeding my kids for nothing. They do not work! They do not want to work. I cannot even make them pick up their toys. Well, it says here “anyone” and that has to be inclusive of all people. Unless “anyone” does not mean “absolutely anyone”, but some specific people who are a part this specific context. Hmm… It’s not that simple.  

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude” (1 Tim 4:4) God created all things good. Interesting… There are some things I have been wondering about. I am not so sure they are good for me, though. Well, Paul says as long as I receive them with gratitude, as long as I am thankful to God who made them, I can go for it. Wow, that’s everything God created! That’s really broad. I love Paul! The verse does say “everything”… but I wonder if “everything” really means “absolutely everything” or only “some things”. What was he talking about? I take it back, I am not so in love with Paul. He confuses me.

Sorry if I pushed my illustrations too far for your taste with these examples. But you saw my warning… You can probably think of a number of similar verses with general references on your own. I hope you see the problem we can create when we push those general references too far. You may have even memorized some Bible passages with general references. So here is the test…

Can you explain the natural context, the topic and the scope of discussion within each of the verses you know by heart? Can you remember the surrounding context? Can you remember the main point of the chapter or section where these verses are located? General words are normal in English and there is nothing wrong with them but we desperately need the context to understand them properly. We need the context in order to not to twist or exaggerate their meaning! Context changes everything…

Pinchas

I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.


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