Culture's Role in Writing Scripture

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

I have heard that biblical writers were heavily influenced by their cultural backgrounds when writing the Bible. To what extent is that true, and how does it affect the revelation and inspiration of the Bible?

It is difficult to answer that question briefly, but let me make some suggestions. Archaeological discoveries make it impossible to deny that there are significant parallels between the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern social institutions and religious ideas and practices. However, we must not exaggerate those similarities and conclude that the prophets were simply products of their social and religious environment. The biblical text avows that God Himself used that which was accessible to them to convey a special message to His people.

A study of ancient Near Eastern practices and their possible relationship to the biblical text suggests that in the Old Testament God dealt with ancient pagan practices in different ways:

1. Rejection and Condemnation of Pagan Ideas: God rejected a number of ancient Near Eastern practices because they were totally incompatible with His character and His will for His people. For instance, consulting the spirit of the dead was a common religious act that God rejected (Deut. 18:10, 11). He also condemned child sacrifice (Lev. 20:1). The list could be lengthened, but it is clear that the prophets were informed about the religious practices of the surrounding nations and that through them God rejected most of those religious convictions and practices.

2. Polemics Against Pagan Ideas: At times God used the prophets to engage in polemical attacks against some of the religious practices and beliefs of their neighbors. God gave a specific command against the worship of images, but He also employed a polemical tone in order to demonstrate the absurdity of worshiping idols (Isa. 46:6, 7). Hosea entered into a polemic against Canaanite fertility rituals. According to him it was God, not Baal, who out of covenant love sent the rain, fertilized the land, and blessed His people (Hosea 2:5, 8). It was not necessary for the Israelites to perform fertility rites in order for the Lord to bless the land, the animals, and His people.

3. Adaptation of Social Practices: Sometimes God took over what was not Israelite and adapted it to the theocracy. A good example is kingship. In Egypt the king was considered divine, and in most of the ancient Near East he was placed very close to the divine (or divinized after death). In Israel the king was the servant of the Lord, a vassal of Yahweh, the true king of Israel. The ancient Near Eastern concept of the king was redefined in order to make it compatible with Israelite faith. In other cases God tolerated some evil social practices, but through legislation adapted them to the covenant life by making them more humane (e.g., slavery, polygamy). God did not totally uproot Israel from its ancient Near Eastern cultural environment.

4. Incorporation of Different Materials and Literary Technics: A study of legal materials found in the Old Testament suggests that God selected some legal practices from the ancient Near East that were compatible with the values and principles of the covenant. In Proverbs we have a collection of wise sayings by an author who may not have been an Israelite. Yet the biblical writer, under the inspiration of the Spirit, incorporated them into the book (Prov. 30:1-33; cf. 31:1-9). Literary techniques and forms used in Canaanite literature were also used by the prophets to communicate the message the Lord gave them.

By carefully studying each particular parallel, we can determine which one of the previous four reactions to ancient Near Eastern practices is present in the biblical text. The meaning of a text, then, is determined by its context, because it is only there that we are informed about the way God used the ancient Near East background. By acknowledging that God was directly involved in the process of rejection, polemic, adaptation, and incorporation, we can honor the divine nature of inspiration and justify the need to submit to Scripture’s authority.