Culture, Context, and Kings

A couple weeks ago, I was asked why 1 Kings 10:22 highlights Solomon’s traders brought apes and peacocks to Jerusalem. I love questions like this. It shows that people are reading their Bibles, which is vital to spiritual growth. But more than that, it means they are paying attention to and thinking about what they read.

1 Kings 21 describes Solomon’s great wealth. It tells the story of his trading ships which went all over the Mediterranean trading goods. Once every three years they returned to Jerusalem with various kinds of wealth, including apes and peacocks. These were exotic animals not native to Israel. They were novelties that only the wealthy could afford to enjoy. It is like a wealthy person owning a tiger or some other exotic pet today. It is a sign of wealth and privilege. The many zoos across America filled with animals from other continents point to a similar wealth among us.

This question reminds us how important it is to learn the times and cultures of the Bible. The most recent parts of the Bible were written almost 2000 years ago. The events in 1 Kings 10 took place nearly 3000 years ago. They lived in a very different time and place. Many things they thought, did, and prioritized seem strange to us. If we are to properly understand the Bible, we must become familiar with their culture and times.

One of the principles of sound bible interpretation is asking what did this mean to the original audience? To answer this question, we must know their times, setting, and culture. Only after we understand what the text meant to the original audience can we ask how does this apply to our times, setting, and culture?

This is why the ongoing study of the Bible is important. It takes time to build a catalogue of knowledge about Bible times and cultures. Through intentional study, we gain a working knowledge of these things that greatly aid our understanding of the text. Questions like the one above are healthy because they recognize that something is happening here that I do not understand, but I want to know why! 

Where do we learn about the various times and cultures of the Bible. Things like commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and Bible atlases are helpful tools. There are two resources that I have found particularly helpful.
The first is called Bible Manners & Customs by Howard Vox. I have never read it from cover to cover, but I pull it off the shelf regularly to look up information. It is full of pictures and succinct descriptions of the times, places, and manners of life found in the Bible. It has a great index in the back that helps you find the information you need quickly.
The second is a two-volume work called An Introduction to the Old Testament and An Introduction to the New Testament. These books contain chapters on every book of the Bible, giving important historical and cultural information for each of them. I always read this book before starting a new study on any book of the Bible. The church owns these books, which you are welcome to access. 

Context is king in Bible interpretation. Understanding the culture is vital to understanding the context. The Bible begins to yield its greatest treasures to us when we read it carefully, ask good questions of the text, and then find answers to those questions.