Thursday, September 25, 2014

How does understanding the political, cultural, and geographical context of 1st century Israel help us better understand New Testament scriptures?

Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us
1.    To understand passages in the New Testament that would have otherwise make little sense
2.    To have a greater appreciation of the depth and richness of passages in NT
3.    To see the continuity of the story of God’s interactions with His people from the end of the OT to the beginning of the NT
1. Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us to understand passages in the New Testament that would have otherwise make little sense
For example, in John 4, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, He was leaving Judea and heading towards Galilee. And He said that He must go through Samaria.

Without a proper understanding of the geographical as well as the political background of these regions, Judea, Samaria and Galilee, this passage makes little sense. Galilee was the northern region of Israel and Judea was the southern region. Samaria was the region in between of Galilee in the north and Judea in the south.

Historically, after the reign of Solomon, Israel was weak. This was because, as 1 King 11:1-13 says, Solomon broke God’s commandment by taking in multiple foreign wives and concubines, although God has clearly said to the Israelites in Deut 17:17 that they must not intermarry with foreign wives, nor they with them as they surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods. This led to the break up of the nation of Israel into the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom and the two tribes of the Southern kingdom. All kings of the Northern Kingdom were wicked and they practiced syncretism. They easily accepted pagan worship and failed to be faithful to God despite repeated warnings from prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. 2 Kings 17:7-36 describes the reasons for God’s anger so much so that God decided to send the Assyrian army as “the rod of His anger” (Isa 10:5) to invade the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.

When the Assyrian took over, their strategy to ensure that the Israelites would not revolt was to deport a large number of Israelites from Israel while leaving some of them in Israel; and in return, brought in a large number of non-Jews into Israel to intermarry with the Jews. As a result, a mixed race was brought up known as the Samaritans as many of them settled in the capital city of Northern Kingdom, Samaria. As a result of their syncretism practices, many of the Israelites did not consider them as part of the Jews but rather, considered them heretical.

Because the temple in Jerusalem was located in the Southern kingdom, the Samaritans could not go to Jerusalem to worship God. Also, when the Israelites from the Southern kingdom later returned from the Babylonian captivity, Babylon, they refused to allow the Samaritans to assist in rebuilding Jerusalem (Ezr 4:1-4; Neh 2:19-20; Neh 13:28). As a result, the Samaritans set up an alternative temple at Mount Gerizim, the place where the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place.  By the time of Christ, the tension between the Jews and the Samaritans was so strong that they would avoid each other as much as possible. Therefore, a Jew who travelled from Judea to Galilee may avoid passing through the town of Samaria. Instead, he may travel through Perea on the east to Galilee.

But if we understand the geography of the land of Israel, the land is divided into four longitudinal strips: the coastal plain, the hill country, and the Jordan valley and transjordanian plateau. In order for a Jew to detour to Perea, he had to go through the mountainous route to the other side of the Jordan valley. Yet, because of the strained relationship between a Jew and a Samaritan, a Jew may be willing to take this tougher route. Not so with Jesus. Furthermore, according to the Jewish culture of the day, a Jewish man does not speak to a woman in public, let alone a Samaritan.

He breaks down barriers. His gospel penetrates to all men, regardless of race, status and nations. This is accomplished later on by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Philip to the Samaritans in Acts 8.

2. Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us to have a greater appreciation of the depth and richness of passages in NT

One of the most popular parables in the bible is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. But to have a greater appreciation of this story, we would need to understand the cultural background of the first century Jewish people.

First of all, for a younger son to demand the father to give him his inheritance while the father was still alive is a strange request. This is because according to the Jewish culture, the inheritance would not be given to the sons until the father pass away. Demanding for inheritance while the father is still alive is akin to wishing the father dead!

Furthermore, according to the first century Jewish custom, a Middle eastern man never ran! Matthew Williams explains:

“If he [the Middle eastern man] were to run, he would have to hitch up his tunic so he would not trip. If he did this, it would show his bare legs. In that culture, it was humiliating and shameful for a man to show his bare legs.

Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & the Prodigal, explains that if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony, called the kezazah. They would break a large pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!” The community would totally reject him.”

Matthew further explains that probably the father ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village. By doing so, two consequences occur:

1.    First the father would have humiliated himself by exposing his bare legs and doing something, which was unconventional at that time – run! This would have to be a decided action by the father.

2.    But secondly, by doing so, he would have prevented his son from the humiliation. He got his son before the community gets to him, so that the community would not have performed the kezazah ceremony – a permanent rejection of the son. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son.

Isn’t that the bible says, “We love Him because He first loved us. (1Jn 4:19 NKJV)”?

3. Understanding the political, cultural and geographical context of the 1st century Israel helps us see the continuity of the story of God’s interactions with His people from the end of the OT to the beginning of the NT

From the close of the OT to the beginning of the NT is a long period of 400 years.
But when we open the NT, we see King Herod coming into the picture. Who was he? Why was he governing Israel? Was he a Jew? Or was he a Roman?

During this period of time, a lot of events had happened. Firstly, after the Persian period where King Cyrus permitted Jews to return to their homeland, came the Greeks primarily through the conquest of Alexander the Great. During this time, the Greeks intended to spread their Hellenistic culture including the Greek language far and wide. Unfortunately, Alexander died young; and after him, the empire was divided into four areas among his four generals. Israel was then controlled by the Egyptian Ptolemies. Later on, the Syrian Seleucid gained control over Israel. The Seleucids attempted to spread Hellenism throughout their empire. The Jews were forbidden to practice their religion and the temple in Jerusalem was turned into a pagan shrine. This led to Mattathias and his five sons to revolt. After the death of Mattathias, the leadership was left to one of his sons, Maccabeus. This eventually led to a short period of Jewish independence known as the Maccabean period. Later on, unfortunately, the Maccabean rulers became progressively dictatorial, corrupt, immoral and even pagan. Internal strife led to Jewish people asking Roman general Pompey to come and restore order. Pompey did so, but along with that he also brought in Roman rule.

Towards the end of the Maccabean period, Antipater, the father of Herod the Great, emerged. Antipater was an Idumean. Idumea was the territory just south of Palestine. This was the home of the Edomites. Edom or Esau (Gen 25:29-30) was the brother of Jacob; and therefore, the Jews never regarded the Idumeans including Antipater and Herod the Great as pure Jews. Jews viewed them as pagans. But Antipater capitalized on the chaotic situation at that time when the Maccabean rulers were weak and convinced the Romans to allow his son, Herod the Great to rule over Israel when Pompey took over this nation. This was the “King” Herod who came into the scene in Matthew 2 who ordered for all male babies aged 2 years and below to be killed as he was threatened by the one born King of the Jews (Matt 2:2)

Tenney, Merrill C., and Walter M. Dunnett. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1985

Williams, William C., and Stanley M. Horton. They Spoke from God: A Survey of the Old Testament. Springfield, MO: Logion/Gospel Pub. House, 2003

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Williams, Matthew. The Prodigal’s Father Shouldn’t Have Run. In: Q Ideas website. Available at URL: Accessed on 27 August 2014.

Grudem, Wayne A., C. John Collins, and Thomas R. Schreiner. Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

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