Reading in context of culture

June 4, 2014 

Words only have meaning in context. Without a context words can mean anything. The biggest context of the Hebrew Scripture is cultural context. The Hebrew Scripture was written in a culture entirely different than the Western culture most of us have known.

For instance, I can use three different idioms of Western culture to speak of someone’s death. I can say “he kicked the bucket,” “he bought the farm” or “he’s pushing up daisies,” all which are not being used literally but figuratively based on Western culture. A foreigner listening to these idioms would be lost trying to understand their meaning even if they could understand the words “kick” and “bucket.” Growing up, I heard the famous Yankee Doodle song which says, “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his hat, and called it macaroni.” Macaroni? What in the world does pasta noodles, usually eaten with cheese, have to do with “sticking a feather in your hat?” The word “macaroni” during the time of the revolutionary war meant a “fine looking garment.” The word “macaroni” had a cultural meaning to the British it does not have in the American language today.

There’s a story (urban legend) that a farmer’s daughter dressed up the revolutionary soldiers hats by placing chicken feathers in them. The culture of the Hebrew Scripture is the Ancient Near East and within our Bibles there are a lot of “macaroni” words that mean one thing in our culture but are very different from the culture they were originally spoken. Let’s take a look at some words from the Hebrew Scripture to see this phenom in the text.

In English language, the word “remember” means calling to mind that which you have forgotten. If someone asks you, “do you remember me?”, they are telling you that you have met them before and should know them based on past encounter. Since we are finite humans with failing memories, we often forget things and people we are supposed to remember. What happens when we see the Hebrew Scripture say that Yhvh “remembered” someone. Does G-d have a faulty memory like me? Does G-d scratch His head trying to recall memories He’s forgotten?

Short answer: No! In Hebrew, the word “remember,” when used of G-d, is alerting us to G-d’s action on behalf of covenant promises. When “remember” is used of G-d, it’s not a passive mental exercise but a move of action on behalf of His people. In Genesis 30:22, we are told that “G-d remembered Rachel” and gave her a son. In Genesis 40:14, Joseph asks the cupbearer to “remember me” when restored to Pharoah’s presence. Joseph is not asking for the cupbearer to have nice thoughts about Joseph, but rather to do something on Joseph’s behalf to get him out of prison. In Luke 23:42, one of the men crucified with Yeshua says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here again the word “remember” means “act on my behalf to bring me deliverance.”

Earlier I mentioned several English idioms that a foreigner to this country would have difficulty unraveling if the words are taken literally. Let’s take a look at a Hebraic idiom from the Hebrew Scripture that also makes it’s way in the Apostolic Scripture. In the Hebrew culture, to say a person had a “good eye” meant they were generous, while having a “bad eye” meant they were stingy. For examples of this idiom, look at Proverbs 22:9, 23:6 and 28:22. In Matthew 6:22, if one has a “good eye,” his whole body is full of light, but conversely to have a “bad eye” means the body will be full of darkness. The context of Matthew 6:19 and following is about wealth distribution and the Hebraic idiom of “good eye” and “bad eye” is used to speak about generosity and stinginess with regard to wealth. Many translations stumble all over these idioms, as they are unaware of the Hebraic background and cultural idioms.

Everyone knows heaven is a place up beyond the clouds where G-d lives, right? Well there are other ways the word “heaven” can be used in the Hebrew Scripture (and Apostolic Scripture). In Daniel 4:26, the word “heaven” is a circumlocution or evasive synonym for G-d. Within the Gospel narratives we find the Kingdom of G-d and the Kingdom of Heaven. There are not two Kingdoms, as the Kingdom of Heaven is just another way of saying Kingdom of G-d. In the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:18), the returning son says he has sinned against “heaven,” where the word “heaven” is another way of saying G-d. Without a Hebraic cultural understanding that heaven can be used to refer to G-d, we can be easily confused or miss the import of the text.

We could demonstrate many times over that without understanding a word in its cultural context, we will miss the meaning. If we think “macaroni” is a pasta noodle when it’s really something else, then the song will make no sense and we are left in the dark. With the little song it might not matter, but when it comes to the Biblical text and the words G-d is using, it makes all the difference.

On Faith columnist Brent Emery can be reached by email at

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