The Bible was written in a Middle Eastern context for an original audience of Middle Eastern hearers. It’s important therefore to understand some key aspects of the Middle Eastern mindset in order to understand what the Bible is telling us.
- Zoom out approach: looking at it from the wider perspective
Grand Narratives: All Middle Eastern nations have grand narratives. These are the accepted history of their origins and of their identities as a people and as an ethnic group. It answers questions these cultures ask: question about who they are, where they come from, where they fit, their purpose and where they are heading. It combines both genealogy (answering questions of origin) and sagas (stories of cultural heroes). This same understanding of a cultural grand narrative is in the mind of the Biblical writers as well.
Personage: In light of these cultural sages, the various characters that feature in them are seen as models for value and behaviour. The writers of the Bible had these ideas in mind and wrote to serve this purpose.
Story Structuring: The Bible is a combination of stories of different sizes. If it’s a big or long story, it’s considered meaningful and weighty; if it’s a little story, the converse is true. Furthermore, the grand narrative and sub-stories combine in dualistic ways. The Bible is full of “twos”: heaven and earth, light and darkness, male and female, and the like. Even the structure of the narrative themselves often feature dualistic ups and downs.
Social Group: For Middle Eastern people, the social group is considered more important than the individual. Personal achievements are good, but only if they serve the community. Joseph is a powerful example of this. His ascension to leadership in Israel was not good in and of itself, but was seen as particularly good because of the benefits it afforded Jacob’s sons and future generations.
Honour and shame: The Middle East is largely an honour-shame culture, so themes of honour and shame can be detected easily on the pages of Scripture. Mark 5 contains an account of Jairus, a synagogue leader, who came to Jesus and asked Him to heal his daughter. A sub-story of a bleeding women emerges in this account. The bleeding woman touches Jesus and He heals her. But, the important aspect of this is not simply honouring the great faith she had. As she is honoured and called “daughter” by Jesus, Jairus is shamed as a synagogue leader who did not advocate for this woman who had suffered for more than a decade, caring only for his own literal daughter.
- Zoom in approach: looking at the smaller details
Names and numbers are important: Numbers are always rounded up or down for significance. The account described in Mark 5 does this: connecting Jairus’s daughter and the suffering woman by the number 12 (the daughter’s age and the length of the woman’s suffering). The practice of naming is also incredibly important in the Middle East. God certainly wasn’t afraid to change people’s names in order to give them a different meaning. If a name isn’t translated, it is always a good practice to research its meaning as it will likely be connected to the meaning of the story. In terms of honour and shame, if the name of someone is in the story, it’s honouring them; if it’s excluded, there is likely a reason for this. The parable told by Jesus of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is an excellent example of this.
Addressing and approach is important: In Genesis 18, the angels ask Abraham where Sarah was. Their addressing of Abraham in this manner insinuates that Sarah was not doing what she was meant to do, she should have been ready to welcome the guests but instead, Abraham is left alone to host them on their arrival. There is also a lot of emotion in the Bible, some of which reveals itself in sarcasm and irony that is often missed by Western ears. In Mark 4 as Jesus sleeps on the boat, his disciples approach him and say “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” (v38). As respectful as this sounds, this is actually the very first time the disciples are calling him “teacher”. In other words, they’re saying “You taught all day long on the shore and then took us out on the boat at the most dangerous time of the day! Some teacher you are!”