If I told you a story about a family who saw soldiers marching through their town, you wouldn’t know how to react to it, or what to expect unless you knew the context. Were they Jews in Poland during World War Two seeing German soldiers invading? Were they a modern family living in Wootton Bassett watching soldiers escorting the body of a dead comrade? Were they a Victorian family watching a parade of soldiers in dress uniform at a formal celebration? So should you feel fear, sadness or pride as I tell the story?
When you read a scripture, how do you know how to respond to it unless you know the context? So many of the criticisms levelled at the Bible, especially by non-believers, are of things that have been taken out of context. So many difficulties that believers have with parts of the Bible are resolved or partly explained by looking at the context.
For example, one that is often used is James 2:17 ‘In the same way faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ This is used to ‘prove’ that you have to do good works in order to get into heaven. The answer is only three verses earlier: James 2:14 ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?’ It is the quality of his faith which saves him, but that kind of faith shows itself in good works.
Here is another example. 1 Sam.15:2-3 ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”’
This is one of those passages used to criticise God as cruel and vindictive. To modern eyes, we are horrified that God would destroy a whole nation. But what did the Amalekites do to incur God’s wrath? Deut.25:17-19 ‘Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!’
The problems with the Amalekites continued. Judges 6:3-4 ‘Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys.’ God left the Amalekites a long time, but they did not change in their animosity to Israel. They killed Israelite men, women, children, crops and herds. God’s judgement makes more sense in that context.
Sometimes, we have to look a little further in the Bible for the explanation, which is why it pays to spend more time reading the Bible and getting familiar with what it says. There is always an explanation. Sometimes we have to search for it, sometimes it is in the very next verse.