“That’s just NOT right!” exclaimed a woman in a Bible study I was conducting. The object of her disapproval was Naomi’s instructions for Ruth to approach Boaz while he was sleeping (see Ruth 3). She was correct in that she recognized the inappropriateness of such an action within our society. She was incorrect because she failed to recognize the cultural values of the Hebrew context (particularly patriarchy) during the time of the “judges”, which validated Ruth’s approach to Boaz.
The Bible is God’s revelation of his will to humanity given within a cultural context that is very different from our situation today. Although the Bible remains God’s revelation of his will for us, it was originally written to people whose language, culture and worldview greatly contrasts with ours. Thus, the more the values, beliefs and situation of the original audience are understood by today’s reader, the better the meaning of the divine message can be comprehended. Similarly, the more we comprehend our own culture and society, the better equipped we are to understand how the biblical revelation can be expressed and applied in our context.
The implications of this reality are profound for the Bible translator and the cross-cultural worker as well as for all those who want to understand the relevance of God’s word for them. We cannot understand and appreciate the way the Bible relates to us without first recognizing that God spoke his message to people both through and because of their situation. To the degree our modern context is similar to the context of original audience, the original message will have direct relevance for us. However, differences between the ancient and modern cultures require us to adopt a two step process of interpretation. First, we must understand the message through the original cultural perspective and second, we must consider how that revelation can be expressed relevantly for us today.
The differences between biblical cultures and our western context can easily be underestimated by the modern reader resulting in the misinterpretation of scripture. For example, the egalitarian values of our western culture make it hard for us to grapple with the pervasive patriarchal values and assumptions that lie behind the Pentateuch.
The patriarchal nature of the nation of Israel and the cultures of that time is especially evident in Deu. 23:1-10, which declares that only circumcised males may belong to the “congregation” or “assembly” of the LORD. The word used in this passage is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the nation of Israel. The struggle for the egalitarian modern reader comes because it is evident that only adult males were considered members of the LORD’s congregation, that is, members of the nation of Israel. When the congregation or assembly is mentioned in other passages, it is assumed by the modern reader that the whole community consisting of men, women and children is being referred to. However, in a patriarchal setting it is only the adult males who constitute the essence and identity of the community.
Most English translations seem inadequate in their translations of the Deu. passage since they often imply that the “congregation” is a special group within the nation, rather than the nation itself. However, the passage actually refers to the whole nation of Israel focusing on the central religious identity of belonging to the LORD. This was a privilege reserved solely for the circumcised adult male. All others were dependent on the relationship with an adult male member in order to survive and find their identity and meaning of life within that community. This is the reason for the ongoing concern in the Old Testament for widows, orphans and the resident alien. The book of Ruth can scarcely be understood without a grasp of this concept.
The modern reader can easily become confused or repulsed by the patriarchal values of that time and thereby miss the revelation that God offers. But the solution to this clash with modern values comes by recognizing that God consistently revealed his nature and will to people in a way that made sense to them within their context. The point of the passage for us today is not to encourage patriarchal values and assumptions; these are not values that we espouse. Rather we need to grab hold of the truth relevant in our setting that we are called to holiness and purity as we keep the LORD at the center of our lives and purposes. For our context it is not just circumcised adult males of one people group, but men and women of all nations who are invited to be full members of the congregation of the LORD.