Preaching the OT in Light of Its Culture

In his essay, “Preaching the Old Testament in Light of Its Culture,” Timothy S. Laniak gives some practical advice for developing a systematic understanding of a passage’s “contexture.” As defined by Laniak, contexture is understanding the ancient world “in terms of its fundamental values and the interconnectedness of its institutions” (138). One’s understanding of this contexture allows the text to be read and understood first with respect to its original meaning and context. It is only then that the preacher should begin to make appropriate implications for his contemporary audience.

Coming to terms with the values and institutions of the ancient world means becoming familiar with various layers of the biblical world, such as geography, history, culture, politics, economy, and ideology. Thus, the preacher must enter into (or at least read often) the disciplines of historical-geography, anthropology, sociology, etc. Laniak gives a plethora of resources that a preacher may want to consult, such as the following:

  • Historical Geography of the Holy Land by G. A. Smith
  • Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000–586 B.C.E. by Amihai Mazar
  • Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament ed. by James B. Pritchard
  • Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East by Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin
  • A History of Israel by Walter C. Kaiser Jr.
  • Life in Biblical Israel by Philip J. King & Lawrence E. Stager
  • Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land through the Five Books of Moses by Bruce Feiler

There are many others that he recommends and that you may know of as well. In fact, there are many resources for the computer through the various companies that would be helpful in this regard.

How this relates to sermon preparation is rather labor-intensive. For example, Laniak believes that one should first come to term with the literary context of the passage by reading it several times. After getting the “main thrust” of the passage, one should then move on to begin “to align your preunderstanding with that of the ancient readers” (149). This is done, for example, by reading a history book (such as Kaiser’s) and perhaps following the story on an atlas map. As such, you are then ready to list some background topics that might help you understand the passage. As an example, if you were preaching Ruth 1, you would want to read articles in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, or handbooks that cover the following topics: “death, grief, kingship relations, interethnic marriage, domestic roles, famine, travel, Moabites, and village life in the early Iron Age” (149). [I’m tired just typing all that, much less reading all of it.] You would really need to be patient to do this type of study on a regular, weekly basis. To be honest, if this is the expectation, there is no wonder so many preachers feel unqualified to read and preach the OT.

Besides the practicality of time, Laniak leaves me with one question: “To which inspired source should I turn to get the definitive explanation(s) of ancient culture and history?” Granted, it’s not really a question but a point I’m trying to make. I understand the reasoning that tidbits of history may make a typical sermon “come alive” to the listeners, but one danger in saturating your congregation with interesting historical facts is that it sometimes tends to divert their attention (in a subtle way) from the text before them.

If something needs to go in your sermon preparation time, the first thing I would jettison is the mounds and mounds of material on ANE manners and customs. I would much rather hear a preacher who has been saturated with the text (preferably in its original languages) and really understands its point(s) than one who has been reading history books and looking at pictures of the holy land all week. There is little that you can do as a preacher that is more productive than to read and meditate upon the text itself for extended periods of time. Attempting to research every sermon as if writing an OT thesis is a sure way (1) to stress yourself out, (2) to wear yourself out, and (3) to take yourself away from ministering in your home and church.

How do you guys balance this in your preparation for preaching?

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Randy,

    I think the caution you raise is a good one. For those who have been trained to exegete everything in sight it is all too easy to turn the sermon into a lecture on backgrounds and customs.

    As is the case with most specialists,Laniak sees his emphasis as a major one. The danger is exactly what you have pointed out here (i.e., which is “inspired”?). However, I do find these sort of studies helpful when we come to things in the text and we wonder, “why did they do that?”. However such an answer is oftentimes nothing more than an educated guess on the part of a scholar.Good stuff Randy.

  2. Randy

    How much time do you need for your sermon preparation? How much of the text do we need to understand before we give an explanation of the text to the people? What are we trying to learn from the text that would be important for our today’s church to understand?

    I happen to think, your preparation for sermons could last a life time of learning.

    When I watch the movie “RUTH” I wondered how they were able to learn about the times and customs of the that time period.

    However you are able to understand the context in its original meaning and context would be the task in sermon preparation.

    I personally happen to believe that we are to teach the O.T. in this manner.

    Charles

  3. Charles,

    The concern I am expressing in my post has to do with the abuse of such contextualization of the text within its historical milieu. In my opinion, I think that the text is less a window into an ancient world than it is a theological interpretation of the historical story that is underpinning the text. The abuse comes when preaching attempts to “recreate” the historical world to the neglect of the message of the text. I guess I’m just uneasy with the uncertainty of the various fields of the social sciences, disciplines that are always in flux.

    Do you think that is a reasonable fear?

    Blessings,
    Randy

  4. Randy

    I agree completly that we should teach the intended purpose of the text before us. If the historical setting doesn’t fit into the reason the author wrote the chapter then we should not deal with it. I am trying to think when it would.

    I am not aware of your concern “I guess I’m just uneasy with the uncertainty of the various fields of the social sciences, disciplines that are always in flux.” Could you address this a little more.

    Thanks brother

    Charles

  5. I guess I primarily have in mind depending on the ever growing and evolving fields of study, such as archeology, the social milieu of the ANE, varying views of history/historiography, etc. These fields are constantly changing with new research and approaches.

    For example, if I’m basing some points in my sermon on a recent article in an archaeological magazine, I place a lot of confidence in the archaeologist’s and magazine’s credibility and honesty. Moreover, in these contemporary fields of study, my preaching is always open to debate, i.e. it must ride the waves of contemporary scholarship. This is not to say that many valuable finds exist; it is only to say that I see most as serving the preacher in apologetics, not exegesis.

    Randy

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