[b-hebrew] Context

Ratson Naharadama yahoo-arch at heplist.com
Wed Jul 1 22:36:28 EDT 2009

Gary Hedrick of USA in "Geography of Genesis" wrote:
 > Karl, when are you guys going to see the light? The Hebrew text
>  really needs a lot of reinterpreting. It actually says that Abraham
>  lived in Van Nuys, in a family compound just off the 101.

To which James Christian of the UK replied
 > Just off the what?

A perfect example of something that complicates the study of Biblical 
Hebrew -- context. This seems to be needing to be pointed out because we 
seem to have many threads that devolve into arguments rooted in one or 
the other person(s) being oblivious about it; I will hopefully spell it 
out, here, so as to give /them/ a little context of their own.

Most often pastors and others will refer to context and mean the words 
around what is being quoted in a Hebrew text. But, the other context, 
historical, social, and geographic context (and all-together cultural 
context), is the part that complicates Biblical Hebrew studies to no end.

The Hebrew Bible was written by a High Context culture, ancient semitic 
peoples, who had a treasure trove of cultural knowledge in their heads. 
When writing their texts or telling their tales, there was no need to 
spell out any of the background in a story. The slightest detail such as 
a person passing a piece of bread to his left instead of his right could 
signal whole paragraphs of thought. An example that might make this 
clear is when you have a group of people together talking and one of the 
people say a certain string of words that he knows will signal one line 
of thought among a certain segment of the group, but will be utterly 
missed by the rest of the group (for example, some kind of inside-joke). 
The people on the inside of the inside-joke have higher context going 
for them in that conversation. For the ancient semitic cultures, 
everyone was on the inside of the figurative "inside-joke" while 
cultural successors of the Greeks and Romans (which include us) were on 
the outside.

Us, the Greeks, and the Romans would all be Low Context cultures. In our 
writing and story telling, we have to have nearly everything spelled out 
for us. The amount varies from situation to situation, and some good 
comedy is based on that inside joke (I'm sure fans of Seinfield, as just 
one example) would fit into a higher context realm, but overall, we are 
Low Context. This is where our conflict with semitic writings really 
hits the dirt, and where we get a lot of our misunderstandings (not just 
of the text, but on the nature and intensions of the writers and the 
text itself). Then we say its all BS because the writer didn't mention 
or spell out something that WE would expect them to spell out. We say, 
"they describe all this, but we know from archeology and from text X and 
text Y that this situation prevailed... why would they not have 
mentioned it if what they are talking about is true?" But the reason why 
we think they SHOULD have is the very reason they did NOT. Those facts 
were part of their day to day context, and every action and every 
thought was flavoured by that very context.

Perhaps an example?

=[ A man went to Washington, and threw paint at the White House.

For most English speaking peoples, they know that the person, in this 
short story, who threw paint is going to be in a WHOLE lot more trouble 
than he would for any normal act of vandalism. This "White House" is not 
any ordinary "white house." The significance isn't that the house was 
white and that the house was vandalized by someone throwing paint on it. 
The significance is that this particular white house is the capital 
residence of the President of the United States of America — all this 
information comes from cultural context.

James Christian not knowing what Gary Hedrick meant by "just off the 
101" is another example, this one more geographic, although not 
completely apparent to anyone who did not get the cultural context 
behind the statement. Also the statement of "in a family compound" would 
spark other culture references in mind for a lot of people. I have a 
feeling the specification of "Van Nuys" in particular might have 
something in particular behind it, but I — at least — seem to be on the 
outside of this section of the joke since I don't know what specifically 
is being referenced with that one (even though I use to live in its 
vicinity long ago). The overall picture of biblical context built around 
the the cultural backdrop brought to mind by Gary was quite humourous to 
those on the inside of the context, but what about those who are on the 
outside of one or even both halves of the cultural background of that 
picture? It would probably read as just a normal statement, believed by 
the reader that person was being quite serious and no humour involved at 

Now, with all this in mind... I hope there is some new perspective for a 
few people.

Ratson Naharädama
Denver, Colorado

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