What is Context, and Why Is It Important?

What is Context, and Why Is It Important?

Has anyone ever told you that you’ve taken her words “out of context”?

You’re probably nodding, at least mentally, because almost all of us are guilty of this annoying little habit. Like me, you could be guilty because you’re not completely focused on what you’re hearing. One striking statement might pierce your consciousness, bringing a wandering mind back to the conversation. Unfortunately, that’s too little, too late. You haven’t heard her words in context!

The same is true for written conversations – and that’s exactly what Scripture is. Through the Bible, God speaks to us. He reveals His mind and His will. If we’re not paying attention, we can take His words out of context too.

So what, exactly, is context, and why is it so important? Most of us think of context as the words surrounding another word, or statement, or idea. When you read your Bible, the words immediately surrounding a Scriptural statement definitely provide context, but there is more to the concept. Context also includes history, geography and culture. On top of that, to read a biblical passage in context means understanding the notion of genre and the nuances of language. In short, context encompasses just about anything that influenced the biblical writers.

To gain a better understanding of the importance of context, we’ll take a look at the story of Samson. The remainder of today’s post will focus on literary context. In our next three posts, we’ll cover historical, cultural, and geographic context within the story of Samson.

The Riddle

Filling four chapters in the book of Judges, the life of Samson is the longest account devoted to any of the judges. Within these chapters you’ll encounter romance, betrayal, and war as well as revenge, deception, and heroism.

We’ll begin our look at literary context with the seven-day wedding feast in Judges 14. At the end of the feast, 30 young Philistine men correctly answer a riddle Samson had proposed at the beginning, winning a costly wager. He then says, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle” (verse 18).

On the surface, that may sound like a strange statement, but it is cleared up by the preceding verses. The Philistine men, realizing they could not solve the riddle on their own, resorted to threatening Samson’s new wife to pressure her to reveal the answer. She, in turn, went to Samson and “pressed him hard” (verse 17). It is this context that makes clear the metaphor of plowing with my heifer.

This illustration is a simple one, but it does demonstrate how vital the immediate literary context is. However, this passage also demonstrates the value of a broader literary context. When we read the entire story of Samson, we see that this betrayal was the first of two similar episodes that reveal a flaw in his character.

The second incident may be the single most important in Samson’s life story. The five lords of the Philistines bribed Delilah, who was probably also a Philistine, to seduce Samson, “and see where his great strength lies” so they could “overpower him” (Judges 16:5). Through careful reading of the entire story of Samson, we see that he was twice pressured by women to reveal secrets, and twice he yielded against better judgment. In each case, he suffered defeat.

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