Context, Context, Context, Context
This is the most important principle in understanding the bible. So many errors in biblical interpretation come from not setting any given verse within the larger context of scripture and history.
If that seems like a stretch, let me present the following biblical precepts for living:
- “Don’t get tattoos.” (Leviticus 19:28)
- “Don’t shave or cut your hair.” (Leviticus 19:27)
- “If you sin when you look at things you should poke out your own eye.” (Matthew 18:9)
- “Women should be silent in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34)
These statements are biblical – precepts straight out of the bible, and yet many Christians would be comfortable teaching #1 and #4 and ignoring completely #2 and #3. How do we understand these verses properly?
The Four Layers of Context.
I think a picture will help us remember the four layers of context that impact any given verse or passage that we read. In the image below you will notice these layers are numbered and they start close to the verse and work outward.
For even more help, we will work with Leviticus 19:28, the verse in the bible that clearly teaches that you should not get a tattoo.
1. The passage.
Every verse sits within a broader passage. The first thing to do when trying to read and understand a passage or verse is to read what comes before it and after it. This will help you begin to discern what the author is and is not trying to say.
So what do we see when we look around Lev. 19:28? The verse is surrounded by a number of prohibitions and commands. Do not cut yourself, do not interpret omens, and interestingly enough do not cut your hair or trim your beard. So the first thing we notice is that this verse is in a list of things that are meant to shape the reader’s behavior.
Conclusion: The reader is not supposed to get a tattoo.
2. The book as a whole.
How does the passage in question work within the flow and purpose of the book as a whole? To place the passage within the context of the individual book (Leviticus, Psalm, Luke, 1 Corinthians, etc.), we need to identify the unique characteristic of that book. What is the genre (see last week’s post)? What is the author trying to say in the book as a whole? How does this verse work toward that end? As you go you will pick up the point of different books more quickly and can begin to apply that to your understanding of verses.
Returning to our verse we can now ask, “What does Leviticus want to tell the reader?” One of the purposes of the book of Leviticus is to tell the reader how to live as God’s holy people in the land he is about to give them. These commands are meant to differentiate them from the people of surrounding nations and reflect the glory of God into the world.
Conclusion: Getting a tattoo keeps the people of Israel from looking different from the surrounding nations, and from displaying God’s glory to them, so the reader is not to get a tattoo.
3. The bible as a whole.
The narrative and teachings of the bible work together to tell the story of what God is doing in history. It is important then, to back out and look at the whole context of the bible and apply it to the passage. This is especially important because we read the bible now in light of Jesus and his teaching and that needs to inform our understanding of any given verse or passage.
How does the entire story of scripture inform the verse in Leviticus? First, Israel was to follow these commands in order to stand apart from the world and to be a light to the nations of God’s love. Jesus fulfilled this purpose for Israel in his life, death and resurrection, and taught that it is the things of the heart that defile a person, not the things from the outside. In the same way, Paul taught in his writings that because of Jesus, the law no longer holds sway over God’s people.
Conclusion: Now that Jesus has come it might not matter if we have tattoos or not.
4. The culture of the author.
Lastly, we must remember that the bible was written by people, for people in a very specific time and place. That cultural specificity informs our reading of the text so that we can identify the principle behind the verse and see a better way to understand the passages we are reading. This does not mean that just because culture itself has changed that we can discard portions of scripture to fit, but it does call us to know a bit about the culture in which the passage was written.
It seems likely that tattoos served some sort of magical, superstitious, or religious purpose for the cultures surrounding the Israelites at the time of their coming into the promised land. If this is the case, then it is consistent for God to not want his people to get tattoos (a) to call on other gods and (b) to appear to call on other gods. This fits with the context of the passage too, because the nearest verses all seem to be dealing with other religious practices (cutting one’s self, and even perhaps cutting your hair and beard). It also helps us place the verse in the wider context of the bible because while we are not bound to a specific restriction against tattoos, Christians are still called to live holy lives displaying to others our single-minded faith in God.
Conclusion: There may be good reasons not to get a tattoo, primarily if it keeps you from being able to make disciples and love God or others. However the answer, because the bible says so seems to me to be flawed in light of the four layers of context.
What do you think? Did I miss something in my quick treatment of this verse?
Next week we are going to look specifically at how the entire bible holds together in one central location, namely Jesus.