Understanding the historical context of scripture helps people of all ages engage more deeply with their faith tradition. Whether it’s in preaching, Bible study, Sunday school, or other communication, including historical context supports exploration of more complex aspects of scripture, which is vital as children grow and develop more complex reasoning. There are many in-depth study Bibles that give historical context for what was happening both before and during each book in the Bible.
Knowing and sharing what was going on when a particular book was written can make sense of otherwise confusing or seemingly contradictory parts of scripture. Understanding Jeremiah’s lament and urgency to call the Israelites back to God’s way takes on new meaning knowing that the Babylonian exile will soon deport the Israelites to a strange land. In Jesus’ context, understanding what the Roman military occupation was like for first century Palestinians gives insight into why a herd of pigs would even be present or what a demon called “Legion” might represent in Matthew 26 or Mark 5.
Words of comfort, vengeance, or pain from those who are oppressed give voice to a need for a different way of being and the pain and struggle of living as oppressed peoples. At the same time, those same words from the perspective of those with power exacerbate the power dynamic and can give voice to the oppression already being enacted.
The historical context can also help connect scripture to our lives today. Learning about economic disparities in biblical times or practices around hospitality can help communities of faith discern what they want to do to promote economic justice and how they might deepen their welcome in the face of today’s vast wealth disparities.
Additionally, understanding biblical geography can support biblical and contemporary understanding. Helping kids find places named in the Bible on a map and then figuring out what the place is called today helps them understand the bigness of the world and creates space for them to wonder about people living in different places or ways from them.
Especially with older kids, learning the actual historical context might also bring out questions for what has been regarded as “traditional” interpretations, most of which arose in response to a particular historical event or movement. Knowing the context and how interpretation has changed helps put in perspective and challenge interpretations that cause harm, especially antisemitic and queerphobic interpretations.
As kids dig into scripture, helping them learn about the flight from Egypt to the Middle East, the Babylonian Exile, and the Roman occupation, even in simple terms, helps kids develop empathy for others who cannot live where they call home or whose families are in danger. Historical context helps kids make connections between their lives today and the stories of our faith that we have heard for millennia.