Cultural Context Illuminates a Familiar Story

The Bible is like an onion with a never ending succession of layers. You never peel everything off. There always seems to be something deeper to probe.

And it is amazing how the text studies the reader. It impacts us differently depending on what is going on in our lives. The story of the prodigal son is a familiar passage. I have found myself being all the main characters at some point in my life.

I recently developed a new appreciation for the story thanks to some insights covered by Frances Taylor Gench during my New Testament class at Union Seminary. She quoted significantly from Dr. Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern culture.

Professor Gench illuminated the text by pointing out some unique aspects that most casual readers in the West would miss. We bring a Western bias that completely overlooks key aspects of some passages because the Bible is primarily written out of an Eastern context.

In the past, I completely missed the community aspect of the story. 

Here are a few key insights that I found especially illuminating:

  • According to the culture of the day, the older son should have refused the money, admonished his brother to take back his request, and mediated between the father and his brother. By simply taking the money, the older son was not doing his duty.
  • The younger son’s request was akin to saying that he wished his father was dead. In a patriarchal society, it would have been taken as a major insult to the father and the entire community. Word would have gotten around the village as the younger son tried to sell of family ancestral land to go off on his own. Neighbors would have likely wanted to stone the young man for his audacity and disrespect. Thus, the youngest son would have quickly left the area. His sin caused major alienation for the young man from the entire community where he had lived.
  • The language describing that the young man hired himself out to a foreigner reflects the concept of glue  – when you basically get a job by being persistent. You refuse to take no for an answer. It brings to mind the car window washer at the stop light or the undesired guide who stick to foreigners in a Middle Eastern market. This means the owner of the pigs may have offered the young man this duty because he thought he would not accept it. It could have been a way of getting rid of a nuisance. No Jew with any degree of self respect would have taken the job. The fact that the young man took the job and wanted to eat what the pigs were eating showed just how far he had fallen.
  • The young man came to his sense and went back to his father. He had rehearsed a speech that indicated he didn’t expect to be fully accept as a son nor was he asking for that. It is almost as if the son still wanted to prove himself on his own. But the father would have none of that.
  • Likely the village people would have still remembered the sin of the young man and would have wanted to stone him for his previous actions. The father kept a look out. He let his son go, yet he always desired his return. The father went and rushed to meet the son. Instead of forcing the son to walk through the town and possibly face a hostile crowd, the father walked the path of shame for his son. Middle Eastern men did not run. It was considered improper. And they certainly wouldn’t have run to meet a disobedient, ungrateful child.
  • Not only did the father love his son. He restored him by putting new clothes on him. Clothes would restore his status as part of the family. Sandals were to cover his feet, which likely were all worn from his heavy labor. And the ring is a symbol of authority and sonship.
  • It was the duty of the older brother to greet the guests of the feast. Even if he disagreed with what his father did, he should have come in and done his duty. He could have then argued with his father in private after the party. Instead, he publicly refused to come in and made a scene. All the while, he acted as if he had always done the right thing and obeyed his father. Yet, he was in rebellion the vary moment he said those words.
  • The older brother refused to address his father with the proper title and even referred to his brother as the father’s son not his brother. This would have been viewed as the older son basically saying that he was no longer a part of the family because of what the father had done.
  • It is curious that the older son didn’t seem to know what was going on at first. By custom, he should have been involved in the planning of the party.
  • The father likely threw the party as a way to welcome the son back into the family and more importantly to restore his position in good standing with the entire community. The fattened calf was a big piece of meat that could have fed as many as 100 people. This was a large party meant to have sweeping consequences for how the neighbors viewed this prodigal son. The father understood that something had to be done to publicly restore his son or else he could not live there for long.
  • By refusing his father’s request, the older son was basically saying that he didn’t want his brother around. He even made accusations about the younger brother’s wild living that is not supported by the earlier part of the story.

Context can make a big difference. It helps you see the story that we miss just because we live in a different time, place and culture.

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3 responses to “Cultural Context Illuminates a Familiar Story

  1. Good insights into one of my favorite stories. One more note – notice how the older son, in speaking with his father, says “YOUR son” instead of “MY brother.”

    Nice post.

  2. I love Dr. Kenneth Bailey. Anyone who enjoyed this type of middle eastern context would also love his book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.” it is a journey through most of the parables in the Gospels and gives you a great new perspective. GREAT POST

  3. nwchristianspeakers

    I read somewhere that a returning rebel such as this son would have had his neck twisted so for the rest of his life everyone would know that he had been a rebel who returned. (Is this true?) Instead the father put his head on his neck.

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