The context we need to work on most is the historic, geographic, and cultural context. For example, read a bit in one of those Customs and Manners books (Wight and Edersheim come to mind, but there are other newer ones), or find those sections in any good commentary—just about the best use for a commentary—and you will discover this: young Jewish women at least up to and including the first century, were married off at puberty. Even if, as some say, puberty was a bit later back then, you still have fourteen year olds getting married. In fact, MacArthur tells us in Twelve Extraordinary Women that at least in Mary’s time, they entered into a one-year betrothal, the kiddushin, at 13 and married at 14.
Now go back and restudy all those old stories. Think about Rebekah leaving home to go marry Isaac, who was at that time 40. Think about those two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and their marriages to Jacob. Do you realize that if you start at his death in Egypt and work your way back, that Jacob was about 70 when he married them? Both those patriarchs married very young teenagers.
Every time I point this out, I have one or two in my classes who sit there, stunned. “But we put people in jail for this,” one woman said. Yes, and it is a lesson to us not to judge that culture by ours.
It’s also a lesson not to judge our young people’s capabilities by theirs. We do not raise our children to be able to begin adult life at 13. We don’t expect that level of commitment from them and we don’t teach them how to make a lifetime commitment that early. Even the young men in later times than those patriarchs married as teenagers. They learned a trade and were able to support a family by 14 or 15.
And now that you understand the ages, imagine a 14 year old Mary riding that donkey in full labor. Then having her baby on a bed of straw. (Jesus was “laid in a manger” not born in one!)
Think of Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden. If they had not given her to another servant in marriage already, it was probably because she was too young before then. For Sarai to come up with this idea, Hagar had probably just reached that magic age of puberty. It wasn’t exactly a secret in those days when that happened. When she had Ishmael she may also have been as young as 14.
You can do that with so many other things. Just one tiny fact can change how you have always pictured something in your mind. What about weaning? Usually between 3 and 5, but sometimes as late as 8. If I were Hannah, I would have kept Samuel with me as long as possible.
But then think about Ishmael at the feast of Isaac’s weaning—he would have been 17-19 because he was 14 when Isaac was born. When you see that passage about Hagar “casting him” under a bush, don’t picture a little boy. He was practically grown, probably larger than she was!
I could go on, but that should be sufficient to illustrate the point. Context is a whole lot more than a chapter or two, and it will enlighten your studies for years to come.