Bible Study: Genres Define What We Read
- Eli Evans Contributor to Bible Study Magazine
- 2014 4 Feb
When you stroll through the aisles of your local bookstore, the organization of the shelves evokes expectations. A murder mystery with no murder and no mystery would be strange and disappointing, and historical romances ought to have a historical setting and romance plot. We have these expectations because of genre.
Genre sets expectations, and reading with inappropriate expectations is a recipe for misinterpretation.
The Bible is not a single book. It’s an anthology nearly a thousand years in the making. It consists of books of diverse genres, all united by the common theme of God’s (sometimes rocky) relationship with humankind.
This list of genres isn’t meant to be complete, but it’s a good start.
Historical narrative. Much of the Bible is history of one form or another: epic or “history of origins” (Genesis–Deuteronomy), royal annals and national history (1 Samuel–2 Chronicles), or biography (Ezra, Nehemiah). Some of this historical narrative is etiological—it explains the distant origins of something familiar in the present day. The Gospels form an important sub-genre of historical biography; they are the story of Jesus’ life, but with a strong emphasis on what His life, death and resurrection means to us.
Law code. Rules and regulations are found all over the ancient Near East, and much of the biblical law conforms to the laws of neighboring nations in form (if not in content). Covenant law has a strict format in the ancient Near East, and biblical covenants (e.g., Genesis 15) usually adhere to the established form.
Wisdom literature. These works aren’t usually meant to be thought of as history (even if they recount historical events), but as philosophical excursions into the nature of the universe and our place in it (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). The tone of these works is elevated because they deal with life’s big questions. For example, Job and his friends don’t have conversations in the usual sense; instead, they take turns speechifying at one another.
Songs and poems. Sometimes poems and songs tell a story (in a non-narrative fashion), and sometimes they are expressions of a single emotion: joy, sorrow, praise, or lament. Some memorable songs and poems include the Psalms, Lamentations, The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), The Song of Deborah (Judges 5), and The Annunciation (Luke 1:46–55).
Prophetic oracle. Sometimes prophets, like Isaiah and Micah, foretell the future, and sometimes they just tell the truth about the present that nobody wants to hear. Much of the prophetic content of the Bible is cast as poetry, with vivid imagery and carefully crafted parallel lines that characterize all Hebrew poetry.
Epistle. Many of the New Testament books are letters (e.g., Romans, 1 Peter, Philemon). They are either personal letters sent from one individual to another, or letters sent to whole communities—meant to be read in public and circulated among the churches.
Apocalypse. If much of the historical narrative of the Bible is concerned with the beginnings of things, apocalyptic literature is concerned with the end. Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation employ extended metaphors, sometimes bizarre imagery, and allusions to the past, present, and future to tell the story of where everything is going.
While the genre of a passage constructs a framework of initial expectations, you should be prepared for a few surprises. Great art often entails the interplay of convention and innovation. For example, compare the coronation narratives of Saul (1 Samuel 9) and David (1 Samuel 16). Saul’s story is true to form: The strongest (and tallest) man is crowned king. David’s story turns this expectation around: It is the youngest and smallest son of Jesse who is anointed. The point is that “the Lord sees not as man sees” (1 Sam 16:7). Sometimes it is the language, not the content, of a passage that plays against genre. John 1:1–18 has a certain rhythmic cadence and elevated tone that seems out of place for prose—it isn’t poetry, but it feels like it could be. This tension between expectation and surprise is part of the delight of reading.
Since David Hume (1711–1776), so-called “critical” scholars of the Bible have approached it as they would approach any other book. This makes some sense, since the Bible is obviously literature—the very pinnacle of literary craftsmanship. Yet, this approach gets things backwards: If the Bible is the self-disclosure of the creator God, then it is the expression of His thoughts (which are not human; Isa 55:8) and is part of His creation. It is God-made rather than human-made. And just as art imitates nature, all other literature imitates the Bible, not the other way around. For this reason, the Bible resists easy classification. It is one of a kind because, unlike any other book, its authors were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).
Though the Bible was written in everyday language and used the conventions of the genres that were current at the time, its ultimate source is wholly unconventional. It is the revelation of a holy God, and as such, it stands in a category all by itself.
All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
Want to learn more about biblical genres? Pick up How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. Go to Logos.com/AllItsWorth
Anthologies are collections of writings that are bound together by common themes or forms, usually by different authors.
Etiology (sometimes spelled aetiology) is literally “the study of causes.” A story is etiological if it documents the original cause of something, usually an everyday event or phenomenon. The flood narrative in Genesis 6–10 provides, among other things, an etiology of rainbows.
Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at http://www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (May–Jun 2011): pgs. 43–44.