Bible Study: Genres Define What We Read
- Tuesday, February 04, 2014
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.
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