Why the Bible contains so many different literary genres

There’s a story of a young missionary couple from New Zealand, Des and Jenny Oatridge, who lived in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s among a tiny, remote tribal group called the Binumarien. Working with Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Oatridges sought to bring the Scriptures into the Binumarien language, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew.

It was tough going at first. The tribe showed little enthusiasm for the translation project. Even the Oatridges’ local language guide seemed ambivalent toward the task.

Almost as an afterthought, Des decided to translate the genealogy of Jesus found at the beginning of Matthew. He’d left it for last under the assumption that his audience would find it uninteresting.

And that’s when the lights went on for the Binumarien people. “Why didn’t you tell us all this before?” they asked. “No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings. It’s only real people who record their genealogical table. Jesus must have been a real man on this earth then,” they concluded. “He’s not just white man’s magic.”

All Scripture is God-breathed, but it doesn’t all speak the same way

Most of us modern Christians in the Western World, if we’re honest about it, would make the same assumption about the genealogy of Christ that Des Oatridge initially made. Of course, we’d be quick to affirm with the Apostle Paul that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness – at least in principle.

But in practice, we’d be tempted to skip ahead to the more captivating aspects of Jesus’ life: his miracles, his moral teaching, his death and resurrection. Certainly we’d acknowledge that God must have recorded those first 17 verses of Matthew for a reason. Still, we’d be hard-pressed to imagine how a repetitive list of foreign-sounding names could impart spiritual truth to anyone.

And yet that’s precisely what happened among the Binumarien people. In their society, as in many non-Western cultures, a genealogical table isn’t a boring piece of background information. It’s a vital testimony to a person’s life and place in history.

For the Binumarien, the genealogy of Matthew offered conclusive evidence that Jesus wasn’t a shadowy mythical figure, a wisp of white man’s magic. He was a real person in a real place and time who actually did the things written about him in the Gospels.

Cultural and personal literary preferences

Every society has its preferred literary forms, including our own. That’s one reason why we resonate with certain parts of Scripture while finding others to be alien and difficult to grasp.

In our culture, for example, we respond to direct, practical information expressed in plain language. We want to know the facts and why they matter, in as few words as possible. We also like our stories unadorned and fast-paced, drawing us along a clear path without too many descriptive detours.

As a result, we have little trouble with the vivid narrative accounts found in Genesis or the Gospels. We readily absorb much of the practical teaching laid out in Paul’s letters. But when faced with lengthy, repetitive genealogies, census data or ceremonial instructions as in Leviticus, Numbers or the beginning of Matthew, we scratch our heads.

But in other societies, including those to which the Scriptures were first written, such passages pose no problem. In fact, ancient literature outside the Bible routinely used similar devices. Homer’s Iliad, for instance, interrupts its account of the Trojan War with an extensive list of ships in the Greek forces, the names of their commanders, and the regions from which they came.

Readers in the Western World may find such texts puzzling. But to ancient and many modern non-Western sensibilities, this kind of information grounds a story in reality and draws attention to significant details, as well as fixing it in the memory with an appealing pattern of repetition.

Beyond a cultural level, we each have our personal affinity for various literary genres. We may enjoy the thrill of a dramatic story, the lyrical beauty of poetry or the intellectual stimulation of a good history book. We may even enjoy all of them at different times, depending on our mood.

And as we encounter the Scriptures, the drama of Esther, the romance of Ruth, the songs of David, the sensitive historiography of Luke, all speak to us in a variety of ways to engage our hearts and our minds.

God has wired variety into people, cultures and his Word

Naturally, none of this multifaceted response to the Scriptures occurs by chance. God has wired us with a wondrous diversity of tastes and temperaments, on a personal as well as a cultural level. Along the same lines, he has crafted his Word in a variety of genres, unified to reveal his grand narrative of redemption through his Son.

This is not to say that all Scripture contains the same concentration of core truth. Clearly the Gospel of John is more crucial in this regard than, say, the book of Obadiah.

Neither is it to suggest that we should focus solely on the portions of Scripture with which we feel an affinity and gloss over the rest. Quite the contrary, we need to approach each part of Scripture in a way that’s appropriate to its specific genre.

We should let poetry wash over us with its language and symbols, not ripping it apart word by word and missing the forest for the trees. We should read the historical accounts with an eye for their narrative flow, looking for the overall point of the story rather than for isolated moral messages in each word or phrase. And yes, we should grapple with the genealogies and other obscure passages, seeking to discover their significance via their original context.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that he had become all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel. Surely no less is true of the Scriptures themselves. Written by God through human hands in a specific culture, their various parts reach out to all cultures with the saving message of Jesus Christ.

Sources and further reading

Lynette Oates, Hidden people: How a remote New Guinea culture was brought back from the brink of extinction, Albatross Books, Sutherland, NSW, Australia, 1992.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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