Genres of the Bible: one story in diverse voicesWritten by Subby Szterszky
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The Bible is a collection of 66 documents, written over the course of some 1,500 years on three continents and in three languages. Its human authors came from a diverse range of backgrounds that included kings, shepherds, tree farmers, royal officials, tax collectors, fishermen and physicians. Their writings vary in style and length, and represent an eclectic array of literary genres: history, poetry, law codes and letters, among others.
It’s strange, therefore, how readers will often approach the Scriptures with a one-size-fits-all mentality. They treat the Bible as if it were a homogeneous unit, a sort of moral and spiritual instruction manual from which they can draw verses with little regard for historical or literary context.
Thankfully God, the ultimate author of Scripture, never designed his word to be read that way. He didn’t use humans as robotic writing tools bereft of personality, but spoke through their individual styles and unique experiences. To be sure, the 66 books tell God’s unified story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. But they do so in a kaleidoscope of human voices that speak about God to the whole person – heart, mind and imagination.
For anyone who assumes the Bible is mostly a collection of religious precepts, it can be a shock to discover that the majority of it – Genesis, much of Exodus, Numbers, everything from Joshua to Esther, fair chunks of the prophets, plus the Gospels and Acts – is in the form of historical narrative. This isn’t dry antiseptic historiography, either. Nor, to be fair, is it like modern narrative, what with its repetitions, digressions and long lists of people and places. But like all good history writing, it’s shaped and arranged in order to come alive for the reader, to imprint its message by appealing to the universal love of a good story.
As with any type of narrative, this massive tract of Scripture shouldn’t be approached piecemeal, combed over for hidden meanings in every verse and behind every detail. Rather, each account should be read first of all as an integral whole, allowed to flow where it will, with an eye toward its main theme or themes. What does this episode say about God in relation to his people? What does it reveal about his character? How does it fit into his larger narrative drama of redemption through his Son?
Although much of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) is written as historical narrative, the rest of it contains a lengthy set of law codes, established in Exodus, expanded in Leviticus and restated in Deuteronomy. Beyond the Ten Commandments and other moral teachings, these law codes also include ancient civic and ceremonial duties that may seem alien to the modern reader.
This side of the Cross, it’s vital to read these laws from a New Testament perspective. Jesus said that he hadn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The Apostle Paul described the law as a tutor to lead us to Christ. And again, Jesus summed up the law as love for God and neighbour. This calls for discernment, to distinguish between ceremonial rules that foreshadowed Christ, civic duties reserved for ancient Israel, and universal moral principles that are still binding, not as means to earn favour with God but out of gratitude for his grace.
This literary genre, popular in the Ancient Near East, is represented in the Old Testament by the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It blends poetry and prose, taking the form of dialogues, memoirs and collections of wise sayings that offer practical teaching on how to live well and how to understand the problems of the world in light of the divine.
It’s essential to recognize that wisdom literature provides no ironclad guarantees of blessing as a reward for virtue. It simply offers principles for wise living that hold true in general, though not necessarily in every specific case. Indeed, the genre grapples with deep existential questions about the meaning of life, the problem of suffering, and the fact that time, chance and death happen to everyone, wise and foolish alike. Its lyrical, reflective style invites readers to meditate on the sovereign power and wisdom of God, and to trust him in the midst of life’s perplexities.
Poetry and song
Hebrew poetry isn’t built on rhyme or rhythm, but on parallel structure. Verses are grouped in pairs, threes or fours to illustrate an idea by restating it in other terms, expanding upon it, or contrasting it with its opposite. The largest body of Hebrew poetry is found in the Psalms, along with Lamentations and the Song of Songs, as well as much of the prophets and the wisdom books. In the ancient world, poems were meant to be sung, and many of the Psalms indicate the original melodies and instruments that were to be used in their performance.
As with historical narrative, it won’t do to approach this major genre of Scripture by pulling it apart, straining for nuggets of meaning in each isolated verse. Before all else, poetry must be given room to build its cumulative effect by appealing to the ear and the emotions as well as to the intellect. It must be allowed to impart its truth on its own terms, through memorable imagery, heightened feeling and beautiful language. The reader’s first duty to any poem or song is not to analyze, but to experience.
The prophetic books – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Twelve – account for a sizable portion of the Old Testament, with Revelation being the sole New Testament addition to the genre. The prophets combined poetry with prose to express oracles and visions they’d received from God, interleaving them with narrative passages that provided context for their prophecies. Their work is rich in metaphor and symbolism that can be difficult for moderns to decipher. They wrote passionately, at times using sharp satire and graphic images best reserved for mature readers.
Contrary to popular belief, the main concern of the prophets was not to foretell the future. Rather they were sent by God with messages of rebuke or encouragement for his people, as the occasion warranted. They invariably pointed to God’s redemptive purposes, often in veiled language. As with the law, reading the prophets requires discernment, together with a fair degree of humility in the face of mystery.
Biography and Gospel
Large swaths of historical narrative in the Old Testament could also be classified as biography, centring on the lives of men and women who played key roles in God’s story of redemption. Moreover, the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Ecclesiastes can be considered autobiography, as can the writings of those prophets who wrote about themselves, albeit in the third person.
In the New Testament, the four Gospels are in essence biographies of Jesus, but also much more than that. They blend biography with teaching and narrative to proclaim the coming of the Messiah – specifically his life, death and resurrection – which the rest of Scripture had anticipated. As such, they form a unique genre of their own. Written for various audiences, the four books focus on different but complementary details, joining to create a fully realized portrait of the Lord. Among the Gospel writers, Luke and John explicitly state that they wrote so their readers might know the truth about Jesus and put their faith in him.
The letters of the New Testament were written by apostles, authorized by Jesus to expand and complete his teaching, which he had inaugurated while he was on earth. Although these documents follow the general framework of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, they vary considerably in length, tone and content. This is to be expected, given they were written to diverse individuals, local churches and wider groups of believers to address the specific issues they were confronting.
When reading these letters, it’s vital to treat them as precisely what they are – letters, and not chapters in a textbook on theology or ethics. They may be rich in propositional truth, but they’re also personal, occasioned correspondence, revealing as much about the heart of their authors as about the people to whom they wrote and the situations they addressed. They not only tease out the full, glorious implications of the Gospel, but also offer intimate snapshots of life in the first-century church.
The unifying story
According to Jesus, all of Scripture – law, prophets, psalms, everything – is about him. This is not to say every biblical passage contains the same concentration of clear spiritual truth. Nor is it an invitation to dig for hidden Gospel allegory in every torch, horse, sword or city mentioned in the Old Testament. But it is to trace the unifying principle of Scripture – God’s epic storyline of creation, fall, redemption and restoration that he planned, unfolded and fulfilled in his beloved Son.
The Lord loves unity expressed through variety. This is evident in his created order as well as in his word, and it echoes something of his own nature, as the one God who exists in three persons. To that end, he has chosen to reveal himself and his grand design via an eclectic blend of literary genres. Each of these genres speaks truth about him in ways the others do not, adding its own pieces to the mosaic of divine revelation.
God cares about the whole person, every human faculty of the women and men he created in his image and is redeeming through his Son. He calls them to love him with all their heart, soul, strength and mind. And he has arranged his word to be an eminently suitable guide for pursuing that call.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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