Reading The Bible Better - Lesson 8

Literary Genres

In this lesson, you will gain a deeper understanding of the various literary genres found in the Bible and their significance in interpreting biblical texts. You will learn the importance of recognizing and understanding these genres, as well as specific techniques for interpreting them in their historical and cultural contexts. By grasping the nuances of the major genres – narrative, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, wisdom literature, and epistles – you will be better equipped to appreciate the richness of the biblical text and apply its teachings to your life.

George Guthrie
Reading The Bible Better
Lesson 8
Watching Now
Literary Genres

TH102-08: Literary Genres in the Bible

I. Introduction to Literary Genres

A. Importance of Recognizing Genres

B. Definition of Genre

II. Major Genres in the Bible

A. Narrative

B. Poetry

C. Prophecy

D. Apocalyptic

E. Wisdom Literature

F. Epistles

III. Tips for Interpreting Different Genres

A. Reading with Genre in Mind

B. Understanding Cultural and Historical Context

C. Recognizing Literary Devices

IV. Conclusion and Application

A. Benefits of Understanding Literary Genres

B. Applying Genre Knowledge to Bible Study

  • Dive into this lesson to gain a deep understanding of how to read the Bible better, focusing on hearing scripture accurately, personal transformation, the grand story, and reading in community, while fostering a sense of joy and wonder in your journey.
  • Discover the power of words, their impact on our lives, and how God's words and communication in the Bible provide guidance, shaping us to live with purpose and spiritual growth.
  • Being receptive to what God is saying to you in the Bible is an important part of reading the Bible better. The parable of the sower gives you a word picture of obstacles you face in attempting to cultivate a receptive heart.
  • By embracing receptivity, you can overcome barriers and enhance your understanding of the Bible, ultimately leading to personal growth, stronger relationships, and deepened faith.
  • In this lesson, you learn about literary context's importance in interpreting the Bible, identifying literary genres and structures, and applying context for accurate exegesis and application.
  • By understanding historical context, you can better interpret the Bible, considering cultural, social, and geographical backgrounds, ancient literary genres, and archaeology to bridge the gap between the past and present.
  • This lesson provides you with knowledge on the importance of Bible translations, their types, and the criteria for selecting the most suitable one for your needs while also offering insights into their historical development.
  • You will learn to identify and interpret various biblical genres, enhancing your understanding of the Bible and applying its teachings more effectively in your life.
  • By entering the story when reading the Bible, you enrich your understanding, connect with biblical characters, and foster personal spiritual growth, Bible study, and teaching skills.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into biblical interpretation principles, like context and genre, and explore essential tools such as translations and commentaries, leading to better understanding and application of the Bible.
You and I need to embrace the powerful, beautiful, life-giving words of God on a regular basis. Various surveys in different cultures, over the past half century, have determined that the number one predictor of a person’s spiritual health is the regular practice of personal Bible reading. Nothing else comes close. If our purpose in life is to live for him and to his glory, and the Scriptures shape us for his mission, then God’s Word provides us with a means to that very desirable end. Everything else in our lives is shaped by whether or not we are living out of a life grounded in the Word of God, the Bible. We need to read it and read it better than we ever have before, so that we can live it well. As we thrive in the Word of God, knowing and living the Scriptures, we have the opportunity to walk with the God of the universe. So you are invited to walk with me as we figure out how to read better this amazing book we call “the Bible.” Perhaps you have tried reading the Bible before and the experience wasn’t that great. I am here to help. There is no more important task in life than hearing from God and trusting him on the basis of his Word.

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Literary Genres

Lesson Transcript

[00:00:00] Over a century ago. One of the main means of communication in the United States was the Telegraph. A telegraph, as you know, was a way of kind of tapping out a message in code. Over electric wires, there was a young man who saw a job advertised at a telegraph office. He went to interview for the position and when he walked in, he found that there are already a number of other people there waiting on an interview. He sat down. He was listening to the sounds of the office in the background, including the tapping out of a telegraph. And suddenly this young man very audaciously got up and he walked right into the office of the guy that was doing the interviews. He went right through the shut door and all the people out there in the office waiting to do an interview thought, well, this guy is going to get thrown out because he's just obnoxiously almost going in to meet with the boss. And yet, after a few minutes, the door opened again and the boss stepped out with this young man at his side and he said, you can all go because I'm giving this young man the job. Well, the people in the room were angry because they said, you know, we were here first and you didn't even give us an opportunity to interview with you. And the boss said, Yes, but in the background, the whole time, the Telegraph has been typing out, if you understand this message, come on in to the office for the first interview. So he gave that young man the job because he understood what he was hearing.

[00:01:49] Now, when we read the Bible, one of the main things we're going to ask is, do I understand what I'm reading as I read this part of the Bible? And in this session, we were going to talk about the fact that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. And we need to probe and kind of think through together, do I understand what these different kinds of literature are trying to accomplish? Do I understand? Am I hearing this piece of literature on its own terms, the way that the original author and ultimately God himself was meaning to communicate the message through this particular type of literature? I love a quote by C.S. Lewis that says this, The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is, what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered, the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the Communists may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you. As long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or tin cans or the cathedral for entertaining tourists, you can say nothing to the purpose about them. Well, it's the same when we think about different types of literature.

[00:03:30] Now, the good thing is you and I are already very experienced at navigating various kinds of literature in our own culture. Let me give you a couple from my culture. Well, I love comic strips. And what you see on the screen is from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Now we don't stop and analyze a cartoon. We just enjoy it and we read it and we understand the terms of it. Now, when someone is looking at this cartoon that is on the screen, they don't stop and say, Why do they have a tiger? Who is talking? Because often in comic strips, you have animals who can talk. And this particular comic strip is based around this much mischievous little boy named Calvin, who often is getting himself in trouble. Almost every comic strip has Calvin getting in trouble. And you see the images on the screen here. And obviously he's doing something he shouldn't be doing. He's about to dive off into the swimming pool and the punch line is built right into the frame. Better hurry your mom's yelling something. Well, you and I intuitively know what mom is yelling in this comic strip.

[00:04:50] Well, here's another one from my culture. It's called the Far Side, and it's based on a common theme in education in my culture. Ah, So you have a dog who's a teacher talking to all the dogs sitting in the classroom. Well, here we go again. Did anyone here not eat his or her homework on the way to school? Now, you would have to be from my culture to understand that, because the standard joke in education at times is when a student hasn't done their homework, what they say is, well, the dog ate it. But what this cartoon does is it capitalizes on that little bit of my culture and he puts it into a frame that's really funny. No one thinks that there are dogs somewhere in North America who are sitting in a classroom. But that's the nature of a comic strip. We let it do what it's doing and it's really entertaining when we experience that type of literature.

[00:05:48] Now, whether you're reading a history textbook or a menu or a magazine or a novel, you intuitively have grown up in your culture reading those different kinds of literature and you kind of know the rules of the game, how those pieces of literature work. For instance, we understand that a novel is normally not trying to reflect accurate history about real people. Now, sometimes you have what is called a historical novel, which weaves in aspects of real history, but it's still fictional. In a normal novel, you have characters who have been made up in the mind of the author, and you read a novel on those terms. If you were in your Bible study or your Sunday school class at church and someone came in today, and during the time when people were asking for prayer request, this person said, Well, we really need to pray for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy because they're having a hard time with their relationship. Well, we would not be worried about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, who are actually characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice novel. We would be worried about the person sitting in the room because they were asking for prayer for fictional characters. But you get the point that we intuitively understand how various kinds of literature work, and we read them on those terms.

[00:07:19] Now, the Bible is the same way. We approach the Bible, and we find that there are various kinds of writing that we experience in its pages. There's poetry in the Psalms. There's historical material in the Old Testament in First and second Kings, for instance. We experience letters in the New Testament. There are all these different kinds of literatures in play, and what we need to be able to do is to try to learn how did that kind of literature work back at the time when God revealed truth through the writers of the Bible? Now, one of the ministries that you might want to tap, and I'm going to come back around to several tools that we can use for understanding the various kinds of literature, but the Bible project has some excellent videos, and we're actually going to put a link online for you to be able to access some of their videos on understanding the various genre or types of literature. The word genre just refers to kinds of literature that we find in the Bible. But you have a variety of those. We're not going to have time to go through all of them in this session.

[00:08:34] But I want to give you just a taste of how we might approach some of the different kinds of literature that we find in the Bible. And I want to begin with a passage that we've seen already a couple of times together in our study, and that, again, is Jesus calming the storm. Now, this is a gospel story. And it's not only a gospel story, it's a gospel story about power, about the power of Jesus as he is having an effect on nature. You remember the story, how the disciples were with Jesus out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a storm blows up. The disciples are terrified that they're going to drown. Jesus is not worried about things. He's asleep actually in the bow of the boat. They go and wake him up and Jesus calms the storm. What kind of questions should we ask when we come to a story in the Gospels?

[00:09:36] How do we approach gospel narrative? The Gospels are biography, but they're not the kind of biography that you and I are probably used to in the modern world. This form of biography that we have in our gospels is not trying to tell us everything about the life of Jesus. It is really focusing on the most significant things that. Tell us about the identity of Jesus. And that's a very, very important point. They didn't really have biographies as we think of them in the ancient world, but they focused in on events that were the most significant events to tell us about a particular person. One of the reasons for this was because they didn't have book forms yet like we know books. They used scrolls in the ancient world where they had sheets glued end on end, and the longest a scroll could roll out to be was about 30 feet because if it got longer than that, you couldn't carry the scroll. It got to be too big. So they had to be selective on what they were sharing about a particular person. So our gospels are telling the story of Jesus, but they're especially focusing in on his identity.

[00:10:54] Mark Galli is a writer who tells about an experience that he had in teaching this story to Laotian refugees. And he was doing a Bible study with these people who were investigating Christianity. He was trying to help them understand the basics of the Gospels and the basics about who Jesus is. And he got to this story and he read through it, and then he opened up to the group and said, So Jesus can calm the storms in our life. What are some storms that you guys have in your life that Jesus could help you with? Dead silence. They just looked at him with very puzzled faces. So he tried again. He came back around and he said, you know, Jesus can calm the storm and therefore he can deal with different kinds of storms that we have in our life. Again, dead silence. And then one of the Laotians said. You mean he spoke to the storm and it stopped? And Mark Galli thought that the guy was being incredulous about miracles. He said yes, and we're going to talk about miracles later on. But and then all of a sudden, someone else in the crowd said, well, if he could do that, he was a very powerful man. And all of the refugees started chattering and talking to one another because they had been overwhelmed by this act that Jesus was able to do. And Galli said, it dawned on me that they got the main point of the story. The main point of the story was not that Jesus can calm the storms in your life. In fact, if you get to the end of the story, you find that the disciples don't say, Well, wow, that was great. Jesus could do that. Maybe he can help me. They get to the end of the story and the disciples are terrified because all of the sudden they realize that a tremendous power, the power of God, is here.

[00:13:10] One of the main things that we want to ask when we're dealing with stories and especially stories of power in the gospels, is what does this story tell me about Jesus? That's one of the key questions that we're wanting to ask. And if you remember from our study earlier, we saw that this story is actually pointing to Psalm 107, where God is the only one who can calm the storm. So when we're dealing with the genre or the kind of literature that we find in our gospels, one of the main things we want to do is ask the question, What does this tell me about the identity of Jesus?

[00:13:52] Well, let me give you another example. And that is the story of David and Goliath. When I was first reading the Bible as a little bitty child, I really wasn't even reading yet. I was just looking at pages in a Bible story book that my parents had spread out for me on the floor. I still remember the picture of David and Goliath, and I was so impressed with that. You and I know lots of stories in life that are very exciting because there is a hero in the story, whether we're talking about Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings or some other person who is a great person who comes in to save the day and with the Bible, at times we can make the mistake of thinking that the main point of the story is to tell us about a hero like David. And yet that's not really how the narratives of the Old Testament work. In fact, if you read that story carefully, you find that it is not David who is the main hero of the story.

[00:14:58] So let's look at that story together just for a moment. This is a time when the Israelites were having conflict with a group of people called the Philistines. And in this particular point in the history, you have the Philistine army lined up over against the Israelite army. And yet the Philistines have a champion named Goliath. He is a giant of a man, and he comes out every day and he defies the nation of Israel and defies God and says, Your God can't stop me. And so David, as a younger guy comes to the battle and he begins asking questions about it and he ends up going to the Commander Saul, and saying, look, I'll go out and fight this guy. I've killed a bear before and a lion with my sling. I can take this guy on. And at first Saul tries to give David armor to wear and David says, No, this really doesn't fit me. And so he takes up his sling with a few smooth stones and goes out to meet Goliath. And this is what it says at this point in the story. The Philistine came closer and closer to David with the shield bearer in front of him, and when the Philistine looked and saw David, he despised him because he was just a youth, healthy and handsome. He said to David, Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks? And then he cursed David by his gods. Come here, the Philistine called to David, and I'll give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the wild beast. And David said to the Philistine, You come against me with a sword, spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Armies, or I come against you in the name of the Lord of armies, the God of the ranks of Israel. You have defied Him. Today the Lord will hand you over to me. Today I'll strike you down, Remove your head and give the corpses of the Philistine camp to the birds of the sky and the wild creatures of the earth. And then all the world will know that Israel has a God and this whole assembly will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves. For the battle is the Lord's. He will hand you over to us.

[00:17:32] Do you see who is at the center of this story? Even from David's perspective, it is the Lord God. And I remember a number of years ago I was interviewing Bruce Waltke about how we read the Old Testament narratives, and one of the main points he made was we need to first ask, how is God the hero of this story? Because all of the different stories of the Old Testament are being woven together to show the actions of God in the world. And so when we think about this story, we don't want to primarily say, how can I be a hero like David? What we want to say is, how do I respond to this story with the God of the all the Earth being the real hero of what's going on? Because what God is doing is he is raising up David to be a leader of his people. And it even anticipates the coming of Jesus eventually, who is going to be a descendant of King David.

[00:18:39] Now, there are various things that we can ask when we see a story like this. We can ask questions like Who are the main characters in the story? One of the most important things we want to ask is how is God the hero of the story? As we've already said, these kind of stories move forward often on basis of tension. So when we're reading a story of the Old Testament or the New Testament, we want to ask what is the tension built in to this story? And it's obvious with this one, the tension is there is fear on the part of the Israelite army as they are facing this overwhelming combatant name, Goliath. And yet, as we continue to read the story, we can ask how does resolution happen? Well, by David, trusting in the Lord God, he is able to defeat the giant. And then finally, we want to ask with these kinds of stories, what can I learn about God, about relationship with God or about life in the world? Now, these are the kind of questions that we want to ask when we're probing the different kinds of narrative that we find in the Old Testament.

[00:19:55] Let me switch to a very different kind of literature, and that is the Proverbs. Now, Proverbs are interesting because they are trying to teach us how to live wisely. How do we walk in wisdom as we are making our way through the world. Proverbs are not based on storytelling. They're based on collecting together wise thoughts that give us short, pithy sayings about how it is best to follow God. We need, we desperately need wisdom in our modern world. With the advent of the Internet a number of years ago, it's not hard to find knowledge. You can find information about a lot of stuff online. In fact, when I'm getting ready to do almost anything around my house, I'll turn to YouTube and I'll pull up a video that will tell me the facts about what I'm doing and how I need to go about it. But facts are not the same as intelligence, and intelligence is certainly not the same as wisdom. Wisdom is all about how do I take the information I have, how do I even work with the intelligence that God has given me? But how do I approach decisions I make in life and relationships on the basis of God's way of seeing the world? How do I approach it with wisdom? So when we see Proverbs or we come to this book, we're going to find various kinds of questions like, How do I get along with my neighbor? How should I treat other people in my family or at work? How how am I to think about money and possessions? How can I deal with a fool? Maybe somebody that I'm having to encounter in my life somewhere? And how can I keep from being a fool in the decisions that I make in life? Those are the kinds of questions that we are going to deal with when we see Proverbs.

[00:22:04] So how do we interpret proverbs when we're reading it? How do we approach it? Well, the key is that Proverbs offer patterns of life and guidance, not promises. The Proverbs often sound like promises, but they're really just giving us guidelines. They're in essence saying to us, This is the best way to live your life.

[00:22:29] Let me give you a couple of examples of what I'm talking about there. You can read a passage like Proverbs chapter ten, verse four, Idle hands make one poor but diligent hands bring riches. Now, if you read that as a promise, you may end up being disillusioned. I would imagine that many of you listening to me right now have gone through life and you have been diligent. You've worked hard at your job, and yet you would not consider yourself a wealthy person. Proverbs is not promising us that if we work hard in life, we're going to get rich the way that we might think about being rich. But what it is saying is the best way to approach life is to work hard, to be diligent with the things that you're doing. And if you live in that way, things are going to go well, generally speaking. This is the best way to live and to approach work. You'll find that Proverbs has a flip side of that coin where it basically says that a foolish person is one who doesn't work hard, who is lazy, and they end up going hungry. Well, both of those realities, you know, may be things that we have seen in the world. We may have known a foolish person that is rich because of their inheritance. But we've got to remember that what Proverbs is doing is giving us guidelines for the best way to live for God in the world.

[00:23:55] Another example would be the passage that says start a youth out on his way, and even when he grows old, he will not depart from it. That is from Proverbs chapter 22, verse six. Now, I have known parents in the past who have understood this as a promise that if they raise their child to fear the Lord and to be the Lord's person, that the promise is that that child will never depart from the Lord. Well, we all know friends and family members who have been godly parents. They have raised their kids in the ways of the Lord. And yet at some point that child made decisions that led off into a trajectory that was not healthy. And for some of them, they haven't yet come back to the Lord. But remember that a proverb is not a promise. A proverb is saying, This is the best way to live. So with this proverb, the way that we would think about applying it is to think, you know, the best way I can raise my children is to raise them in the ways of the Lord, and they're going to be much more likely to be the Lord's people if we raise them in that way. So do you get the point that Proverbs are not intended to be ironclad promises? They're meant to be guidelines for the best way to live for the Lord in the world.

[00:25:21] Let me give you a third type of literature, and that is the Psalms. The Psalms are kind of the hymn book for the people of God. And when we think about the Psalms, what we want to kind of ask about the Psalms would be what is the imagery that is being used here in the Psalms? Because the Psalms often use word pictures, as I said earlier in our sessions together to communicate the truth about God. You might remember the passage from Psalm one. Right off the bat, the author is using a word picture. How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers. And he begins with this imagery of walking, standing and sitting that progresses because he wants us to have that image, a word picture in our mind of the progression of someone who is going away from the Lord and making bad decisions. The contrast is instead, God's person is one who has his delight in the Lord's instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. And then he uses this beautiful word picture of the tree in the stream. He says he is like a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season, and his leaf does not wither and whatever he does prospers. So when we come to the literature of poetry that we find in the Psalms, we find various kinds of characteristics like word pictures or figurative kind of language. This person is like a tree, and he's drawing parallels then between the godly person who is drawing on God's Word on a daily basis and a tree that is drawing on the stream that is running beside it. So one of the questions we'll ask when we're reading the Psalms is what is this word picture communicating about a person's relationship with God? So that is one of the things that we'll ask when we're dealing with the Psalms.

[00:27:43] Here's another thing that we need to think about when we are reading the Psalms, and that is how is the Psalm giving voice to my emotions? Because one of the great gifts of the Psalms is it puts in words the things that we are experiencing and feeling in life. I love this psalm from chapter 42 in the book, and this is what it says, As the deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you God. I thirst for God the living God. When can I come and appear before God? Now, as I'm reading that, I can identify with it. There are times in my life when it feels like God is distant and I am needy and empty. And the word picture here of a deer that is really so thirsty that it is longing for streams of water. Now, the background of this is that there are many streams in the land of Israel that go dry when they're not experiencing their wet season. And you can imagine a deer kind of out in an in an arid place where this deer is not able to find water. And finally they come and they find a stream of water and they slake their thirst at that point. Well, the psalmist is using this imagery to say, you know, there are times in our lives when we are longing for God. We want to know the presence of God. We're thirsting for him, and we feel very, very dry spiritually.

[00:29:26] In fact, if you look at the broader context of this Psalm and keep reading, you come to the passage down in verse five, Why my soul are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him, my Savior and my God. The context of what is going on in Psalm 42 is that this person is really experiencing some spiritual depression. They feel like they have turmoil inside. Have you ever felt like that? I know I feel like that at various times in my life. And yet what the psalm goes on to do is to help us with words that we can pray as we cry out to God. And it gives us even words to say to ourselves. So notice that what the psalmist does here is he speaks to himself and he said, Look, soul, why are you messed up right now? Put your hope in God. I will still praise him. He is my savior and my God. So the Psalms, as we read them, capitalize on word pictures. They give expression to our emotions. And so we want to ask what's the emotion being expressed here? And they even give us words of prayer that we can pray to God and even words that we can speak to ourselves to give encouragement to ourselves and say, come on, let's get going here. We want to be people who are hoping in God.

[00:30:58] So we've seen several different kinds of elements that are important as we read the Psalms. They give us word pictures, they give voice to our emotions, and then they help us think about how we are to respond to God.

[00:31:14] So when we're dealing with the various kinds of literature in the Bible, as we're reading through the Bible, we want to ask, well, what kind of literature is this and what questions do I need to ask as I'm experiencing this kind of literature? Now, there are other types of literature that we find in the Bible that we're not going to deal with today. For instance, you have the law of the Old Testament, and there are specific questions we want to ask when we're dealing with the law or we're dealing with the prophets in the Old Testament, or we're looking at the letters of the New Testament or even that amazing book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. And we'll find, for instance, with a book like Revelation, a very, very important question we'll need to ask is what do these symbols mean? Because that type of literature is really playing off of, not word pictures so much, but these images, these symbols often drawn from the Old Testament itself.

[00:32:12] So how do you get at this stuff? Well, let me give you a couple of tools that you can use as you're trying to understand the various literatures of the Bible. I have a book from a number of years ago where I went around and I interviewed different scholars who were specialists in the different parts of the Bible. I mentioned Bruce Waltke, who I interviewed about the Old Testament narrative. I interviewed Doug Moo on the letters of the New Testament. My friend Scott Duvall on Revelation. And what we would do is we would sit down and we would talk through how do we read this part of the Bible? Well, so my book Read the Bible for Life is a book you can take a look at. It has chapters on each of these types of literature as well as other kind of helpful chapters on how to read the Bible in various contexts in life.

[00:33:01] An even more detailed book is how to read the Bible for all it's Worth where Gordon, Fee and Doug Stuart go through more of a graduate level kind of approach to asking lots of questions about the various kinds of literature that we find in the Bible. And remember, I already mentioned that there is a link for you to go to the Bible Project's videos, and they also will give you introductions on a lot of these different kinds of literature. As you understand the various kinds of literatures and you're able to hear them well, it gives you a tremendous joy in reading the Bible as God speaks to you personally. And that's my prayer for you as you read the Bible better by understanding its literatures.