This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.
When you read a story to a child, do you read it the same way as you would an encyclopedia article? Do you read the newspaper the same way you read a poem?
We instinctively know that we can’t read everything the same way. The style and form—or genre—of what we’re reading shapes our expectations and interpretation. The genre gives us reading "rules."
If we look for metaphors and deeper layers of meaning in an instructional manual, we’d be missing the point. Likewise, if we expect a children’s storybook to give us nuanced answers for our self-help predicament. We pay attention to genre to read well.
Genre and How We Study the Bible
Do you know the Bible contains several different literary genres? As we read and interpret Scripture, we must pay attention to it to read well and read the passage as it was intended to be read.
When you read a passage of Scripture, ask, “What is the genre of this book/passage? How does that genre inform the way I should read, interpret, and apply this?”
One of the best single resources I know for this endeavor is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart. This book is well worth having on your shelf.
For each of the genres in Scripture, the authors explain the main features of the genre, the Biblical books it applies to, and the basic principles for reading and interpreting the genre. They keep everything practical and accessible, focus on broadly applicable principles that can guide our reading, and pepper these principles with examples.
For our purposes here, I’ll give a brief overview of the biblical genres—but I’d encourage you to get a copy of How to Read to learn more.
Biblical Genres At A Glance
The narratives in the Bible tell us about God’s work in history. These stories from the past are intended to shape us in the present, but they are not intended to be moralized. They may illustrate implicitly a principle or standard of morality (positively or negatively) that is explicitly taught somewhere else in Scripture, but they do not always give us a clear judgment of people’s behavior.
The Law was a binding covenant, or legal agreement, between Israel and God, and explains how the nation of Israel was to behave and worship, individually and as a society. It included specific blessings and curses that would come as a result of their faithfulness or unfaithfulness (see Deut. 28). These blessings and curses are important to understand the rest of Israel’s history, particularly the prophets and the exile.
Poetry uses evocative and imagery-laden language and is peppered with metaphors and similes. The Psalms (the largest collection of poetry in the Bible) are songs and poems to and about God, intended to give voice to the praise and prayer of God’s people. They are music, not in-depth or extensive explanations of doctrine. They are properly interpreted as a whole, with each line understood in light of the ones around it.
One feature to keep an eye out for: parallelism. The writer puts two lines of poetry in parallel with each other, to add a depth of meaning—and beauty—by the way they compare to each other or build on each other. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see how frequent it is. For example, Psalm 19:1:
"The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the sky above proclaims his handiwork."
Wisdom literature in the Bible uses poetry to give practical, pithy statements about how to make godly choices and think and act based on God’s truth. By nature it is inexact and not exhaustive. It gives us a memorable snippet of truth but doesn’t tell us all about it. This is why all wisdom literature must be read and interpreted based on the entirety of Scripture.
The prophets spoke for God to specific people in a specific situation. They announce God’s enforcement of the covenant, as given in the Law, and declare both judgment and hope. They must be read in light of the historic setting and background of the audience and in light of the blessings and curses of the Law. The prophets often convey their message using poetry, so we should remember to pay attention to the imagery, metaphors, and parallelism in their message, just as we do in the Psalms.
The Gospels are selective presentations of the life, work, and teaching of Christ, for a specific audience. The differences in the Gospels are intentional, and paying attention to these differences will help us understand what is being emphasized and communicated by each Gospel writer. Just as we pay attention to the intended audience of the Gospel writer, we pay attention to the audience of Jesus’ teaching. His parables and stories expect a response, and they are properly understood when we remember who he is calling to respond in that moment (disciples, crowds, Pharisees, etc.).
The Epistles were letters written by apostles to a specific group of Christians for a specific purpose and to a specific situation. Since we’re only given one "side" of the conversation, we need to pay attention to the historical context and to the clues we’re given about the “other side” of the conversation. It’s crucial to read these books with an eye for the entire argument and flow of logic. We must constantly be asking what the author’s words would have meant to his original audience, and then (and only then) we can consider what a comparable situation and application it has for today.
The word apocalypse means “revelation, disclosure, unveiling” and refers to an unveiling of unseen or future spiritual or earthly events and realities. It heavily uses symbolism and visions, and it is concerned about future judgment, justice, and salvation. It is important to remember that apocalypse (which appears in Revelation, Daniel, and prophets like Ezekiel) is a form of literature, and one that is heavily stylized and artistic in its imagery, use of numbers, structure, etc.