Archives For Tips for Reading Bible Genres

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

With this series of blog posts, I want to help you better understand the way in which the Bible was written so that you can get more out of your Bible reading. Specifically, I will be exploring the different literary genres in which the Bible was written.

Perhaps that sounds startling: “I thought the Bible was the Word of God. Why are we considering literary genres?” The simple answer is: because that’s the way God chose to record his inerrant, infallible Word. Leland Ryken explains:

“The Bible is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a work of literature. The one thing that the Bible is not is what Christians so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached. The characteristic way of expressing religious truth in the Bible is through story, poem, vision, and letter. By comparison, expository essays, theological discourses and sermons are a relative rarity.”[1]

So if God chose to use literary genres in communicating with us, we need to understand those genres so that we can better understand what he is saying to us. (Note to overachievers: If you want to go more in depth, Grasping God’s Word by Duvall & Hays has clear and helpful discussions of each of these genres.)

 

Tips for Reading Narrative

NarrativeHere’s how narrative passages tend to function: they tell stories. Mind blowing, I know. But it’s important to recognize this simple fact. (Keep in mind that when I call them stories, I’m not implying that they’re fictional.)

Narrative passages aren’t written about us. They’re relaying past events. Narrative passages describe more than they prescribe. They show more than they tell. These stories describe what happened. They’re not prescribing a course of action for us. They’re showing us what God and his people have done. They’re not directly telling us what to do.

Now, there is much that we can learn from narrative passages about God, his truth, and his will for our lives. But we have to first examine the stories as they have been recorded, and then we can wrestle with how these passages might or might not relate to us today. Here are some tips for doing that:

 

1. Read theologically, not moralistically.

I stole this concept from Preston Sprinkle. So often, we read narratives to find moral examples to follow. We want to imitate Joseph or David or Abraham. But we shouldn’t do what they did in every case. For one thing, these characters are flawed, so we need to ask which aspects of their lives are worthy of imitation. For another thing, God has plans for us that probably don’t involve ruling Egypt, slaying literal giants, or fathering nations. I suggest that we read not primarily to find out what the narrative tells us about David, but to find out what the narrative tells us about God. The passage tells us about God by telling us about David, but the hero in every biblical story is ultimately God, and we would do well to always keep that at the front of our minds.

 

2. Identify the setting.

While Greek mythology takes place in an imaginary world, biblical narratives are set against a real life backdrop. These events took place in real history, in real nations, in the midst of real cultures. So identifying the setting of the story will help us better understand what is going on. Sometimes you can figure this out from the passage itself, other times consulting a good Study Bible will be helpful in learning more about the setting.

 

3. Identify and assess the important characters.

Gandalf vs. SarumanWho is being set up as the hero? Who comes out looking like a villain? Does the narrator provide any clues as to who is “good” and who is “bad”? What makes the difference between a good and bad character in this story? (E.g., Is Jonah a good character because he’s a prophet of God? Are the Ninevites bad characters because they were a godless nation at the beginning of the story?) Are certain characters contrasted? How do we learn more about a given character by the comparison that is made to another character? (E.g., in The Lord of the Rings, we learn more about Gandalf the Grey by contrasting him with Saruman the White. Or looking at the Bible, what do we learn about David by comparing him to Saul when Goliath confronts the Israelites? What do we learn about David by comparing him to Uriah when David steals his wife?)

 

4. Trace the Plot

What is the setting at the beginning of the story? What conflict arises that needs to be addressed? How is that conflict addressed, and what is the outcome? If we don’t understand the plot line, we don’t understand the story.

 

5. Look for repetition.

Is the narrator repeating any phrases in the story? If so, these can be significant for understanding what he wants us to see in the story. For example, the entire book of Genesis is structured by the phrase “these are the generations of…” which turns up 12 times in the book. The book of Judges tells us four times that “in those days, there was no king in Israel” and twice that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Acknowledging these features can help us see what the narrator wants us to see.

 

6. Assess the story as a whole and ask why God wanted you to hear it.

God recorded each story in the Bible for a reason. Analyze the story as a whole, and then consider why God put that in the Bible. How should it affect you? The story isn’t about you, and you’re not meant to go out and directly repeat it. But God wanted you to have the story. What do you learn about God by reading the story? What do you gain by seeing the ways that God has worked in history? What do you learn about the nature of bravery and fear and hope and faith by reading this story?

And perhaps most importantly, what do we gain by having this story as opposed to a simple statement? (E.g., Why is it beneficial to have the story of God leading his people miraculously out of slavery in Egypt, rather than a simple statement that “God cares for his people”?)



[1] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 41.

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

LawThe Old Testament Law can be a very difficult section of Scripture for modern readers. For one thing, it’s tedious (a less friendly word would be boring). Commands are often listed one after another for chapters at a time. And seriously, how long can you stay focused when reading about the many ways one’s ox can harm another’s family or property and the repercussions thereof?

But the Law is hugely significant. It runs from Exodus 20 through the book of Numbers. Then it gets recapped in Deuteronomy. So not only does it get a lot of Old Testament ink, it also sets the framework for the rest of the Old Testament. When Israel obeys the Law, they are blessed. When they disobey, they are cursed and sent into exile. So to understand the Old Testament you have to understand the Law. And to understand the significance of what Jesus did, you have to understand the Law.

Here are some tips, then, for reading Old Testament legal passages:

 

1. Acknowledge the historical & covenantal setting.

The Law was given in the context of the covenant that God gave to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. In this historical setting, God was coming to dwell with his people, first in the tabernacle, then later in the temple. Guidelines had to be established for how a holy God would live with a sinful people. How would Israel’s sin be dealt with? How would God’s holiness be kept at the forefront of Israel’s mind? These kinds of practical problems—arising from God dwelling with human beings—are addressed through the Law.

So when we read the Law, we’re not reading commands that are given directly to us. We’re reading a contract signed by God and ancient Israel. When he came to earth, Jesus was clear that he wasn’t simply brushing the Law aside: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). But this is not the same thing as saying “I have come to leave the Law exactly as it is.”

There is debate over precisely how the Law relates to New Testament Christians, but in my view, Jesus took the whole Law, rolled it up like one big prophecy pointing to himself, and then fulfilled it. So now Hebrews tells us that Jesus has instituted a new covenant and thereby made the old covenant “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13), which involves a change in priesthood and a change in the law (7:12). So the Law retains its value, but we do not read the Law as commands to govern our daily lives.

 

2. Identify which type of law is being described.

Once we acknowledge the historical and covenantal setting of the Law in general, we can analyze the specific laws we’re reading. Some laws are given as universals that appear to apply across the board: “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Others give more specific case laws. For example, Exodus 21:21–36 gives means for restitution when your ox gets out of hand. This seems to be more of a case study, which would give a judge a sort of legal precedent to use in making rulings.

It’s easy to learn something from the absolute laws. We read Exodus 20:13 and affirm that we serve a God who values human life. But the case laws are a little trickier to pull principles out of. That’s okay. You don’t need to reach new heights in your spiritual life with each of the 600+ laws in the Old Testament. Try to understand what you can, and don’t get caught up on the rest. When you get stuck, there are always study Bibles and commentaries to help.

 

3. Picture what a society governed by these laws would look like.

If a nation kept all of these laws perfectly, what would it look like? How would it function with regard to the rest of the world? How would it contrast with the nations around it?

Take Leviticus 19:9–10 as an example. God tells Israel that when they harvest their grain, they shouldn’t harvest right up to the edge of their field, but they should instead leave some for the poor to come and gather. So a society governed by this law has a built-in mechanism for caring for the poor, not as a state sponsored program, but through each person sharing with the poor of the land. Or look again at the ox-goring passages. A society that followed these laws would have incentive for maintaining responsibility for one’s animals and a set means for making things right when they went wrong.

Picturing the way that this type of society would function is an important part of understanding what these laws are getting at.

 

4. Imagine what it would feel like to live under these laws and meditate on how these laws are fulfilled in Jesus.

What would it be like to constantly make the kinds of sacrifices you’re reading about? How would it feel to always keep—or strive to keep—the laws that keep stacking up? What would be on your mind as you made these sacrifices and broke these laws? And then, think about what it means that Jesus “fulfilled” the Law. This can actually be a rich form of appreciating what Jesus has done on your behalf.

 

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

PoetryWho doesn’t love the Psalms? These poem-songs have been treasured throughout church history. Yet we often have trouble with the imagery and figures of speech that make poetry what it is.

God loves poetry. Over a third of the Bible is recorded in poetic form. Essentially, poetry is a highly structured form of communication. Rather than speaking in free flowing prose, poetry takes pains not only with regard to what to say, but also how to say it. Poetry makes frequent use of imagery and figures of speech. This makes it a somewhat indirect form of communication. The goal isn’t to get us to assimilate information into our brains. The goal is to get us to feel the truth or experience presented by the author.

Here are some tips for navigating this complex genre:

 

1. Focus on the imagery.

When a poetic passage presents you with an image, see it in your mind’s eye. When Psalm 91:4 tells you that God will cover you with his feathers, image hiding under the shelter of a giant bird. The Psalmist is not trying to convince you that God is literally a bird, but he does want you to grasp that imagery and learn and feel more about God through it.

There is a difference here between taking poetry seriously and taking it literally. Psalm 91:4 refers to a literal truth: that God cares for his people. But the poetic phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Taking the poetry seriously means acknowledging the imagery and interpreting it as a figure of speech. Taking it literally leads us far away from the literal truth the Psalmist was trying to convey.

So do your best to fully appreciate the imagery presented. It’s there for a reason. Don’t translate it into propositional statements as quickly as you can; value the imagery.

 

2. Look for poetic elements and structure.

In other words, what makes this poem different than prose? Every poem can be summarized in a bald statement. But that strips the value of the poetry. So what elements are making this poem more powerful than a plain statement?

For example, why does “God is my shepherd; I shall not want” mean more than “God will take care of my needs”? What is added that makes the poetry poetic? In this case, it’s the parallel structure and the figures of speech.

The parallel structure gives us two phrases that are meant to be considered together. Biblical poetry gives us these parallel phrases, typically in groups of two, three, or four lines. So “God is my shepherd” is presented in relationship to “I shall not want.” What is that relationship? How does the one line help us understand the other? Are they saying the same thing (as in Ps. 19:1)? Adding more information (as in Ps. 46:1)? Answering a question (as in Ps. 119:9)? Showing a contrast (as in Ps. 1:6)? All of these are common types of parallelism. In this case, the two lines are complementing one another in a cause and effect relationship. “I shall not want.” Why? Because “God is my shepherd.” The parallel structure adds beauty and depth to this assertion.

The power of the statement also comes from the figure of speech. “God is my shepherd” is not a literal statement. We are meant to visualize it (see point 1) and contemplate our relationship to God in these terms.

Unfortunately, since these poems were written in an ancient language, the figures of speech are sometimes odd or difficult for us to interpret. But we do our best, consulting a pastor, Study Bible, or commentary when it gets tough. This is a common problem in cross-cultural situations (as the video below illustrates).

We should also keep an eye open for unique structure. How are key thoughts structured in the poem? Does the poem show signs of unusual formatting? For example, Psalm 119 is a big acrostic. Verses 1–8 start with the Hebrew “A” (aleph), verses 9–16 start with the Hebrew “B” (beth), etc. Many English translations note this so that you can appreciate the structure. Proverbs 31:10–31 is an acrostic. So are several other Psalms. When you identify these elements, ask how it heightens the impact of the poetry to realize that it has been so carefully crafted.

 

3. Consider the overall impact

Poetry is complex, and the elements that make it unique are often varied and difficult to pinpoint. But that’s what makes it poetry. So when you read through Psalm 23, live in the imagery. Consider the structure and the figures of speech. Then sit back and consider the poem as a whole. How does it impact you? How do you feel after meditating on God as your shepherd, after the assurances of his presence in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and after the visual of a banquet laid out even as your enemies look on? It’s not just about identifying propositions to fill in your theological beliefs (though biblical poetry gives us these), it’s about experiencing God in a unique and powerful way through contemplation.

And by the way, if you’re reading through the poetic sections of Scripture quickly, you’re doing it wrong. Speed-reading is such an attractive concept these days, but poetry resists speed-reading. If you’re not willing to take your time and soak it in, you’re not ready to read biblical poetry.

 

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

Wisdom LiteratureIn talking about “Wisdom Literature,” I’m referring to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These books focus less on giving us direct commands and instead give us wise sayings to live by. Wisdom Literature pushes us to reflect, and in doing so it forms our character.

Each of these four books plays a different role in the overall body of Wisdom Literature. Proverbs, for example, gives us the norm for biblical wisdom. These sayings hold true in general. Now, as soon as I say that, you might notice that I’m hedging a bit. The sayings are true in general. Consider, for example, the following two proverbs:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4–5)

So which is it? The truth is, both are wise statements that we should allow to form our character. Taking a cue from verse 4, if we engage a fool in his argument, we’re just playing his game and showing ourselves to be fools. But when we consider verse 5, it’s also true that if we let a fool continue making his argument, his view will prevail and he won’t see the stupidity of it. Therefore we ought to engage the fool in argument so he (and everyone else) can see how foolish he is.

These proverbs set the norm. They tell us how life works, and how to live wisely. There are exceptions to many of these proverbs, but they give us the normal point of view on how the world works.

The other books of Wisdom Literature fill in this perspective. Job, for example, provides us with an exception to proverbial wisdom. Though Proverbs tells us that the righteous prosper (Prov. 3:33), Job gives us an example of a righteous man who does not prosper, precisely because he is a righteous man! Job’s friends use proverbial wisdom in “counseling” him, but they use it foolishly.

Ecclesiastes relays one man’s (“the Preacher”) pursuit of meaning in life. He lays his observations of life, considered apart from God’s presence (this is what the phrase “under the sun” is getting at), alongside traditional proverbial wisdom. He finds life perplexing and meaningless all along the way, until he finally reaches a godly conclusion.

Song of Solomon gives us a collection of love songs that simply delight in the goodness of marital love.

Together these books give us wisdom. Here are some tips for navigating this biblical genre:

 

1. Feel the imagery presented.

When you’re told that it’s better to live in the corner of a housetop than with a quarrelsome wife (Prov. 21:9), you should imagine both scenarios. What would it be like to live in the corner of a housetop? What would it be like to live with a quarrelsome wife (I sincerely hope you have to use your imagination)? Wisdom Literature makes use of vivid imagery for a reason.

 

2. Consider the wisdom offered and the benefits of being shaped by it.

Don’t move through the Wisdom Literature too quickly. Let the wisdom offered sink in. Appreciate it. See the depth of each statement. As you read through Proverbs 5, consider how profoundly wise the warning against the “forbidden woman” truly is. Imagine what your life would look life if your character was formed by these wise sayings. It’s one thing to scamper through a list of brilliant sayings. It’s another to weigh and ponder the depth of their wisdom, and to let that wisdom become a part of you.

 

3. With Proverbs, look for life direction rather than blank check promises.

As I said above, Proverbs offers us the norm. But there are exceptions. Consider, for example, Proverbs 10:3:

“The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.”

This is a wise saying to live by. It should shape our character. And it’s often true to life. But do Christians experience crippling hunger? All the time, yes. Do the wicked receive what they “crave”? Very often.

As you read proverbs like this one, let the wisdom of the saying set the direction for your life. You should read this and be motivated to pursue righteousness. But you can’t hold this promise over God’s head like some kind of blank check promise. Paul was content to go without (Phil. 4:11–13). Christians do indeed die of starvation. God isn’t promising you unwavering material prosperity in exchange for good behavior. He spoke these words in the form of Wisdom Literature to shape your character, not to give you grounds for complaint.

 

4. With Ecclesiastes, walk with “the Preacher” on his journey.

As you read this enigmatic book, follow the “Preacher” as he searches for meaning in life. Experience his journey and resonate with his frequent observation that “all is vanity.” See the futility of life apart from God and feel the weight of the many exceptions he finds to proverbial wisdom (e.g. Eccl. 7:15). And then see the brilliance of his conclusion to this fascinating book (12:13–14).

 

5. With Job, accompany this righteous man in his unjust suffering.

As you read through this sad story, feel the bitterness of the unpredictability of life. Feel the foolishness of offering wisdom in a foolish way, as Job’s friends do for chapter upon chapter. Finally, come to the realizations that God offers to Job at the end of the book.

 

6. For Song of Solomon, delight in the romantic side of love.

As you read through this beautiful book, don’t try to spiritualize it, as Christian scholars have done for much of church history. Nothing in this book indicates that these songs are to be taken as allegories of Christ and the church. They give every indication of being love songs written between lovers. So read them that way. And appreciate the value and beauty of romantic love.

 

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

ProphecyThe prophetic books of the Old Testament can be tricky. But these are important books, so it’s important that we understand how to read them well.

Old Testament prophecy is not what we tend to think it is. Duvall & Hays summarize some surprising facts about the Old Testament prophetic books:

  • Less than 5% prophesies about the time between Jesus’ first and second comings.
  • Less than 2% prophesies about Jesus (the Messiah).
  • Less than 1% prophesies about events that have not yet occurred.

Most Christians know that the Old Testament is full of prophesies about Jesus. And it is. But those prophecies are only a small fraction of what Old Testament prophecy is about. So what does the vast majority of the prophetic books cover? Sin, really. Or more accurately, the call to repentance.

When we talked about the Law, we said that it was given in a very specific context. So it is with prophecy. In fact, the context of the Law and the context of the Prophets are integrally related. The Law was part of a covenant that God made with Israel. Israel agreed to this covenant along with its terms: if they obeyed, they would be blessed and remain in the Promised Land; if they disobeyed, they would be cursed and carried off into exile.

Now, as we read the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi), the context once again centers on Israel, the covenant, and the Law. Particularly, Israel (which has by this point split into two nations: Israel and Judah) has disobeyed the Law, they have not been faithful to the covenant, so now they are facing exile. The vast majority of the prophetic books, then, is either calling Israel or Judah to repent and remember God’s covenant, promising them judgment for their disobedience, speaking to Israel or Judah in the midst of their exile and explaining how they got to where they are, or speaking consoling words of a time when they will be allowed to return to the Promised Land. (Sometimes the prophets will turn and speak to surrounding nations about judgment and repentance.)

With all of that in mind, here are some tips for navigating this difficult but rewarding genre of Scripture:

 

1. Always start by considering the historical and covenantal context.

Remember that these words weren’t written directly to you. Remember that these people are being held accountable to the covenant that God made with Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. The relevance of each prophetic passage will extend beyond that historical situation, but it always starts there. So consider the audience, the place in which they stand (is this book written before, during, or after the exile? is it written to Israel, to Judah, or to some other nation? is the passage speaking of hope, judgment, or foretelling the future?), and what these words would have meant to them before you decide what it means for us today.

Jeremiah 29;11 PlateAn example might be helpful. We love Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I estimate that this verse covers roughly half of the decorative plates in Christian homes. But we need to consider the context. These words were written as part of a letter from Jeremiah to the leaders of the Jewish people who were in exile. The letter tells them to settle into their new exilic “home”: they’re going to be there for awhile. And then, after 70 years of being cut off from the Promised Land, God is going to gather them from the nations and return them to their home. Why? Because “he knows the plans he has for Israel.”

Go ahead and read Jeremiah 29:1–23. These words are not a promise that God’s plan for my life is bright and sunny. They are a promise to a disobedient people that they will be punished for 70 years, and then they will be allowed to return home. The context makes all the difference in understanding this passage.

 

2. Feel & visualize the imagery used.

The prophetic books are full of powerful imagery. Just as we said for the genre of poetry, enter into the imagery of the prophets. What visuals is the imagery painting? How should the imagery makes us feel, what would it have us experience? For example, Isaiah 5 confronts Israel in their disobedient response to God’s grace. But it does so by comparing Israel to a vineyard and God to a viticulturist. Take the imagery in. Consider its overall impact. Ask how this imagery would have felt to those hearing it (would they be frightened? given hope? moved to repentance?). Until you let the imagery hit you, you haven’t understood the prophecy.

 

3. Ask what you can learn about God by the way he speaks to his people in this passage.

We have so much to learn about God’s greatness, wrath, mercy, patience, faithfulness, fatherhood, persistence, etc. by reading the prophets. So we haven’t finished reading these passages until we ask what we can learn about God through his words and actions in these books. Let’s revisit Jeremiah 29:11. While we need to understand that it’s not making a promise directly to us, it’s hugely instructive to see God making this kind of promise to such a persistently disobedient people. By reading this passage carefully, we find that even though God punishes his people, he still cares for them, and offers them even more grace in the future. (So you don’t need to smash your decorative plates after all—just make sure you understand the context.)

 

I’ll end with a note about some of the biggest difficulties of interpreting prophecy. One big area of disagreement is how literally the imagery should be taken. When we are told that the lion will lie down with the lamb (Is. 11:6), is that giving us a non-literal mental image of peace or giving us a literal example of what will happen when peace reigns on earth? It’s not an easy question to settle, though the main point is clear (peace is coming!).

Then there are the prophecies about a future restoration for Israel. Are they going to be literally fulfilled in the literal nation of Israel at some point, or are these promises spiritually fulfilled in the church, the New Testament people of God? There are good arguments to be made either way. This is one of the biggest debates in biblical interpretation.

Finally, for that minority of passages that are predicting future events, when will those events occur? Once again, it’s not easy to determine. Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While God’s Word is sure and we can trust that God knows what these events are referring to, Christians often disagree on precisely when and how these predictions of the future will play out. But don’t worry, it gets even more controversial when we get to the book of Revelation.

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