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.”
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
Here’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.
Who 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”?)
 Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 41.