We love stories. Our cultures have a rich tradition of oral history in different forms. We have legends, proverbs, fables, biographies, poems, dramas and songs—and each form must be heard differently. A fable is a made-up story with a lesson. A biography should record what actually happened. And a poem focusses on the beauty of expression. Different types of writings are called genres, a word meaning ‘similar in style or subject matter.’ As a work of literature, the Bible contains various literary genres.
In fact, the Bible, God’s written word, contains at least ten different types of writings. Each of these literary genres must be understood in its own special way. The book of Acts narrates the church’s early mission as it actually happened. Revelation, however, is full of rich symbolism and strange images. When these differences are not recognised, confusion will creep into our understanding of the Bible.
When different literary genre are not recognised, confusion creeps into our understanding.
Poetry uses metaphors, a type of speech in which one thing is called another. One of the most famous metaphors is “The LORD is my shepherd.” The psalmist was not really a sheep, but we look at the characteristics of a “good shepherd” and we can understand how God takes care of his people. Below are ten of the different types of writings, or literary genre.
Historical narrative tells the story of what happened in the past. Almost half of the Old Testament is narrative history, as well as Acts and portions of the Gospels in the New Testament. Narrative history tells us facts from God’s perspective. It also provides a context for many of the other books of the Bible. It helps us understand what was happening when the prophets spoke or Paul wrote his letters. The events of history are directed by God. Narrative history is written for our instruction. Paul says, referring to the Israelites, “These things happened to them as an example for us” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Narratives show the character of God, because they tells how God deals with his people and directs history.
We do not just follow what people did in these stories. First, we look at who they are. If it is a story about Jesus, we will want to think about how we can act in a similar way in our own situation. If it is a story about an evil king, we will learn from his mistakes. In his letters, Paul uses good and bad stories about Israel’s past as examples (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). Some Bible characters also do good and bad things, and we have to depend on other biblical teachings to see how their examples are good or bad. Narrative history also shows the character of God, because it tells how God deals with his people and directs history.
Biography and Autobiography
The next literary genre to consider is biography, a story written about someone’s life or experiences. Similarly, an autobiography is a story written about one’s own life and experiences. Autobiography uses first person pronouns: I, me, we, us, my, and our. The four Gospels, though not pure biography, are certainly mini-biographies of Jesus. Nehemiah, who tells the story of his activities in rebuilding Jerusalem, is the best example of an autobiography in the Bible. However, there are also autobiographical sections in Acts (the “we” sections) and in the epistles (Galatians 1:11–2:14). One interprets biography and autobiography just like historical narrative.
Law is found primarily in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The Israelites had many laws. Some are usually thought of by Christians as moral laws that apply to all people everywhere. Others are civil laws that apply directly to how Israel was to govern itself. Still other laws are ceremonial rules that apply to the Jewish religious rituals such as sacrifice and cleanliness regulations. “You must not steal” (Exodus 20:15) is an example of a moral law from the Ten Commandments that applies to all people. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ.
The Law teaches us about who God is and how his people can show his character.
Now, our countries have different civil laws to govern our economy, security, and justice. Principles found in all the biblical laws teach us about who God is and how God’s people can show his character by the way they live as a community.
Poetry is found in the poetic books (Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations), the wisdom books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), and scattered throughout the rest of the Bible, especially the books of the prophets before the exile. In poetry, a second line often restates or contrasts with the one before it. The literary genre of poetry uses expressive and figurative language, so not everything in poetry can be taken literally.
Biblical poetry reflects the human heart and its encounter with God.
For example, Psalm 91:4 says, “[God] will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings.” This does not mean that God literally has wings, but that he protects his people like a mother hen protects her chicks. Poetry in the Bible reflects the human heart and its encounter with God, with sin, and with the issues of life. We can understand this because the human heart has not changed in three thousand years.
Drama is a form of expression in which people use language and physical actions to communicate a message in a more interesting way. Many interpreters believe that the Song of Songs was a drama performed at Solomon’s wedding. It is actually more precisely a musical, since parts of it were likely sung as well as acted. The book of Job appears to be written in an ancient dramatic format, with a prologue, acts and scenes, and an epilogue.
The prologue is found in 1:1-5. Act I describes the conversations between the Lord and Satan (Job 1:6–2:10). The scenes shift from conversations in heaven to the destructive scenes on the earth. Act II contains the dialogues between Job and his friends (Job 2:11–37:24). Each dialogue with a friend could be considered a scene. Act III is the speech of the Lord (Job 38:1–42:6). The epilogue is found in Job 42:7-17.
The main message of a drama is usually found in the whole, not the individual parts.
Though various truths are stated in the various parts of a drama, like a parable, the main message of a drama is usually found in the whole, not the individual parts. For example, the main point being communicated in the Song of Songs is the love, beauty, and joy God created to be shared by a man and woman.
A proverb is a short statement of wisdom presented in an easy-to-remember way. The proverb is probably the most popular genre in Africa for passing along wisdom. One key truth we must understand is that proverbs normally teach general truths.
Proverbs normally teach general truths.
In Africa we have many proverbs that express general truths that are normally applicable only in specific situations. “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed” (Proverbs 16:3) is not saying that everything you ever attempt in life (examinations, job interviews, new contracts) the Lord will cause to succeed. Rather, this is a truth that is generally true but not necessarily in every situation (similarly see Proverbs 15:1; 16:7; 18:22; 19:4; 21:17; 23:13; 28:27).
Prophecy does not mean just telling the future. The last seventeen books of the Old Testament were written by men who courageously communicated God’s message. Understanding the history of the time is key to understanding these books. Most of these prophecies are directly related to what was happening during the time they were being written. It is important to note that there is much variety in the personalities and writing styles of the prophets. At least two important themes appear in these seventeen books—one negative and one positive:
- The prophets exposed the sinful practices of the people and warned of coming judgement. They called the people back to the law of God, urging repentance and reminding them of God’s character.
- The prophets often expressed hope for a brighter future. The ultimate hope was the coming Saviour.
Parables are stories Jesus used to teach a specific spiritual truth. The 35 or more parables he told are not literal historical events—they are illustrations. But neither are they allegories, a type of story in which every element has a hidden meaning. Parables normally focus on one main truth (as in the story of the pearl of great price in Matthew 13:45-46), or in some cases just a few major points (as in the story of the farmer sowing seed in Matthew 13:1-9).
These are formal letters sent to one person (Philemon, for example) or to a group of people (the Corinthians) to teach important truths. Only the New Testament contains epistles: all thirteen of Paul’s letters, the two letters of Peter, the three of John, and the books of Hebrews and Jude.
Epistles are a treasure chest of apostolic advice concerning many kinds of issues.
As with letters written today, epistles can be formal with doctrinal teaching (Romans) or very personal (Philemon). Frequently, Paul addresses specific issues in the church to which he is writing. An example is to the church at Galatia. This makes the New Testament epistles a treasure chest of apostolic advice concerning many kinds of issues in the first century that we also face today.
This is marked by visions including peculiar beasts and disastrous events, symbolic language, specific numbers, and prophecy. Portions of Isaiah, Daniel, and Zechariah in the Old Testament and most of Revelation in the New Testament are examples of this genre. The abundant use of symbolism and highly imaginative language in apocalyptic literature makes this literary genre difficult to understand and suggests that it should be interpreted differently than historical narrative. Great caution and humility is needed when reading and interpreting apocalyptic literature. We should look for the major themes and not allow the interpretation of the details to divide us.
Great caution is needed when interpreting apocalyptic literature.
The extensive use of many different literary genres in the Bible guarantees that it not only is a book of truth but those truths are presented in a rich, interesting, and beautiful manner. Such variety also demands that the reader take into consideration these various genres in interpreting and applying the Bible.
Points to Remember
- To understand and interpret the Bible properly, we need to identify the literary genre in which each book was written.
- Knowing the genre will help us enjoy Scripture more richly as we read them.
- Reading and discussing the Scriptures with others in community can help us gain a better understanding of the meaning of some of the more-difficult-to-understand genres.
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