Literary Genre and the Bible

This blog series is inspired by a lecture I had the privilege of attending by Dr. Ronald J. Sider. At the beginning of his lecture, he outlined some basic guidelines for how we should interpret the Bible. Though not every article is directly from this lecture, I am drawing heavily upon what Dr. Sider presented, however I am also drawing upon my education and experience. My hope is that each of these articles will help all of us more faithfully read and understand the Holy Scriptures.

When most of us open up the Bible, thoughts about literary genre are usually quite far from our minds. This, however, is yet another realm of knowledge that we would do well to think more about.

Some of this we might do almost intuitively, while other times we completely ignore the important task of identifying the literary genre of the book of the Bible that we are reading. 

You might be wondering why this is important, so let me explain. Let’s look at some of our current genres of writing by way of analogy. Just as the Gospels are different genres of writing than the Psalms, Newspaper articles are different genres, and have different conventions than romance novels. 

Newspaper articles are supposed to be based on facts, and they often embellish realities to make them slightly more interesting for readers than what they would naturally be. Based on current models that generate profit from advertising revenue, the more people view an article, the more money newspapers make, so while they are supposed to accurately report the news and be careful that their articles are based on facts, they often slightly distort the reality to make it more sensational. 

Romance novels, however, are only real insofar as the stories are sometimes somewhat plausible. Otherwise they are fiction, and oftentimes they are painfully unrealistic.

When we read a newspaper, we expect some level of truth to be present, and while we might read it with a certain level of skepticism, we also look for truth in it. With romance novels, we are not looking for factual accounts, we read it knowing that it is not true, but we want to be caught up in a spectacular story to entertain us or to arouse our emotions. 

Now imagine, for the sake of argument, if we would mix up these two genres. What if we would look at real events and dismiss them as fiction? At times the news informs us of disasters around the world and we are given opportunities to help send aid to places that need it. If we dismissed it all as fiction, many people in the world would be left without the support and help they so desperately need, because we didn’t believe what we were told. 

Now imagine if we would think that romance novels were factual accounts. It would cause us to have dreadfully unrealistic expectations about what actual human relationships are supposed to look like—it would leave us stunted and unable to enjoy a real relationship because we believed in the world of romance novels, only wanting the spectacular and dramatic, and unsatisfied with mundane and everyday moments, which are a reality for any actual relationship.

Just like it would have potentially disastrous consequences to mix-up the genres of News and Romance novels, so too there are negative consequences for mixing up the genres that we find in the Bible.

The Psalms are songs, poetry that is meant to be sung, full of figurative language, metaphors, and emotionally charged speech. When the psalmist writes that he is overwhelmed with God’s waves, we don’t automatically think that he is stuck in an ocean somewhere. When there is talk about being in a pit, we understand that he might not have literally fallen into a hole in the ground. 

The Gospels are written accounts of the story of Jesus, his life, his work, his death, and his resurrection. We believe them to be true and factual. When they tell us that Jesus healed the blind, cured the sick, or fed 5000 with only five loaves and two fishes, we take that literally. We believe that Jesus actually performed miracles. When the Gospels tell us that Jesus died on the cross, but that death couldn’t hold him and he rose from the grave, we also understand this to be literal. It is foundational for our faith.

Now imagine if we got those two genres mixed up. What if we read the Gospels as being largely figurative, and the Psalms as being literal? The Psalms would be pretty weird, and without having happened historically, the Gospels would be virtually meaningless.

Thus far, the examples I have used are fairly easy to understand. But when we get into things like apocalyptic literature, things get even harder to understand. Biblical apocalyptic literature, such as Revelations, or portions of Daniel, are full of figurative speech as well, delivered prophetically. If we read apocalyptic literature without taking these elements into account, we can end up with some fascinating, but false ideas about what they mean. I have witnessed people use apocalyptic literature from the Scriptures as if it were a simple historical document, coming to all sorts of off-the-wall conclusions about the Bible. 

While some differences in genre are easier to understand and take into account as we read, such as the Psalms and the Gospels, others can be more difficult to identify and understand, like apocalyptic literature. Then there are the books of the law, wisdom literature, prophetic texts, historic texts and epistles. Each genre has different conventions, and when we understand those conventions, it helps us better understand the Bible, and helps us avoid some unnecessary pitfalls in biblical interpretation and understanding.

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