In previous bulletin articles we’ve looked at the importance of reading Christian books to help us understand the Bible. This week I want to look at how we need help because the Bible is written in different literary genres.
Literary genres are the types of writings by which content is expressed. Ryken, a Biblical scholar, writes: ‘The two main genres in the Bible are narrative and poetry. Numerous categories cluster under each of these. Narrative subtypes, e.g., include hero story, gospel, epic, tragedy, comedy (a U-shaped plot with a happy ending), and parable. Specific poetic genres keep multiplying as well: lyric, lament psalm, praise psalm, love poem, nature poem…and many others. But those are only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to narrative and poetry, we find prophecy, visionary writing, apocalypse, pastoral, encomium, oratory, drama (the book of Job), satire, and epistle. Then if we add more specific forms like travel story, dramatic monologue, doom song, and Christ hymn, the number of literary genres in the Bible readily exceeds a hundred.’
But why is it important to pay attention to literary genres? Ryken continues: ‘The importance of genre to biblical interpretation is that genres have their own methods of procedure and rules of interpretation. An awareness of genre should alert us to what we can expect to find in a text. Additionally, considerations of genre should govern the terms in which we interact with a text. With narrative, e.g., we are on the right track if we pay attention to plot, setting, and character. If the text before us is a satire, we need to think in terms of object of attack, the satiric vehicle in which the attack is couched, and satiric norm (stated or implied standard by which the criticism is being conducted).’
Now if you only read your Bible, you might be clever enough to recognise a piece of poetry when you see it and distinguish it from narrative. But often we need the advice of respected scholars to help us understand what’s going on. So when you read in Matthew 5:29 ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away’, you understand that Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point. He isn’t advocating self-mutilation.
Do you read other books because you know your Bible is written in many literary genres and you need help to understand their differences?