Welcome to part two of the Reading the Bible Series. In part one, we looked at questions surrounding what the Bible is. This time, we’ll examine the question, “How do I read the Bible?” We’ll look at book types, genres, and literary styles.
But before we do, an important note: In parts two, three, and four, we will examine how to read, understand, and study the Bible, respectively. Often, when we talk about reading the Bible, we mean all three of these things at once. I distinguish between reading, understanding, and studying so that we may slowly walk through the numerous facets we use to read and study the Bible with understanding.
If you key “books of the Bible” into a Google search, you’ll end up with images of the books of the Bible organized and arranged on a bookshelf. Each shelf will also have a label showing you the different categories in which the books are arranged. This helpfully demonstrates what kind of broad writing categories exist in the Bible. These are often referred to as book types (history, major prophets, epistles, etc.). Because we covered them in part one, we won’t say more here.
While knowing book types is good, recognizing the literary styles used throughout the Bible proves more helpful in the reading of the Bible itself. That’s because a literary work’s style of writing determines how we read it. Different literary styles have different expectations. We would not read John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the same way we would read John Green’s young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars. The expectations of a news article differ from those of a science fiction graphic novel. Text messages, emails, tweets, and Facebook posts have their own literary forms too. Even this article carries with it a certain literary style.
Ray Lubeck, in his book, Read the Bible for a Change, outlines three main literary types found in the Bible: narrative, poetry, and discourse. He defines narrative as “a text that makes its point primarily by telling a story.” It makes up 43 percent of the writing found in the Bible. Examples include the historical narratives of Genesis, Esther, and Acts, biographical narratives of the Gospels, and narrative parables of Jesus.
Narrative has three main characteristics: setting, character, and plot. Setting is the stage of the story, both the time and place of the action. “Characters are the who of the story, while plot tells us what the ‘who’s’ are doing” (emphasis Lubeck).
The biblical authors do not intend to merely recount information of particular events. They intentionally chose and organized details to show us God’s actions among the people he created and to ultimately point us to the coming promised salvation in his Son. This goal plays out in where or when a story takes place, how they describe a character, and even in the order of the stories they share.
Poetry makes up thirty-three percent of the writing found in the Bible. It is most obvious in the Psalms, but it is also used in wisdom literature and a majority of prophetic books. Poetry also appears in the middle of narrative events. When that happens, we’re invited to slow down and relive the events that have just happened in a different way (see Exodus 14-15).
Numerous resources detail the characteristics of Hebrew poetry, like parallelism. Instead, let’s ask, “why is poetry even in the Bible?” Timothy Saleska points out that the Greek word for maker/creator and poet is the same. “If I may play with these two meanings, the Apostles’ Creed can be made to say: ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Poet of heaven and earth’” (emphasis Saleska).
God’s word is creative in both the imaginative sense and the constructive sense. It brings things into existence and displays new ideas, images, and concepts we did not previously perceive. In addition to giving us words to use in prayer to God, poetry takes us outside the box of our usual thinking and gives us language to understand old familiar truths in a new way, whether it be God’s character, our humanity, or his saving work for us.
The last main literary style is discourse and it makes up the final twenty-four percent of writing in the Bible. Lubeck defines discourse simply as “a text that presents a logical sequence of ideas.” It’s found in speeches, collections of laws, wisdom literature, and the epistles (letters) of the Apostles.
As Lubeck explains:
A discourse can be divided into units of thought—that is, it is separated into paragraphs. Each paragraph develops a single aspect of an idea or argument. And the main idea of each paragraph follows logically from the ones before. Although the ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible don’t have paragraph indentations, most current translations have done a good job of indicating where these paragraph changes occur. To follow the flow of an entire discourse, then, we must identify the main thought and purpose of each individual paragraph, then ‘build’ up to the overall argument.
I cannot go much deeper here about these literary styles, but knowing they exist is often half the battle. These styles are also not limited to one book of the Bible at a time. While a book may have a predominant literary style, it is not uncommon to find two of them intermingled in a book, or even all three. See the book of Deuteronomy for a prime example.
Lubeck lays out seven genres under the umbrella of the three main literary types: apocalyptic, epistle (letter), gospel, prophecy, psalms, story, wisdom. He defines genre as, “a recognizable category of writing that follows certain rules or patterns.” As literary styles carry different expectations, so do genres.
But we can differentiate genre from literary style. Genre is a classification of writing with its own structural guidelines and message whereas literary style is the method used to communicate the message.
Literary style informs genre but doesn’t define it. For example, we find discourse in both Moses’s speech in the Deuteronomy and in Paul’s letter to the Romans, but we would not say that Moses’s speech also falls into the genre of epistle because it doesn’t follow the same structure. Likewise, we wouldn’t say that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a speech (even though it was read aloud) because it first follows a written form and adheres to the general letter-writing rules of the day. Yet, both authors use the discourse literary style.
Whether you’re new to reading the Bible or the practice is old hat, knowing about literary style and genre go a long way in helping us read and study the Bible with understanding.
Having looked at how to read what’s written, part three will examine how to understand what we read in the Bible.