Literary Context – What Is It?
Understanding literary context in the Bible is a big step towards interpreting the Bible accurately.
So what is literary context?
Well, you probably learned about it in English class.
You most likely know that you can’t read a sonnet the same way you read a novel. And you can’t read a persuasive essay the same way you read a play. There are general rules to different kinds of literature, rules that must be followed if we hope to accurately interpret what we are reading. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth will not read the same as Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walden, and Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men, will not sound anything like Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken.
Most of us know this instinctively, and we bend to the rules of different literary genres in order to make sense of whatever we are reading.
Literary Context in the Bible
The same literary rules need to be brought into studying the Bible. The Bible contains several different types of literary genres, and employs many literary devices, such as euphemisms, allusion, imagery, and foreshadowing. So in order to be confident that you are fully grasping a passage, you need to understand these genres and devices.
The main divisions of Biblical genres are these: narrative, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, letter, and history. We must perceive which genre we are reading, and abide by the interpretive rules of that genre as we read different passages of Scripture.
When you know the literary context of the verse you are studying, you will better grasp the passage as a whole. The literary context gives you a better understanding of what the author is intending to say. This increases your chances of accurately interpreting the message.
Determining Literary Context in the Bible: Some Questions to Ask
To determine the literary context, you must look at the surrounding text. Start with the most immediate textual context, and determine the literary genre.
Is this verse in the middle of a song or a poem?
What genre is the book it is included in?
Is it in the middle of a narrative, a sermon, or a set of instructions?
Now move to the larger context.
Is the entire passage a song or poem?
Go broader still.
Is the book as a whole historical, prophetic, or a letter?
Once you have determined the genre, go back and observe the literary devices that may be used.
Is it a poem that uses imagery to convey an idea?
Is it prophecy using foreshadowing to give us a peek into the near or far future?
Is it a narrative that is using allusion to point us towards Christ?
A Literary Example: 2 Samuel
Let’s look at 2 Samuel 1:23-24.
“Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions. You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.”
Were Saul and Jonathan literally never separated in in life? Were they buried together, undivided? Were they literally faster than eagles, and actually stronger than lions? Depending on how you read this verse, you could come away thinking these two men were a couple of human anomalies! Is Israel a human being that had actual daughters? Did Saul literally clothe every individual one of those daughters in scarlet and gold? What was David trying to say when he wrote this?
When we look at the surrounding text, we see that this verse is just one small part of a lament. A lament is an expression of grief or mourning, and is often found in the form of a song or poem.
Continuing into the larger context, we find that this poetry is inside of a historical narrative. The king of Israel, Saul, and his son, Prince Jonathan, have just died in battle. Jonathan’s best friend and the next king of Israel, David, is writing this song while in mourning.
One of the rules of song/poetry is that the lyrics are not always to be taken literally, but are meant to communicate a picture of a truth. David is not saying that Saul and David were some mutated men who were faster than eagles and stronger than lions. He is simply using the literary device of imagery to communicate that their swiftness, strength, and ability were worthy of praise and remembrance.
Nor was he communicating that Saul went to every house in Israel to give clothes to the women. The daughters of Israel were simply all of the women who were of Israeli descent. As their king, Saul had led the nation in times of victory and brought richness to them as a people group. David is suggesting that all should mourn the death of a great leader who had ruled in a time of abundance.
Literary Context Helps You Learn
Literary context determines how each verse or passage should be interpreted, so pay attention to it! Keep in mind that not all divisions of Scripture are the same. Many times a mixture of biblical genres and devices will be combined in one book to make up and contribute to the literary context.
Take time to familiarize yourself with different literary genres and devices. You don’t need to go back and take an English class or be any kind of scholar to do so. Just do a simple online search of the different divisions of the Bible as listed above, or pick up a book that speaks more extensively about the topic. There are a lot of material already written that you can easily take advantage of. As you begin to learn to recognize these different literary techniques, you will be able to pick up what God’s Word is saying more quickly and with more accuracy. Researching literary context in the Bible is an important part of hermeneutics. Putting in the work will absolutely make you a better student of God’s Word.
For an extensive list of common literary devices and the Bible’s use of them, check out these helpful websites: