How to Study the Bible: Biblical Genres
Listen to Scot Keen, a teacher at Ethnos360 Bible Institute (founded in 1955 as New Tribes Bible Institute), talk about the different genres found in scripture. This clip was taken from our Hermeneutics class. (7:23 watch time)
Last week, we talked about the importance of the literary context and how it helps determine interpretation. This week we will be talking about biblical genres and common literary devices.
Now, if you are anything like me, you didn’t necessarily enjoy grammar class in school. However, understanding biblical genres will bring a deeper understanding to God’s Word. Also, keep in mind that no division of Scripture is just one genre. Many times a mixture of biblical genres will be combined in one book.
Below is a brief description of each of the basic biblical genres, as well as a few basic literary devices commonly found in Scripture.
Narrative is found interspersed throughout the Old Testament. It is “a literary form characterized by sequential time action and involving plot, setting, and characters. It is the story form of literature.”
[For Example: 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Chronicles are all examples of books that are made up primarily of narrative.]
The Law refers to the legal material/commands of the Old Testament, primarily found in the first five books of the Bible.
[For Example: Exodus,Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain most of the Law.]
This genre of biblical literature appeals “…primarily to our emotions. They do no build complex grammatical arguments, but rather use images to convey their meanings. They paint colorful pictures with words to convey messages loaded with emotional impact. This doesn’t mean that they ignore logic or write illogically. It simply means that they focus on emotional aspects more than on logical aspects.”
[For Example: Poetry is interspersed throughout many books of the Bible, but the most well-known poetry in God’s Word is the Book of Psalms.]
“The prophetic books contain primarily numerous short spoken or preached messages, usually proclaimed by the prophet to either the nations of Israel of the nation of Judah. They also contain visions from God as wells as short narrative sections and symbolic acts.” Most prophecy is found in the Old Testament, although some is found in the New Testament, such as portions of Revelation. In fact, the major set of prophetic books are grouped together and are divided into two groups: the Major and Minor Prophets.
[For Example: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are examples of some of the Major Prophets. Joel, Micah, and Zechariah are much smaller books, and are a few of the Minor Prophets.]
The wisdom books seek to “build a practical theology for living a day-to -day godly life in a complicated world. They have a down-to-earth and practical tone, and make “the subtle suggestion that godly living involves solid, common sense choices.” Wisdom literature is found in the Old Testament.
[For Example: Solomon was the author of a large portion of Wisdom literature in the Bible. He wrote Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and much of Proverbs. The book of Job is also included in the wisdom genre, although its author is unknown.]
The gospels are New Testament books that are “stories of Jesus drawn from the personal experience of the apostles.” In Greek, the word gospel means “good news”. These are accounts are sourced in the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. The writers of these books either were or knew the disciples who literally saw the good news!
[For Example: The Gospel genre is exclusively found in the first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.]
A large portion of the New Testament is comprised of letters, written by early church leaders to different specific believers or groups of believers. These letters contained everything from greetings, encouragement and warnings, to instructions and expressions of thanks and affection, depending on the situation and purpose of the letter.
[For Example: There are 21 letters, also known as epistles, in the New Testament. Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Titus are just a few of these. ]
Common Literary Devices:
“The use of irony in literature refers to playing around with words such that the meaning implied by a sentence or word is actually different from the literal meaning. Often irony is used to suggest the stark contrast of the literal meaning being put forth. The deeper, real layer of significance is revealed not by the words themselves but the situation and the context in which they are placed.”
[For Example: We see a display of irony in the way that Nathan confronts David after his sins of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:1-13).]
“The literary device foreshadowing refers to the use of indicative word or phrases and hints that set the stage for a story to unfold and give the reader a hint of something that is going to happen without revealing the story or spoiling the suspense. Foreshadowing is used to suggest an upcoming outcome to the story.”
[For Example: Scripture uses a ton of foreshadowing. Much of this foreshadowing is in reference to the coming of Christ. Hebrews 10:1 says, “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.” This verse is using foreshadowing to indicate that a sacrifice (Christ) was coming that would indeed make men perfect, in contrast to the limited nature of the Law.]
“In literature, one of the strongest devices is imagery wherein the author uses words and phrases to create “mental images” for the reader. Imagery helps the reader to visualize more realistically the author’s writings. The usage of metaphors, allusions, descriptive words and similes amongst other literary forms in order to “tickle” and awaken the reader’s sensory perceptions is referred to as imagery.”
[For Example: Revelation 12:1 is an example of biblical imagery, “Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.”]
“Metaphors are one of the most extensively used literary devices. A metaphor refers to a meaning or identity ascribed to one subject by way of another. In a metaphor, one subject is implied to be another so as to draw a comparison between their similarities and shared traits. The first subject, which is the focus of the sentences is usually compared to the second subject, which is used to convey a degree of meaning that is used to characterize the first. The purpose of using a metaphor is to take an identity or concept that we understand clearly (second subject) and use it to better understand the lesser known element (the first subject).”
[For Example: Metaphors are extremely common and used many times throughout Scripture, like in James 3:6, which says, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” The tongue is not literally fire or a world of iniquity, but the metaphor helps us understand better what the tongue is capable of.]
“Similes are one of the most commonly used literary devices; referring to the practice of drawing parallels or comparisons between two unrelated and dissimilar things, people, beings, places and concepts. By using similes a greater degree of meaning and understanding is attached to an otherwise simple sentence. The reader is able to better understand the sentiment the author wishes to convey. Similes are marked by the use of the words ‘as’ or ‘such as’ or ‘like’.”
[For Example: God’s Word uses similes over and over again to communicate a point, like in verses like Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray”. Isaiah compares the Israelites to sheep and says they are like them because sheep have a reputation for wandering, just as the people strayed away from the Lord.]
“Personification is one of the most commonly used and recognized literary devices. It refers to the practice of attaching human traits and characteristics with inanimate objects, phenomena and animals.”
[For Example: Scripture employs personification many times, as is displayed in the way that it gives human attributes to the concept of wisdom in the book of Proverbs. “Wisdom calls aloud outside; She raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out in the chief concourses at the openings of the gates in the city she speaks her words” (Proverbs 1:20-21).]
“An allusion is a figure of speech whereby the author refers to a subject matter such as a place, event, or literary work by way of a passing reference. It is up to the reader to make a connection to the subject being mentioned.”
[For example: The Bible uses allusions often, and are an instance of why it is beneficial to understand the historical and cultural atmosphere surrounding any given passage. Allusions may confuse us or completely go over our heads if we don’t understand the context of the day. An example of allusion is seen in John 8:58, where Jesus, in one sentence, alludes to a huge part of Israel’s history. “Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” To understand the significance of this statement, we would have to know the significance of both Abraham and God’s name, “I AM” in Jewish culture.]
We hope these breakdowns will help as you study different aspects of scripture.
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