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How to Study the Bible eCourse #5

Literary Context

Listen to Scot Keen, a teacher at Ethnos360 Bible Institute (founded in 1955 as New Tribes Bible Institute),  talk about why the literary context of a passage matters. This clip was taken from our Hermeneutics class.  (3:46 watch time)

Along with grasping the context of the surrounding text, being aware of the literary context of a passage is also important to fully understanding it.  

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 fixed 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.”

God’s Word contains several different types of literary genres, and employs many literary devices such as, euphemisms, imagery and foreshadowing. So, in order to be confident that you are fully grasping a passage, we need to understand the Literary context.

The main divisions of Biblical genres are: 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 genre of the verse you are studying, you will better grasp the passage as a whole. The literary context gives you a better understanding of how the author is intending to say what he is saying, increasing your chances of accurately interpreting the message.

To determine the literary context, you must look at the surrounding text. Start with the most immediate textual context. Is this verse in the middle of a song or a poem? What kind of literary devices may be used here. Is this poem uses imagery to convey an idea? Is this prophecy using foreshadowing to give us a peek into the near or far future? Is it in the middle of a narrative/story? A sermon or 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?

For Example:

Look at 2 Samuel 1:23:

“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.”

Were Saul and Jonathan literally never separated 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! What was the author meaning when he wrote this verse?

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 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 meant to be taken literally, but are designed 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.

Literary context determines how each verse or passage should be interpreted, so pay attention to it! 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. Next week we will be talking about these different types of Biblical Genres and some examples we find in scripture.

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