I have always had a love of literature ever since my older sister gave me The Count of Monte Cristo in the sixth grade to use for a book report. Being a latchkey kid, I spent summers in the library devouring books of all kinds from classical literature to young-adult fiction to poetry, plays, fairy tales, and craft and recipe books.
The more I read, the more I knew how important learning about genre was. I can’t read a book of poetry the same way I read a play. I can’t read a fairy tale the same way I read a short story. As an English literature major in college, I continued to learn the importance genre plays in reading and interpreting a literary work.
Learning about six main genres in the Bible are key to reading and interpreting Scripture properly. Without understanding this fact, it would be completely easy to misinterpret Scripture.
Narrative is the genre that follows a storyline with characters and plot. Pertaining to the Bible, it is history, and it is a retelling of a story. Many times, it is descriptive, not prescriptive, meaning it may describe the events that have happened, but that doesn’t necessitate we are to follow in its example. Just because Jacob tricked his father Isaac doesn’t mean it’s condoned. Just because Solomon had many wives doesn’t mean we should too.
In narratives, we are first looking at God as the main character within the context of the whole Bible, and then His relationship to His people. This understanding will help us not be tempted to draw allegories and symbolism where none was meant. Narratives in the Bible describe real-life events in history that tell of God’s love for His people and His desire to redeem them even when they stray.
The Law is the genre that displays God’s rulebook for His people for daily living, as seen in Leviticus for example. For the Israelites, it was a legal set of commands that God gave them to be set apart and to give them values, always within the context of a relationship with Him. Like a family’s mission statement, these rules hold relational ties together, and their importance is rooted in that covenant relationship.
Understanding and interpreting the laws must take history and culture into account, seeing a deeper value that reflects God’s relationship with us and us with Him when reading Levitical and Old Testament laws. For example, seeing the deeper value of purity is what is important when reading laws about what to eat or not eat or how to wash and stay pure.
Poetry in any century depicts the images needed to convey emotion and personal thought. To interpret poetry in the Bible well, look for structure and patterns within lines or groups of lines. Find symbolism in the imagery, and see poetry as the human need to express ourselves.
Weigh theology lightly, only within the framework of the rest of the Bible, because many times, poetic words are simply a cry of our heart, spoken or sung in angst or passion for that moment. For example, in David’s cry to curse his enemies, saying, “God, if only you would kill the wicked” (Psalm 139:19a), we know as Christians, this is not something advocated in our own prayers. Also, if we take our theology from Psalm 51:11: “Do not banish me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me,” we would think the Holy Spirit could be taken from us as believers. Yet we know from Ephesians 1:13, that we are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”
Prophecy in the Bible is about God telling something to His people through human speakers. Though many think prophecy is only about predicting something happening in the distant future, only a small percentage of prophecies in the Bible is about that. Most prophecies are to a particular audience for a particular time. It is usually about the present or the immediate future. For example, Jonah was a prophet bringing a message from God to Nineveh.
Some prophets and prophecies are clearer and easier to understand, while others are quite difficult. Many times, to read these sections well, understanding the major ideas, themes, and purposes are better than trying to understand all the specific symbolic details. For example, Daniel and Zechariah mention many visions and symbolic images from statues to horsemen, but one of the underlying themes is that God’s people will endure long periods of persecution but are called to persevere because we know a sovereign, good God.
The wisdom books seem straight-forward but can sometimes be easily misinterpreted. Proverbs are practical, commonsense advice and suggestions for living. The problem we get into with proverbial wisdom is we sometimes take them as promises. For example, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). If this is taken as a promise, many faithful parents with wayward adult children would either be disappointed in God or disappointed in themselves, believing either that God didn’t fulfill His promise or that they did something wrong in their parenting, not training their child enough.
Wisdom literature gives insights into living rightly, but many of its statements are more general rules, not exact statements of fact. We are to follow them, but not always expect the blessing or curse that comes along with it.
A common New Testament genre is the Gospel genre, eyewitness accounts of the stories of Jesus as testimonials of the good news. Within the four Gospels, it would be easy to prioritize first reading comparative stories in each book of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to interpret meaning . However, each author wrote to a specific audience for a specific purpose in the way they shared the good news. Although many similarities exist, reading within the context of the book first is a better way of reading the stories. Reading comparative stories may help with understanding but only after reading the passage in the context of its author and audience.
Within the Gospels, you will also find the parable genre. What sometimes happens is we take the miracle stories of Jesus and turn them into our own parables, undermining the significance of Jesus’s character and actions. For example, Jesus calming the storm eventually lends itself to the theme of Jesus calms the storms in our lives. Although that statement is true, we reduce the main theme of Jesus’s power and authority over all creation to a proverbial statement that’s more about us than about who Jesus is. Although there are application points to be taken, be careful about finding symbolism in testimonial stories, thus, missing out on discovering the attributes of the lordship of Christ in the historical, Gospel narrative.
A second large genre in the New Testament are the epistles, or the letters. Letters are meant to be interpreted with the author and audience in mind, with the specific circumstances of that cultural and historical context. As much information as you can find out about the location, the town, the people, the church, and the issues at hand will make a world of difference to how you interpret the passages within these letters.
Especially for letters, reading through the entire book before starting a smaller passage out of context will give you a better understanding. Also, reading through paragraphs instead of smaller bites will give you a better idea of the main points. The authors of the epistles write logically and purposefully, so try to follow their train of thought, first in their historical and cultural context, then bridging it to our time.
These are the main genres in the Bible, but others exist as well. This brief summary of genres hopefully will ignite your thirst to learn more. How richer and fuller and deeper the passages and books in the Bible can be when read with the right tools and literary knowledge.