Discover how understanding genre will help you read the Bible better.
The Bible is like a library
The Bible is like a library. In it, you’ll find stories, history, poems, letters, proverbs, visions, teaching—all different ways of getting to know God. These are called “genres.” We can see how God’s interacted with different people over the centuries. Nothing is past its “best by” date. As Christians, we believe that God still speaks to us of his love and care. He still warns us of things that can harm us. He still comforts us. He still challenges us.
When we explore this library we’re like the children in C.S.Lewis’ Narnia stories. We can climb into the wardrobe and find ourselves in another world. We are part of a story that is still unfinished.
Like any library, the Bible contains different kinds of books, written over a long period of time. If you’re wanting to read the Bible better you’ll need to pay attention to the type of book you’re reading. This is called its “genre“. If you read a poem as if it was a law report you won’t understand it. If you read a letter from someone to other people a long time ago as if he were writing to you, you might misunderstand what he was saying to them—and by extension, to us.
My point is that you need to understand the genre of each part if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. You need to know what type of writing it is.
If you’re wanting to read the Bible better you’ll need to pay attention to the type of literature you’re reading. This is called its “genre“.
Prose and Poetry
First, you need to sort out what is poetry and what is prose. You may think of poetry as something that rhymes–but that’s just some modern poetry. Biblical poetry doesn’t rhyme. It expresses its ideas, especially emotions, through vivid language. It calls on our imagination. It plays with words in all sorts of ways to get its effect.
Fortunately, most Bibles today set off poetry with different formatting, showing the line breaks. That is especially helpful in the Psalms, where the second line often echoes the first.
Biblical poetry doesn’t rhyme. It expresses its ideas, especially emotions, through vivid language. It calls on our imagination. It plays with words in all sorts of ways to get its effect.
Poetry can be found throughout the Bible. All the Psalms are poetry. The prophets frequently use poetry. There are songs and hymns buried in the text. Miriam sings a song of praise after the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). Paul includes in his letter to the Philippians what may have been an early Christian hymn (Philippians 2:6-11).
In the Bible prose is used for all sorts of genres, for example:
- prophecy (though there’s a lot of poetry in the prophets as well)
- sayings and proverbs, and other “wisdom” literature.
These categories are not watertight and may overlap.
In addition to poetry and prose, there are some special genres:
- The creation story (Genesis 1 and 2) belongs to a particular group of stories from different parts of the ancient Near East that all tell stories of how the world began. Understanding the cultural expectations for a creation story will help us read the beginning of Genesis better.
- The gospels have been categorized as biographies, but they are biographies of a unique type. Most biographies begin with background material about where the subject was born, information about his or her family, and childhood anecdotes. The gospels have almost none of this. Instead, they devote what other biographies would consider a disproportionate length to the story of Jesus’ death. They also include a lot of Christ’s teaching.
- Jesus told “parables.” He often got his point across by telling stories. Who would ever forget the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son?
- “Apocalypse” (“uncovering”) communicates in coded language what cannot be expressed openly. The Book of Revelation is the apocalypse. Parts of the Old Testament are apocalyptic. There are some short pieces of apocalyptic writing in the Gospels.
Finally, a word about truth. All of the Bible is “true” if by that you mean that, properly understood, it will not mislead you. But truth can be communicated in different ways. Read Nathan’s story to David (2 Samuel 12:1-10). Was that story “true”? Was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) “true”? Not every sentence in the Bible is true in the way that “two plus two is four” is true. Our lives are more complicated and more interesting than that.
Stay tuned with us as we continue this series to help you read the Bible better. We will unpack the different genres and share tips to help you read, understand and apply the Bible to your life.
Not every sentence in the Bible is true in the way that “two plus two is four” is true. Our lives are more complicated and more interesting than that.