How To Study the Bible – Genre

One of the things you have to be aware of when studying the Bible is that all of biblical literature is written from various genres of literature. This was not done haphazardly but very deliberately and so our interpretation of these passages also has to be very deliberate. We are trying to hear the words of scripture for their intended meaning. Genre has a direct impact on how a verse, chapter, or book of the Bible is read and so it impacts its meaning. I want to mention what the genres are, how the impact how we study, and then point you to resources to learn more about genre.

Genres used in scripture (there are more but these are the basics):

  • Narrative: These are the stories in the Bible like in Genesis or Acts
  • Wisdom literature: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Job
  • Epistles: The letters of the New Testament (See this post for the parts of an epistle)
  • Apocalyptic: Revelation and many of the prophets (Daniel, Zechariah, etc)
  • Law: Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and parts of Exodus
  • Poetry: Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations
  • Prophesy: Major & Minor Prophets
  • Gospel: M,M,L, & J

How does genre impact the way we study scripture? Take this example from Jack Lewis’ book Hebrew Wisdom and Poetry,

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Compare that with ‘the lovely woods intrigue me, but I have obligations. I am a long way from home, and I have a lot to do before bedtime.’ The meaning is the same, but one is poetry and the other is prose.” (p.7)

You don’t read Hebrew poetry the same way you read Hebrew Law and you don’t read the Gospels like you would read apocalyptic literature. They all have very specific tools at their disposal to tell or reveal the truth. In today’s terms, you wouldn’t expect to read a mystery novel the same way you would read or watch the weather report. You also wouldn’t expect the weatherman on the television to give you the weather in story/narrative form.

Here are a few books that are very helpful when it comes to studying genre in the Bible:

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

3 Responses to How To Study the Bible – Genre

  1. nick gill says:

    Also, don’t forget that some genres blend and cross-over. Much of the prophetic literature is also poetry – Gospels grow out of Narrative genre – a ton of Wisdom Lit is also poetry.

  2. Sam says:

    I would also like to add that what we call narratives also have theological underpinnings. After all narratives were first oral traditions and oral traditions came about because they had a significance to the people who kept them.

  3. Wendy says:

    And there are differences between the purely historical narrative of Acts and the much more complex poetic and historical narrative of Genesis.

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