We all have our favorite musical genres, each with a different rhythm and their own unique combinations of instruments and vocals. One of the beauties of the Bible (in contrast to other “sacred books” like the Quran) is its use of multiple literary genres, which are in many respects like musical genres – each with its own rhythms and emphases. If you study literature from any time period, you usually have some discussion about the genre of the piece. A well-researched, footnoted academic essay is read, appreciated, and interpreted differently than a haiku. The epic poetry of Homer’s Iliad bears little resemblance to a modern novel, even though both are legitimate ways of narrating a story. Literature takes on a variety of forms, and so it also does in the compilation of 39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books we call the Bible. So what are the literary genres used in the Bible? Today we begin with some of the most general terms:
Narrative: We might also use the word “prose” here. It means conveying a message through stories. Most of the Bible is told in some type of narrative form, which makes sense since the Bible really tells one long story of God’s relationship with man. Creation…Fall…Redemption…Re-creation. The first two chapters of the Bible begin with CREATION. The Bible’s last two end in RE-CREATION. The narrative comes full circle.
Poetry: We don’t encounter dynamic poetry as much in our world as in cultures of the past. Maybe our best poets are singer-songwriters. But the Bible contains entirely poetic books like Psalms and Proverbs. And it also uses poems interspersed through the narratives, prophecies, or epistles…such as “The Song of Moses” in Exodus 15.
Epistle: This is just a fancy word for an important letter. The majority of the NT books are epistles written to an individual, a church, or a region. These were meant to be eventually circulated among all churches.
Prophecy: Prophets are spokesmen for God. They receive a message through revelation and communicate that message through speaking or writing. While we often automatically think of Prophecy as “future predictions,” the giving of oracles of future events is only one component of prophecy. A prophet’s main responsibility is to call people back to God. So most of the Bible’s prophetic books are records of the visions, speeches, actions, and confrontations of God’s prophets with other people – often Israel’s own leadership. So the Books of the Prophets contain some narrative (stories of events that intersect the life of the prophet) and a lot of poetry. The speeches are highly poetic – containing a certain rhythm, parallelism, and vivid imagery. We learn more about the nature and character of God in the prophets than anywhere else in the Bible. The Bible’s prophetic books are mostly in the Old Testament. We divide them into Major Prophets and Minor Prophets, not based on importance, but on the length of their inspired work.
Apocalyptic: A sub-genre of prophecy is the unique style of apocalyptic prophecy. When we see “apocalypse,” we think doomsday, end-of-the world, nuclear destruction, or zombies. But the word itself has nothing to do with the end of time. It just means REVEALING. So obviously the last book of the Bible called “Revelation” is considered apocalyptic literature. But so are some sections of Old Testament prophets like the Books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. The apocalyptic style is characterized by dynamic visions of the divine presence and divine activity, both in Heaven and on earth. Look for the significance of numbers, colors, cosmic elements, and fascinating creatures…all of which are highly symbolic of other realities.
Wisdom and Devotional: As a major theme in Biblical thought, Wisdom also stands as a literary genre in the Ancient Near East. The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon would all qualify as either Wisdom or Devotional Books, even though we sometimes simply call these 5 books the “Books of Poetry.” And for the most part, the wisdom thoughts are expressed through poetry. The devotional thoughts in the Psalms are certainly poetic. Simply expressed, Devotional Writings help us articulate our thoughts to God. Wisdom Writings help us understand God’s thoughts in ways that are practical to us. Together, these two forms of writing contain reflections on life, death, pain, grief, trust, endurance, love, romance, money, leadership, the desires of the heart, and the workings of God. Even though it’s also an epistle, I would place the New Testament Book of James under the category of Wisdom Literature as well.
Law: How many Bible Reading plans have been abandoned once the reader reached Leviticus? LAW may not excite us like narrative or poetry, but the Old Testament “law codes” are of utmost value in establishing the foundation of Israelite society. In the Jewish Tradition, we call the contents of the first 5 Books of the Bible “The Torah,” or the Books of Law. These books contain a great deal of narrative as well, especially the first two. But they also contain the way for a divinely established nation to live in community with one another. How will they understand and enforce justice? How will they take care of those in need? How will they atone for sin? How will they live in the presence of a holy God? These teachings are paramount in understanding the need for Jesus and the basis for New Testament teachings about morality, justice, and community.
Next time we'll get a little deeper into narrative...
To His Glory,
Preaching & Outreach Minister