You don’t read a novel the same way that you read a news article. I don’t read any of my medical texts the same way that I read poetry. And when I’m reading history, I don’t interpret it as I do science fiction. Why is this? If I want to understand what I am reading correctly, I need to know the book’s genre. Literary “genre” refers to the kind of writing characterized by a particular form and content.
Different Books, Different Genres
If we want to understand the Bible, we have to understand literary genres. The Bible is not one book but a library of sixty-six books. These sixty-six books:
- Were written over 1,500 years
- By about forty authors
- From various socio-economic spheres
- In three languages
- And three continents!
Not surprisingly, this collection of books also consists of many different genres (see Heb. 1:1).
6 Genres of the Old Testament
What kind of genres are we talking about? There are six different genres represented in the Old Testament and four main genres in the New Testament. Let’s start with the Old Testament:
The first five books of the Bible are called “The Law.” They include God’s instructions concerning the government, religious and priestly duties, and social responsibilities for the Israelites. These included the commandments in Exodus 20–40 (including the Ten Commandments in Exod. 20:1-17), Leviticus, portions of Numbers (Num. 5–6, 15, 18–19, 28–30, 34–35), and almost all of Deuteronomy.
A biblical narrative is an illustrative story conveying a message through people with their problems and situations. Narratives typically begin with increasing complications until there is a climax followed by a resolution of the issue.
There are six kinds of Biblical narratives:
- Tragedy (e.g., Samson in Judges 13-16, the stories of King Saul, and King Solomon)
- Epic (Israel’s wilderness wanderings)
- Romance (the book of Ruth)
- Heroic (the lives of Abraham, Gideon, David, and Daniel)
- Satire (the book of Jonah)
- Polemic (Elijah’s “contest” with the 450 Baal prophets in 1 Kings 18)
3. Wisdom Literature
Wisdom literature teaches the meaning of life and how to live. There are two genres of wisdom literature:
- “Proverbial” literature (as seen in the book of Proverbs) consists of short, pithy sayings that are wise observations of life seen through the lens of God’s revelation (e.g., Prov. 1:33; 3:9–10; 10:3–4; 13:21; 22:6)
- “Speculative” wisdom offers reflective and practical monologues (as seen in the book of Ecclesiastes) or dialogues (the book of Job) that delve into the meaning of existence and the relationship between God and man.
For many, poetry is the dessert of the Bible. Poetry is a literary genre written in measured or balanced lines with rhythmic and heightened style using figurative language, word order variation, wordplay, repetition, or rhyming to create a mood or an image. The books of Job, Psalms (which are worship songs!), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are poetry. Still poetry also appears in other places like Exodus 15, Judges 5, and 1 Samuel 2.
Appreciating ancient near eastern poetry requires an appreciation distinct from contemporary poems. Biblical poetry has many styles and often uses parallelism (where there are two lines stated in a parallel form). Psalm 1 uses parallelism in several ways:
- Comparison parallelism: Ps. 1:5 talks about “sinners” and the “wicked” (synonyms)
- Contrast: parallelism: Contrasts the first line with the second line (the “righteous” versus the “wicked” in Ps. 1:6)
- Figurative parallelism: With one line illuminating the other with a figure of speech (“The wicked...are like chaff” Ps. 1:4)
- “Chiasm” pattern: A “chiasm” is a common Old Testament form where elements follow a forward (a, b, c) and reverse (c, b, a) pattern, sometimes including a center (d). For example, lines one and four in Psalm 137:5–6 each begin with “if,” while lines two and three begin with the words “let my right hand” and “let my tongue.”
5. Prophetic Literature
Prophecies often have predictions of future events, warnings of coming judgment, and an overview of God’s plan. They also challenge people to live in God’s ways. The books from Isaiah through Malachi are all considered prophetic literature. And they contain some marvelous pointers toward Jesus, who would come to fulfill God’s plans on earth.
Some prophecies are hard to interpret. They will not be understood until they are fulfilled, and God shows the full reality to which the prophet was pointing.
A particular form of prophetic literature is apocalyptic literature. It includes symbols, imagery, and predictions of disaster and destruction. We find this type of language in Daniel (the “beasts” in Dan. 7), Ezekiel (the scroll of Ezek. 3), and Zechariah (the golden lampstand of Zech. 4).
The Old Testament employs various literary genres, and each deserves special attention to interpret the book correctly. And this requires understanding the meaning of what the biblical author was communicating to his original audience. Once we grasp the original meaning and the literary genre, we interpret and apply it to show us God’s plan for us.