The List of 6 Old Testament Genres for Beginners

By Dr. Bob Martin III
Published 4 years ago

So you want to know about Old Testament genres? Maybe you are a new or young Christian and don’t even know what a genre is or why it is essential. Then you are reading the right article!

There are at least six Old testament genres. And knowing the genre of the Old Testament book is critical to interpreting the text.  

Why is the book’s genre so important?

Consider this analogy. I don’t read a novel the same way I read a news article. I don’t read any medical texts the same way I do poetry. 

And when I’m reading history, I don’t interpret it as I do science fiction. Why is this? 

To understand what I am reading, I need to know the book’s genre. What does genre mean? It is the kind of writing characterized by a particular form and content.

I.   List of 6 Old Testament Genres

There are at least six Old Testament genres (see Heb. 1:1).

1. The Law

2. Narrative

3, Wisdom Literature

4. Poetry

5. Prophetic literature

6. Apocalyptic literature

 

1. The Law 2. Narrative 3, Wisdom Literature 4. Poetry 5. Prophetic literature 6. Apocalyptic literature

 

II.   Overview of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is the first 39 books of the Bible. At least 25 different men authored these books. If we want to understand the Bible, we have to understand the six different Old Testament genres.


The Old Testament is the first 39 books of the Bible written over 1000 years by at least 25 different authors in 6 different 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!

 

The Bible is a library of 66 books written over 1500 years by 40 authors of various socioeconomic backgrounds in 3 languages on 3 continents

 

1.   First is the Law 

The first Old Testament genre is the “Law” covered in the first five books. These five books contain a wide range of instructions. 

These include laws about governance. There are guidelines for religious and priestly duties. 

The Law also covers social responsibilities for the Israelites.

These instructions include specific commandments in Exodus 20-40. Of these commandments, the best known are the Ten Commandments in Exod. 20:1-17). Leviticus, portions of Numbers (Num. 5-6, 15, 18-19, 28-30, 34-35), and most of Deuteronomy all contain various commandments for the Jews.

 

2.   The Second Old Testament Genre is Narrative 

Of the 6 Old Testament genres, the next one is narrative. A biblical narrative is a story. The story usually contains illustrations used to convey a message. 

These messages address problems and situations. This genre usually starts with increasing complications. Then there is a climax of the story. Finally comes the resolution. 

The Bible contains at least six different 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 is the  Third Old Testament Genre 

The third type of Old Testament genre is wisdom literature. Wisdom literature teaches the meaning of life and how to live. There are two genres of wisdom literature:

The first is “proverbial” literature. 

  • The best example is the book of Proverbs. These are short, pithy sayings. 
  • They consist of 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

 

The second type of wisdom literature is “speculative.” 

  • This genre offers both thoughtful and practical advice. 
  • They can be monologues, as seen in the book of Ecclesiastes. 
  • There are also dialogues in the book of Job. 
  • The topics range from the meaning of human existence to the relationship between God and man.

 

4.   The Fourth Genre of the Old Testament  is Poetry 

For many, poetry is the delicacy of the Bible. And with the other Old Testament genres, we need to recognize certain unique features. Old Testament poetry is ancient near eastern poetry. And near eastern poetry is distinct from contemporary poems.

There are several books of poetry. These include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are poetry. 

Poetry appears in other places like Exodus 15, Judges 5, and 1 Samuel 2.

Biblical poetry is in measured or balanced lines. There is a rhythmic and heightened style. 

The writer may use many styles to create a mood or image. Examples include figurative language, word order variation, wordplay, repetition, or rhyming. 

A critical distinction of Biblical poetry is parallelism. This style involves two lines stated in a parallel form.

Let’s consider some examples to make this clearer. The short Psalm 1 uses parallelism in several ways: 

  • Comparison parallelism: Ps. 1:5 talks uses the synonyms “sinners” and the “wicked.”  
  • Contrast parallelism compares the first line with the second line. For example, in Ps. 1:6the “righteous” is compared to the “wicked.”
  • Figurative parallelism uses figures of speech. For example, a figure of speech follows and illuminates a term. In Psalm 1:4, “The wicked…are like chaff.” 

 

The “chiasm” pattern is a common poetic form used in Old Testament. What is a chasm? 

  • The poem’s elements or lines follow an order beginning with “a, b, c.” 
  • Then the last three lines follow a “c, b, a” pattern. 
  • Sometimes there is a “d” in the center.

 

We see a chiasm in Psalm 137:5–6

  • Lines one and four each begin with “if.” 
  • Lines two and three begin with the words “let my right hand” and “let my tongue.”

 

5.   Prophetic Literature is the Fifth Genre of the Old Testament  

Prophecy is distinct from the other Old Testament genres. It serves many functions.

  • They make predictions of future events. 
  • They warn of coming judgment. 
  • And they give us 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. These prophetic books are important because they contain prophecies about Jesus. And it is Jesus who fulfilled God’s plans on earth.

If we are honest, some prophecies are hard to interpret now. These prophecies will be apparent to us only in the future. At that time, God will show the whole reality of where the prophet was pointing. 

 

6.   The Sixth and Final Old Testament Genre is Apocalyptic Literature 

Of the Old Testament genres, apocalyptic literature shares a prophetic nature. But apocalyptic literature differs from other prophetic literature by capturing the imagination. Within apocalyptic literature, there are 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). 

 

III.   Summary 

The Old Testament uses many different literary genres. We have covered six of the most common.

 Interpretation of any Biblical book starts with the author. What did he intend to communicate to his original audience? Understanding the original meaning of Scripture includes recognizing the literary genre. And once correctly interpreted, we can apply it to our contemporary world. 

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