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.
Table of Contents
- List of 6 Old Testament Genres
- Overview of the Old Testament
- 1. First is the Law
- 2. The Second Old Testament Genre is Narrative
- 3. Wisdom Literature is the Third Old Testament Genre
- 4. The Fourth Genre of the Old Testament is Poetry
- 5. Prophetic Literature is the Fifth Genre of the Old Testament
- 6. The Sixth and Final Old Testament Genre is Apocalyptic Literature
List of 6 Old Testament Genres
There are at least six Old Testament genres (see Heb. 1:1).
1. The Law
3, Wisdom Literature
5. Prophetic literature
6. Apocalyptic literature
Overview of the Old Testament
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!
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.
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. 1:6, the “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.
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.