How Can An Understanding Of Literary Genres Help My Bible Study?
There are different types of literature in the Bible. Understanding the genre of a passage will help you to interpret it in the right way. An easy way to see the difference is to compare two types of genre that describe the same event. Exodus 14 is a narrative telling of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and Pharaoh and his armies subsequently drowning in the waters. Exodus 15 is a poetic song and celebration of the same occurrence. The poetic version uses a lot more symbolism and figurative language. Judges 4 and 5 are another example of a narrative story followed by a poetic description of the same event.
Here are some of the better known genres in the Bible:
Narrative (i.e. Genesis – Esther, Gospels, Acts): A story is told, generally of selective historical events involving God’s work among His people. Normally, the author is simply telling the events and not trying to tell an allegory or using symbolic language, unless it is clear from context that he is doing so.
Poetry: (i.e. Psalms): Poetry is meant to be read or sung, and often uses symbolic and figurative language not to be taken literally (i.e. “the trees of the field clap their hands”). Often, deep and personal emotions are expressed in poetry, and in the Psalms we find a heavy use of Hebrew parallelism, where the second line in a stanza relates in a particular way to the first line (such as a restatement or a contrast).
Prophetic Literature (i.e. Isaiah – Malachi): Prophecy is characterized more by “forth-telling” than it is by “fore-telling.” In other words, the prophetic books tend to be strong, authoritative messages from God’s spokesperson to the community of faith, while occasionally offering up glimpses of what God intends for the future.
Exposition (i.e. Paul’s Letters and other New Testament Epistles): In Paul’s letters we often find carefully reasoned arguments intended to instruct and influence its readers. An additional key for understanding Paul’s epistles is to consider that these were generally written to a specific church or person for a specific occasion (they are “occasional” letters). Therefore, the historical situation is important for proper interpretation.
Proverbs (i.e. Proverbs): Proverbs are short, pithy statements meant to convey morality and skill for living. They are not promises, but rather broad truths that tell of how life generally works. These statements are to be understand within a God-centered framework where “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).
So, next time you start reading a portion of Scripture, consider this question: “ What type of literature is this?” Once you have understood the genre of the text, this will help you read and understand the text in a better way.