Eminem is a rap artist. He has released several albums and has a reputation for writing songs with a heavy biographical emphasis. If you follow his albums, you will encounter a guy who demonstrates a clear shift from wild and bad to a struggling individual to recovering drug addict. He has made a career out of putting his marriage and family out in the public eye. If I were to pick up his albums and go through them one at a time, I could establish a progression of sorts. Does that make it a biography? Sort of, because there are autobiographical elements to the albums he has released. However, these are rap albums, not hardcover books. They are meant to be autobiographical, but their genre is poetry. If I read his lyrics, I do not have a full understanding of his life as I would with a larger book. The genre of the material we are reading is significant to our understanding of the material we are encountering. Poetry is not narrative. Prophecy is not prose. Gospel is not wisdom literature. In learning to understand scripture, it is important to take into account the genre of literature you are reading.
How is the genre helpful in discerning the message of scripture? Well, my illustrative example aside, let’s look at apocalyptic prophecy in the scriptures. If you have paid any attention to Christianity over the last 30 years, you will undoubtedly have encountered a rash of stories about the end times. There are whole movements devoted to deciphering the words of Revelation and setting them against current events. But, is this a valid way to interpret the text based on the genre? There are several characteristics of apocalyptic literature that should affect the interpretation of the genre. For example, Jewish apocalyptic literature frequently made references to the current events of the day. For example, Revelation was written during a period of heavy persecution for the church. Much of the imagery clearly references those things. The city on 7 hills is an obvious reference to the city of Rome, which was a city built on seven hills. Modern prophecy interpreters have tried to associate this reference to the Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Rome. While it may be the case that there is a double reference here, a more reasonable reading of the reference is to understand it as talking about Rome and the emperor.
Another example of genre is the narrative account to Ruth. Ruth is the narrative account of Ruth, who is a widow and is not properly treated by her husband’s family. This results in her living in destitution. Boaz, a foreigner, ultimately marries her. There is a tendency to read the book of Ruth and interpret it as an allegory of Christ. There is, at times, a tendency to want to allegorize (make it into symbols) everything in the scriptures to make them about Jesus. This is not the strongest reading of the text because this story is a narrative account. To interpret it entirely apart from the historic and narrative account isn’t right for the genre.
The following are a brief list of the various Biblical literary genres:
Prophecy: Prophecy needs to be read and understood in the context of the historical setting. Isaiah, for example, is the prophetic interaction between God and His people during the time of the Assyrian conquests. God speaks to specific nations and situations. In addition, He speaks of his larger redemptive plan through the suffering servant. These prophecies are best used in an attempt to understand the work of God through the scope of Israel’s history. It is not unusual to see folks take up this book and attempt to apply it to modern world affairs. However, this isn’t a legitimate reading of prophecy. Reading and interpreting prophecy requires a history book and a lot of time. Or, you could just use a reputable commentary.
Narrative: Narrative is best read and understood as history. There is a tendency to read narrative and try to allegorize it and apply it to our situations. We see this often with the story of God’s people crossing into the Promised Land. This is a narrative. It is not the story of your church growing or moving into a new building. It’s also not the story of moving into our best life now. It’s the story of God fulfilling the promise made to Abraham. When reading this account, we do better to look for parallels in the story of Christ, like the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, which parallels the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Narrative is best read with an eye on the larger story of Israel and God’s interaction with His people.
Poetry: Poetry is poetry. It can bring to the table elements of prophecy, as most prophecy is written in poetic form. Interpreting poetry requires that you consider the poetic form and the author’s intent. Poetic forms are well documented. I will not be delving more deeply into the poetic forms in this setting. There is plenty of documentation on this matter to be found.
Epistle: The epistle is a genre of letter. When interpreting epistles, it’ts important to understand the context (see previous articles) and to interpret the epistle based on the fact that the letter was written by an author to a specific audience. It needs to be read based on this.
Gospel: Gospel is an unusual genre of literature. It is a biography of sorts, but it is more than a simple biography. The Gospel account sets out to tell the biographical account of Jesus’ life while making a larger point about Jesus’ work and mission. Each Gospel account has a specific message in mind. The details of Jesus’ life are chosen in order to support that message. It is often asked: “Why don’t the Gospel accounts include narrative about Jesus’ childhood? The reason is that the information doesn’t support the larger message. This is part of the reason that a Gospel account is not a biography in the purest sense.
Wisdom literature: Wisdom literature as a genre includes the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature sets out to depict principles of life through specific forms. These can almost be seen as poetic forms. It’s important to understand that wisdom literature is comprised of observations, not hard and fast rules for the universe. So, when we read that the dishonest don’t prosper in a wisdom saying, we cannot say that this means that the dishonest never prosper. In fact, the dishonest sometimes do quite well. Rather, this is an indication that to be dishonest can bring downfall.
Law: Law is exactly that: law. It needs to be read as such and understood as part of the larger covenant agreements in which it takes place. The Ten Commandments are an example of this. The commandments are stipulations related to the Mosaic covenant. They are sort of like part of a treaty. In fact, they are written in an ancient treaty literary form. So, when we read the commandments they reflect God’s treaty agreement with Israel. Further, laws relate to different settings. Some laws are civil, some relate to temple worship, etc. They must be read according to these contexts.
Lists: Lists, like genealogies or lists of items, serve a specific purpose beyond boring the socks off the reader. They act as a concrete demonstration of proof as to what happened in a specific setting. They tie specific events to real people and places. In addition, they demonstrate God’s working through the covenants. We see God working with the Israelites in different settings through the genealogies. One prime example of this is the line from David to Jesus. This is vital for understanding Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant set forth in 2 Samuel.
This list of genres of scripture is by no means exhaustive. It reflects the larger areas of literature. A good commentary or Study Bible ought to offer a more detailed accounting of the genre of literature in any given section.