We all receive lots of mail, maybe more e-mails today than physical letters. Some are letters from loved ones in faraway places. Other letters contain bills or statements. Then there is a flood of newsletters and advertisements—some helpful, others annoying. We easily recognize the different types of letters or e-mails we receive because each has its own unique style of writing and presentation: we relate differently to each.
The Bible also contains a variety of styles, often referred to as genres in hermeneutics. Recognizing the genre of a biblical passage is vital to interpret and apply Scripture properly, because each genre functions
differently. Despite cultural and stylistic changes over time, we can recognize the different genres by carefully reading and listening to larger sections of Scripture.
Stories comprise the largest category in the Bible. The narrative genre depicts historical events, often including time references, but recasts these stories from God’s perspective.
Narratives are easily recognizable: there are characters who act out
the plot in the scenes. Despite the focus on human actors and actions, the purpose of these stories is to reveal who God is and how His people should live in this world. This includes both positive and negative examples of humans following God’s will for their lives, or others acting contrary to God. At times there are demonstrations of faithfulness in these stories; other times readers are confronted with pain and suffering.
The gospel accounts are a subset of narratives to describe in a biographical manner the key events of Jesus’ life and ministry on this earth. Here God’s self-revelation in Jesus’ words and actions becomes the full focus.
Law codes are often considered “dry” and incomprehensible. Despite this perception, the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Matthew 5-7 give clarity to what God expects of us: how to treat Him and one another. Additionally, the law demonstrates how grave the consequences of sin are.
Legal code can generally be divided into two categories: apodic- tive and casuistic laws. Apodictive laws are universally valid because of who God is. Often the rationale for these commands is expressed in the well-known statement “for I the Lord your God am holy.” Casuistic laws, or case law, on the other hand, present very specific situations from which general applications are made and usually contain an “if this . . . then that” formula. In case law, the principle remains true even if the specifics vary based on time or culture.*
There are specific subcategories of law such as covenant law (and covenant lawsuits), and ritual laws that include purity and sacrificial laws. As Hebrews points out, Jesus’ death on the cross supplants the sacrificial laws that pointed to Him. Purity regulations, on the other hand, are at times universal, at other times connected to the Temple and the sacrificial system.
In the prophetic genre God communicates to an individual or a group through a prophet, often to warn of imminent divine judgment. The audience is indicted with the ominous words “thus says the Lord,” followed by specific counts of transgressing God’s laws. The focus of prophecy is to reveal hidden and ignored sins (past and present) rather than reveal only future events. The purpose of these stark warnings is to elicit repentance in the hearers.
Apocalyptic visions are a subcategory of prophetic oracles that present a rough outline of earthly and heavenly future events. This genre employs symbolism predominantly, along with a cosmic perspective to reveal how God will resolve the sin problem. The purpose is not so much a detailed account of earthly events or to incite fear, but instead to give hope and comfort to faithful followers. These writings remind believers that God is in control and will come again to claim His own and restore the world.
The Psalms are a collection of ancient hymns, but shorter poetic sayings are found in many biblical books. Poetry puts in words the greatest human emotions: fear, love, and adoration. It describes injustice, often in strong language, but also praises God’s salvation and majesty.
Most important, however, biblical poetry always turns to God to express good and bad feelings and trusts that God will resolve all injustice. The beauty of Hebrew rhyme is lost in translation, but the typical Hebrew style of using parallelisms and vivid imagery still inspire deep feelings today. Even if we have never met a shepherd, we all can relate to the imagery of the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
It is important to realize that poetry is evocative language. It does not necessarily make a factual declaration. Also, the historical setting and occasion for a particular psalm is often unknown, but it is helpful if it is available.
Wisdom literature is a collection of riddles, proverbs, or allegories that convey reflections on life, either existentially or practically, and provide advice for life. This down- to-earth nature of pithy wisdom sayings indicates the difference to poetic literature. Despite its practical nature, the wisdom genre is grounded in a dependence on God, the foundation of genuine wisdom.
The New Testament contains personal correspondence between apostles and churches. The authors at times answer questions from the church, share theological instruction, counsel on specific church issues, offer personal advice, but also communicate joy and encouragement. The letters generally follow a letterhead formula that introduces the author and readers and opens with a greeting and blessing. The conclusion consists of personal well-wishes to the church and a blessing. Even though epistles include general truths, they are communication between two entities in the first century.
Parables were a well-known style in the ancient world in which a story, historical or fictional, illustrates the speaker’s argument. Jesus uses parables as His predominant method to share the reality and future of the kingdom of heaven. Parables employ a relatable real-world setting, though often a very cryptic focus on a single main point, and often have a surprise twist at the end.
Like our real or virtual mailbox, the Bible contains many different styles with different forms and functions: some describe historical events, others imaginative; some are descriptive, others prescriptive. Recognizing the genre and applying questions based on the brief genre descriptions above to any Bible passage will deepen our understanding of God. Ultimately, interpreting Scripture means allowing God’s ancient words to ring true in our lives today.
* For a more in-depth study see the three-part article series by Daniel I. Block, “Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians,” Ministry (2006).