How to read the Bible
Recognizing the genres of biblical writing deepens our understanding of Scripture. | Read: Revelation 9:13–21
Different kinds of writing lead us to different kinds of reading. For instance, I always treasured my grandmother’s letters—handwritten with her shaky penmanship and brimming with affection. I read these notes very differently from the journalistic accounting of events in a daily newspaper. Still different is poetry, with its lyrical beat designed to move our spirits as prose never can. The logical flow of an instructional manual leads to yet another kind of reading.
Each of these types of writing is an expression of genre. Literary genre is the type of writing that an author chooses in order to communicate what she has in mind. In choosing a personal letter, a newspaper article, poetry, or a logical argument, the author is looking for the best way to get across what she hopes her readers will glean. If the readers misunderstand the genre (and, for instance, read poetry as if it were history), they may miss the author’s point altogether.
Study: Literary genres in the Bible
When we fall into the trap of thinking about the Bible as a single book, rather than a series of books by various authors using different genres, we risk misunderstanding what the Holy Spirit hopes to communicate through the authors’ decisions about which type of writing to use. Remembering that the Bible—and its individual books— are filled with different genres helps us interpret the Scriptures with more depth and faithfulness. Among the many genres of literature in the Bible are poetry (Psalms and Lamentations), evangelistic history (the Gospels and Acts), the Roman form of letter writing (Paul’s epistles), parables (the story of the Good Samaritan), and aphorism (Proverbs). In describing the Bible’s various writings, scholars also include history, epic, travel journal, sermon, Roman speech, and fable. A study Bible or commentary can help readers understand which genre best applies to a specific passage and whether or not scholars disagree about that classification.
Much of the debate over creationism vs. evolution vs. intelligent design among Christians stems from a disagreement about the genre of Genesis 1. Is it science? History? Poetry? Rather than retreading these arguments, however, let’s take a look at the book of Revelation. As Bruce Metzger points out in his helpful study Breaking the Code, Revelation’s author, John, calls his writings an “apocalypse,” a genre of literature characterized by a division of the universe into camps of good and evil, predictions about the final outcome of human affairs, and coded, fantastic descriptions. Some readers classify this type of genre as a literalistic time chart of the last days based on John’s visions; others (including Metzger) interpret the genre as a poetic, imagistic rendering of John’s theology that should not be read in a literal sense.
For instance, Revelation 9:17–18 speaks of horses with heads of lions whose mouths breathe fire, smoke, and sulfur, and which kill one-third of the people with whom they come into contact. If we understand the genre of this passage to be a literalistic future history of the world, then we must simply keep our eyes out for these wild beasts. When they appear, we must be on guard, but as long as they stay hidden, we have nothing to worry about.
But what if, on the other hand, we recognize the genre of this passage to be a vision that is not physically real? Then we are brought to repentance as we consider God’s justice and mercy—whether or not we come into contact with actual horses like these at some point in the future.
Pray: For understanding
As you read the Scriptures, pray that God will help you understand which genre the author had in mind and how the author’s words can best enhance your relationship with Christ.
Remember: Psalm 119:105
“[God’s] word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Live: In the light
No matter what the genre of each passage, the Bible is fully God’s Word. God’s Spirit speaks through the Bible and helps us understand who God is, and who we are, so we can live in the light of God. We may disagree about the genre of a passage, but we can agree that the Spirit uses all types of biblical writings to speak to us today.