“Rightly dividing the Word of truth” – Recognizing Genre

young man reading small bible

This is the second post in a series on principles of Biblical interpretation for the previous entry please click HERE.

Recognizing Genre

There are multiple literary genres employed in Holy Scripture.  Rather than run through them on my own I am going to quote a professional, to read the following breakdown from the original author please click HERE.

Law: This includes the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The purpose of law is to express God’s sovereign will concerning government, priestly duties, social responsibilities, etc. Knowledge of Hebrew manners and customs of the time, as well as a knowledge of the covenants, will complement a reading of this material.

History: Stories and epics from the Bible are included in this genre. Almost every book in the Bible contains some history, but Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Acts are predominately history. Knowledge of secular history is crucial, as it dovetails perfectly with biblical history and makes interpretation much more robust.

Wisdom: This is the genre of aphorisms that teach the meaning of life and how to live. Some of the language used in wisdom literature is metaphorical and poetic, and this should be taken into account during analysis. Included are the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes.

Poetry: These include books of rhythmic prose, parallelism, and metaphor, such as Song of Solomon, Lamentations and Psalms. We know that many of the psalms were written by David, himself a musician, or David’s worship leader, Asaph. Because poetry does not translate easily, we lose some of the musical “flow” in English. Nevertheless, we find a similar use of idiom, comparison and refrain in this genre as we find in modern music.

Narrative: This genre includes the Gospels, which are biographical narratives about Jesus, and the books of Ruth, Esther, and Jonah. A reader may find bits of other genres within the Gospels, such as parable (Luke 8:1-15) and discourse (Matthew 24). The book of Ruth is a perfect example of a well-crafted short story, amazing in its succinctness and structure.

Epistles: An epistle is a letter, usually in a formal style. There are 21 letters in the New Testament from the apostles to various churches or individuals. These letters have a style very similar to modern letters, with an opening, a greeting, a body, and a closing. The content of the Epistles involves clarification of prior teaching, rebuke, explanation, correction of false teaching and a deeper dive into the teachings of Jesus. The reader would do well to understand the cultural, historical and social situation of the original recipients in order to get the most out of an analysis of these books.

Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature: The Prophetic writings are the Old Testament books of Isaiah through Malachi, and the New Testament book of Revelation. They include predictions of future events, warnings of coming judgment, and an overview of God’s plan for Israel. Apocalyptic literature is a specific form of prophecy, largely involving symbols and imagery and predicting disaster and destruction. We find this type of language in Daniel (the beasts of chapter 7), Ezekiel (the scroll of chapter 3), Zechariah (the golden lampstand of chapter 4), and Revelation (the four horsemen of chapter 6). The Prophetic and Apocalyptic books are the ones most often subjected to faulty eisegesis and personal interpretation based on emotion or preconceived bias. However, Amos 3:7 tells us, “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” Therefore, we know that the truth has been told, and it can be known via careful exegesis, a familiarity with the rest of the Bible, and prayerful consideration. Some things will not be made clear to us except in the fullness of time, so it is best not to assume to know everything when it comes to prophetic literature.

To give a practical example of how an armchair theologian would be aware of Genre in the study of a doctrine I am going to talk about the use of Psalms with regards to the doctrine of Hell.

Poetry in any literary work will often use a great deal of imagery, metaphor, and hyperbole.  These literary devices can give a vivid picture of the topic but are generally a poor source for dry facts.  A simple google search can yield many verses in the Psalms that describe hell as being a “pit” of “flames” with prison “bars” and many other such things.  There is debate on how applicable these are due to the words used in the old testament and new testament for hell.  All of that though was moot with regards to my post as I wasn’t addressing what hell looks or feels like.

Since I was only attempting to prove things like the existence of hell, poetic descriptions and imagery were not helpful.  If for example, the Bible was more open ended about the existence of hell in the genres that are clearer on objective doctrinal truths it would follow logically that such poetic narrative could and should be interpreted differently.  So in this sense, I would not rely on poetic genre even though all of the Bible is the word of God.

More relevant to this rule, I would not use an apocalypse to govern scripture in an epistle or gospel narrative.  Apocalypses, such as Daniel or Revelation, are by their very nature unclear without intense study.  Even though I used the powerful proof-texts from Revelation on hell in my post, the go-to passages for my understanding are from the Epistles and words of Christ in the gospel narratives.

Apocalyptic Proof Texts Rev 14:11, Rev 20:10
Hermeneutical Foundation Mark 9:43-48, Matt 13:50, Matt 25:41, 1 Pet 3:19-20Luke 16:19-31

To be clear, had those verses in Revelation been the only passages in the Bible teaching eternal conscious torment I would be more apt to question it as the apocalypse of Revelation uses a great deal of figurative language.  As it turns out, although they are short and quotable they are far from the only passages on the doctrine of hell.

My point when using genre is this, make sure that the doctrine you are trying to prove can be established from a foundation of clear texts in the genre that is most applicable to it.

About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
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