What would you say is the genre of the Bible?
It’s tempting to classify the Bible’s genre as something broad and nebulous—religious instruction, perhaps (isn’t that the section it’s shelved in at your local bookstore?). Certainly, we often treat the Bible as if it were a unified piece of genre literature, approaching Genesis, Revelation, and everything in between with the same set of reading expectations. You may even have heard phrases like “instruction manual for life” used to describe the Bible, suggesting that it’s one big how-to reference work.
But of course, we all know that the various parts of the Bible are different from each other. Sometimes very different. The dense family trees of the Books of Moses read differently than the poetry of the Psalms. The historical accounts of Israel’s kings and wars read differently than the very personal letters written by the apostle Paul.
Many different literary genres are represented in the Bible. Each genre represents a different medium through which its author—a human writer, and the God who inspired him—chose to communicate a message.
Is this important? Do we need to know what specific genre we’re reading when we study the Bible?
An awareness of genre helps us understand what to look for in what we’re reading. Consider how differently you would approach a reading if you recognized that it was, for example…
- a biography
- a legal argument
- an epic poem
- an instruction manual
Recognizing the genre of what you’re reading provides important clues about how to understand it. Literary techniques like repetition, allegory, irony, and humor make much more sense when you understand how they fit into the genre of the text. And so this summer, taking inspiration from last year’s popular “Tour of the Bible” series, we’re embarking on a journey through the different genres represented in the Bible. Throughout the coming months, we’ll take a brief look at the major genres represented in the Bible, examine their distinguishing traits, consider how the texts’ original audience would have understood them, and look at examples from the Bible.
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