How many different types of literature are contained in our Bibles, and should we read or interpret them all in the same way?
This week’s lesson is on the need for interpretation, and “hermeneutics,” that is, the tools of interpretation. One would hope this lesson would draw out the actual methods of doing so. The introduction suggests that genres of scripture would be central to the study. However, it also examines subjects already covered: the effects of culture and translation from the original languages, our presuppositions and sinful tendencies that bias us.
The study of the different genre really should be a number of separate day’s lessons. Each genre or literary type in the Bible should have several days associated with it. For this week, let’s examine broadly the genres of scripture.
The following types of literature are present to a greater or lesser degree in Scripture. Each has it’s own need for care in studying, and has it’s own tools for understanding.
- Narrative – best known as “story” or “discourse,” where the author recounts events with characters, actions, plot, conflict, resulting in either tragedy or success as resolution. Reading the whole story is vital to understanding the context, and often the broader context is required to understand a story. The flood story, for instance, harkens back to the creation account, so much so, that it is intended to be seen as an undoing of the original creation and a fresh start, a new creation, if you will. Some of Torah, much of the Former Prophets (Samuel, Kings) and some of the latter, as well as some the Writings are narrative.
- Law – The Laws of Israel are contained mainly in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These can be examined as either apodictic (“do this, period!”) or casuistic (“if this happens, then apply this penalty this way”), and further divisions are often attempted through “civil,” “ceremonial/religions,” and “moral.” A fairly serious challenge with O.T. laws is the consistent overlap between these three areas, and thus ascertaining their continuing relevance to modern society or Christians.
- Poetry – Found from Genesis through the prophets, through the use of parallelism, imagery and frequent word-play (puns, simile, metaphor, synecdoche, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, etc.), Hebrew poetry reaches the heart through the creative side of the brain, and well as the emotions. When God says he set the “pillars” of the earth, it doesn’t literally mean He is propping it atop rods of stone like a bridge. But the image is of God as a competent engineer in charge of earth. The parallelism can be either a line or two, or the entire poem can be parallel (A-B-C-B’-A’) structure called chiasm. We see poetry at an high level in Song of Songs (or “of Solomon”).
- Wisdom literature – Often poetic in structure, the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are classified as wisdom literature. While Proverbs assumes the general truth “if you do the right things, you’ll be blessed,” Job and Ecclesiastes provide a Great Controversy counterpoint: the proverbs are true most of the time, but sin makes things complicated, and even wisdom has a limited application. And the proverbs must be applied contextually, not absolutely, even if they follow general rules of life.
- Prophecy/Oracle against nations – Much of the O.T. is prophetic in nature, but usually we think of the Latter Prophets, both Major (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and Minor (“book of the 12”). Their messages are often similar: 1) you’re sinning, 2) repent! 3) if you don’t, there will be judgment, and 4) God will restore through a faithful remnant. The prophets didn’t just predict the future, but called Israel—and the nations!—back to faithfulness to Him
- Gospel – the stories of Jesus aren’t the only gospels known. But they are the oldest and most reliable, often quoted by early church fathers, and consistent between themselves to a very high degree. Each is built on narrative with sub-genres: birth/death narrative, miracle accounts, teaching, etc. Each of these sub-genre has its own challenges for interpretation, but especially parables. To what degree are the details in the parable part of the application or reality (see the “Rich Man and Lazarus” in Luke 16 for example)?
- Epistle (including exhortations like 1st John and Hebrews) – The letters of the new Testament, as correspondence between apostles and individuals, congregations, or regions, seem like wonderful advice from a loving parent on how to live the Christian life. They wrestle with issues in the local churches of the time, and some of the advice given there must be given a context before applied directly to our own day. Much like Ellen White’s advice that people of her day should not have bikes, some of the N.T. letters require some background before applying too generally. However, much of the advice is universal to all Christians, especially doctrinal/theological teachings about God, the Spirit and Christ, His church, and things to come (eschatology).
- Apocalyptic – Daniel and Revelation, and parts of Zechariah (some might add Matthew 24) are considered Apocalyptic literature. This material is extreme prophecy filled with images/symbols, cosmic sweep, heaven/earth dichotomy, angel interpreters, and prophetic oracle all-in-one. Knowing when a symbol is implied vs. literal object is part of the challenge facing interpreters. More will be said about this genre later.
Why would it be irresponsible to interpret Poetry or Narrative in the same way as Law?
God’s did not give his word in monochrome, but in multiple genres to speak to various minds and individuals. The amazing part is the consistent message across the various books/letters. There is, as Ellen White says, “a gold thread” that ties it all together.