God chose to tell us his story through a masterfully crafted collection of smaller books, including many styles of literature. So how do we read the Bible? Just like any other book! So before reading the Bible, we need to know what kinds of books we are reading. The style of a biblical book determines how we understand it.
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When it’s time to watch a movie or read a book, we all have expectations. Those expectations are based on the category of literature that the story belongs to.
Coming to a movie or book without knowing the genre may leave us confused or disappointed. If we expected fight scenes in a classic romance film, or romance in a documentary, we are likely to be disappointed.
The same is true when we open the Bible. Many of us have false expectations when we come to the bible because we don’t understand the literature of the Bible. We make a mistake and assume every sentence in the Bible is God’s direct speech to us about our present situation.
It’s true that all of the Bible is God’s Word, but we must understand what the Bible means when it says this (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21).
God chose to communicate to us creatively. He taught us about his design for love through a reflective songbook (Song of Songs); he teaches us how to pray and relate to him through the poetry of the Psalms; he speaks of his faithfulness and power by relaying the history of Israel and his work among that nation; he teaches us how to live as his people through letters sent to historical churches in the first century.
God’s Word to us is a story. It’s a story comprised of many other diverse types of stories.
The Bible includes every type of literature. If we take care to understand the genre we are reading, we will better understand how God wants to communicate to us through that book.
Next time you pick up the Bible to read, consider the book you’re reading from. Find out which genre it belongs to, jot down three distinctive qualities of that type of literature, and expect God to speak to you as you read consciously and carefully.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
2 TIMOTHY 2:15 NIV
Give discernment to me,
then I will
We all learned by reading fairy tales and non-fiction that rules exist for how to interpret each type of literature. We must pay careful attention to those rules when reading our Bibles as well.
We can make many mistakes as we interpret the Bible when we fail to recognize the various literary types used in the Bible and how best to understand each one. We can’t treat all Scripture exactly the same way—we interpret Romans differently than Revelation.
We want to introduce readers to the different kinds of literature the Bible contains. So here are eight basic literary types that are used in the Bible.
This genre teaches what Christians should believe (doctrine) or how Christians should live (duty). Most of the New Testament is comprised of epistles, or instructional letters.
All of Paul’s thirteen letters (from Romans to Philemon), for example, are didactic, as are the books from Hebrews to Jude (known as the General Epistles). Some didactic elements are also found in the four Gospels (e.g., Jesus’ general instructions to his disciples).
Example: "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32 NIV)
Narrative history describes what happened in the past. This literature is not necessarily prescriptive, telling us how we should live today. Rather, the narrative genre tells us about God’s work in the past, and is often not blatantly applicable to our lives today.
Over 40% of the Old Testament is historical narrative (e.g., the books of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles), as well as Acts and sections of the four Gospels in the New Testament.
Example: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” (Genesis 18:1 NIV)
Christians have separated the Old Testament Laws into three kinds: moral (applicable for all people everywhere), civil (applicable only to Israel’s government under the old covenant), and ceremonial (the religious rituals of the Jews, mainly embodied in sacrifice and cleanliness regulations). The easiest way to tell the difference between these three kinds of laws is to see how the New Testament treats them. If an Old Testament law is repeated in the New Testament, it’s a moral law applicable to all people.
God gave the Israelites 613 individual laws, contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
Example: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV)
Prophecy in the Bible, whether promises from God or statements about what is to come, must be read in its historical context, not taken out of context. We must first understand who God was speaking to and what he was speaking about. We cannot pretend, for example, that the promises God made to the Israelites while in Babylonian exile universally apply to all Christians today.
The Old Testament’s last seventeen books (Isaiah to Malachi) are prophetic. There are also prophetic utterances throughout the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 24–25).
Example: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit." (Isaiah 11:1 ESV)
Poetry is figurative and expressive, subject at times to exaggeration. We must not treat poetry like didactic literature. For example, we should not interpret the verse below as if David was literally stuck in the mud.
The Old Testament’s wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) includes a large amount of poetry, but other sections of the Bible also include poetry (e.g., many sections of the prophetic books).
Example: “I sink in the miry depths…” (Psalm 69:2 NIV)
Like proverbial statements today, biblical proverbs express general truths that are applicable in specific situations, not universal truths applicable all the time. It takes wisdom to know when to apply these wise sayings.
We mainly find proverbs in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
Example: “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” (Proverbs 16:3 NIV)
Jesus invented parables, or stories, to teach specific spiritual truths. They are not allegories where every element of the parable has a hidden meaning. Rather, they usually focus on one main truth (the context for each parable provides a clue to this) and the response from the hearers.
Jesus taught around forty parables, all found in the four Gospels.
Example: "'The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.'" (Matthew 13:44 ESV)
Fantastic images of strange creatures, cataclysmic events, mysterious angels, and strategic numbers are characteristics of this difficult-to-understand literature. It’s a sub-category of prophetic literature, specifically addressing the end times or the end of the world. We need to exercise great caution and humility when handling apocalyptic literature, lest we think we have it all figured out.
Revelation is apocalyptic, but so are sections of prophetic books like Daniel or Ezekiel.
Example: "And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?'" (Revelation 5:2 ESV)