Now it’s time to look at why paying attention to the genre you are reading is helpful. Genre is another way of saying the category or classification, characterized by the same form, style, or subject matter. Genre is one of the first things I make sure to pay attention to because it can shape your entire reading of a verse, chapter, or book.
For example, if I read a parable of Jesus but forget what a parable means, we could have a big problem on our hands when I interpret Jesus’ words of “I am the vine, you are the branches” to mean that literally. Jesus is not actually some weird anthropomorphic grape vine. Likewise when Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grew and became a tree, it isn’t really a mustard seed. There are lessons embedded in his words there.
On the flip side, if I fail to see the book of 1 Samuel as an historical account that happened to the Israelite nation, I may only regard David’s life as a nice story with a lesson. It becomes easy to take for granted that these were real people, at a real point in time.
We know that in all literature, the genre affects our reading of it. Reading a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou is going to be absorbed much differently than reading the Diary of Anne Frank. Knowing one is poetry and one is historical informs our interpretation.
As for the Bible, some people will break them into even more specific categories, but there are certain overarching genres that are typically agreed upon:
- Law: The first 5 books of the Bible are typically considered books of Law, also referred to as “The Torah” and “The Pentateuch”. They include the story of how the Israelites became God’s people and the laws that were given them. These laws were meant to be the standard by which they lived under the Covenant made with God; a display that God’s people did not live like the rest of the world. The laws also served to show that no one was capable of earning God’s love. The Moral Laws (such as the 10 Commandments) are what most people are familiar with, but these books also include the Civil and Ceremonial Laws put in place to govern the Israelite nation. The Civil and Ceremonial Laws were very specific to their people, place, and time within history.
- Narrative: This tells a story or provides an historical account. This is found throughout the Bible, as entire books or as chapters within books.
- Poetry: These use imagery and figurative language. They often express emotion and repeat phrases for poetic flare. The books of Psalms and Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon) are included here. However, poems and songs are found in many books throughout the Bible.
- Wisdom: A collection of wise sayings, meant to influence the moral code of its readers.
- Prophets (Major and Minor): Written by prophets living in a specific period of Israel’s history, these were written as reminders and warnings to the Israelites. These need to be read with an understanding of the Covenant relationship between God and his people.
- Gospels: The term literally means “good news.” They were a proclamation of the new king, Jesus. These include the life of Jesus. A sub-genre, Parable, is found here.
- Letters: Written about a specific circumstance to a specific group of Christians in the Early Church. It is crucial to understand those things first in order to reach appropriate conclusions regarding application.
- Apocalyptic/Prophecy: Revelation and parts of Daniel are included in this genre. These are urgent messages meant to warn and/or comfort the original audience. Apocalyptic literature uses a lot of symbolic language that must be understood through the lens of similar preceding Biblical texts. They are meant to evoke emotion; not necessarily to speak to the cerebral side.
For a handy visual, download and print the Genre Guide. As with the Inductive Bible Study Guide, this can be helpful as you get started. Keep in mind that multiple genres can be found within a book of the Bible.
This week, keep practicing! I’d love to hear from those who are giving it a try. What have you learned? What seems challenging? What questions have you run into?
Later this week, we’ll take a look at Context.