The Bible as a Work of Literature

There are many different genres of books, such as fiction, autobiographical, scientific, and poetic, and the way we read each type varies. In the case of a novel, we begin reading on page one and proceed from the front of the book to the back.  The plot develops as the story progresses with characters entering and exiting and the central conflict resolving in the novel’s climax. This is quite different from a dictionary, encyclopedia, or technical manual. The last thing we would do with those is start in the beginning and then read until we come to the word or information we need. Everyone understands that the way we approach a book depends upon the kind of book it is.

The Bible is no different. Learning to enjoy it requires that we understand it as a collection of many different genres, each serving a different purpose. Besides the many stories of people and events, it also contains poetry, prophetic warnings and sayings, proverbs, letters, and more. Since the Bible also served the Jewish nation as a historical and legal record, it includes genealogical lists, census records, and religious, sacrificial, and legal instructions. The Bible is a very diverse compilation of widely-ranging materials, some which have direct bearing on us today and some which don’t; nevertheless, there are great truths and insights that everyone can glean from it.

For clarity’s sake, let’s look at the various kinds of literature in the Bible:

 

Narrative

A narrative is a story, and the Bible certainly has plenty of those. In fact, many of the stories in the Bible are very famous, such as the accounts of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, and of course, Jesus. The Bible even begins with the account of creation, a story that opens with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” As we progress through the Bible, we read the stories of various men and women God has worked with throughout history in pursuit of His plans and purposes. Eventually we come to the story of Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—followed by the book of Acts, which is a story about the very first followers of Jesus Christ, their ups and downs, and the spread of Jesus’ message by them throughout the Roman Empire. Lastly, the Bible closes with the Book of Revelation and its portrayal of the story of the end times and man’s final reunion and life with God.

Many critics of the Bible consider its stories to be fables, but there is solid historical and archeological evidence to indicate that they are about real people, times, places, and events. Some of the beauty of the biblical narrative lies in the fact that it depicts people experiencing genuine struggles that most of us can relate to.

We also need to keep in mind that these are stories from ancient times and that, although they involve some very different cultures and customs, they also include relevant lessons of moral, ethical, and religious principles that can guide us all. It can rightly be said that the stories in the Bible are about the whole human condition, the moral and the immoral, the good and the bad.  This isn’t a storybook of perfect characters with perfect lives, but of real people with blemishes, warts, and all. When the narratives are threaded together, they depict the overall story of God’s love for mankind, His desire for the relationship between mankind and Himself to be restored, and what He has done to bring that to pass.

Here are some examples of the various stories in the Bible:

  • The Creation of the world and mankind (Genesis 1-2)
  • The Fall of Man—his disobedience (Genesis 3)
  • Noah and the flood (Genesis 6-8)
  • Abraham and the promise God made to him (Genesis 12-23)
  • Joseph sold into slavery, and his rise to power in Egypt (Genesis 37-50)
  • Moses—his birth, calling, confrontation with Pharaoh, and the Exodus (Exodus 1-20; 32-35)
  • The Israelites wandering in the desert (Numbers 11-17; 20-25)
  • Joshua conquering the Promised Land (Joshua 1-11; 22-24)
  • The various judges of Israel (Judges 1-21)
  • Kings Saul, David, and Solomon (1 & 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1-11; 1 Chronicles 10-29; 2 Chronicles 1-9)
  • The Israelite captivity in Assyria and Babylon (2 Kings 17-25)
  • Jesus—his birth, life, death, and resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)
  • The first-century followers (Acts)
  • The End Times and the Final Kingdom (Revelation 6-22)

 

Prophecy

Most people think of prophecies as predictions concerning future events, and although this is true, prophecy can also involve God’s instruction for people to “Get moving!”, or to stop doing something that is harmful. For the most part, the biblical writers were prophets to whom God revealed His instructions, corrections, and words of encouragement.

Early in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there is a story of a man named Abraham and his wife, Sarah. The Bible records how, almost two thousand years after Adam disobeyed God, He chose Abraham and promised him that he would be “the Father of many nations” and that through him all the people of the world would be blessed. This was a prophecy regarding the future coming of a Messiah, a special man appointed by God to help restore the relationship that Adam had broken. There are many sections of the Bible that contain prophetic words pertaining to the Messiah and the Nation of Israel that came from Abraham’s descendants.

Oftentimes prophecies can be hard to understand because of their obscured and enigmatic nature. God spoke to prophets using pictures and riddles, which can be confusing, so generally when first learning to enjoy the Bible the reader may want to skim, or even jump over, some prophetic sections. As we gain a better understanding of the characters and storylines of the Bible, we will be better able to enjoy the prophetic sections and the rich truths they reveal about God’s plans and actions throughout history.

Prophetic sections are embedded throughout the Bible, but some of them include:

  • Isaiah (Chapters 1-66)
  • Jeremiah (Chapters 1-38; 44-51)
  • Ezekiel (Chapters 1-48)
  • Daniel (Chapters 2; 4; 5;7-12)

 

Wisdom

One of the things that the Bible declares about itself is that it holds instruction on fruitful living. It describes wisdom as knowing the right, fair, and just path, and it includes some wonderfully inspiring sections about the meaning of life, relational skills, and practical keys to being the best person possible.

Many people make it a daily habit to read from the Book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes because of the great wisdom these sections contain. Sprinkled throughout the Bible are pithy sayings and tidbits of wisdom spoken by many godly men and women which, when allowed to sink into our hearts, can eventually be incorporated into our lives as well.

Some of the wisdom sections include:

  • Job (Chapters 3-42)
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes

 

Poetry

About the most profound poetry I’ve ever personally written has started off with the words, “Roses are red, violets are blue,” so clearly I am not much of an expert on poetry. When reading the biblical sections that contain poetry, we should keep in mind that it’s an Eastern book, originally written in other languages for people with other cultures, customs and practices. The poetry sections found in the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, so, like all translations from one language to another, the poetic words and concepts don’t necessarily translate perfectly into English.

We should also be aware that many of the psalms were intended to be sung as lyrics in musical praise with instrumental accompaniment. Although the English reader may not recognize all the poetic nuances, most will find these sections to be very inspirational, and enriching in their praise life toward God.

The poetic sections include:

  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Song of Solomon
  • Lamentations

 

Correspondence

There are many letters recorded in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 21 were originally written as letters to individuals or to entire congregations of the first followers of Jesus. The Bible has many records of letters, and even the Book of Revelation, which speaks of many events still to come in the future, contains seven letters written to seven churches. In the Old Testament as well, the reader will find the occasional letter from a king to his subjects, royal decrees, announcements, etc.

The New Testament letters are very valuable for learning the instructions of the Apostles on how Christians are to think, believe, and act. Although the letters were written in the first century, they still have direct relevance to all Christians today. Every follower of Jesus should take the time to read the New Testament letters, also known as the Epistles, in order to understand the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Letters normally include an opening salutation, the identity of the author, the intended audience, prayers, instructions, wisdom, warnings, quotations from the Old Testament prophets, and even personal news. It’s also noteworthy that, unlike the Old Testament which was originally written in Hebrew, the New Testament letters were penned in Greek, since it was the universal language of commerce and trade and was therefore spoken throughout the entire Roman Empire.

Examples of correspondence include:

  • Romans
  • 1 and 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 and 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 and 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon
  • Hebrews*
  • James
  • 1 and 2 Peter
  • 1, 2, and 3 John
  • Jude

*Many scholars consider Hebrews to be a combination of genres that is not purely fitting within the category of a letter. It is included in this list because it is commonly included in the list of the Epistles.

 

Religious Instruction

In the Old Testament we are told how God worked through Abraham’s offspring to raise up a special nation through which He would bring the Messiah—the anointed one of God who would save the entire world. Later God called Moses, a special prophet, to lead the Nation of Israel out from their Egyptian slavery. God needed to keep the people separate from other nations, both religiously and socially, so He instituted religious, dietary, clothing, and special social regulations through Moses, who in turn instructed the people in them.

These regulations can be tedious to read, and even the seasoned Bible reader tends to skip over many of them since they seem to be repetitive. The reader should always bear in mind that God had a specific reason for these instructions and that there is much we can glean from them, but when first learning how to enjoy the Bible, we don’t need to get bogged down by them. For this reason, I encourage first-time Bible readers to skim these sections and just get a feel for them and what was required of the Nation of Israel thousands of years ago; this will help the reader, when approaching the New Testament, to still appreciate how these regulations have changed as a result of the perfect sacrifice of Christ, without getting weighed down or confused.

These special rules and regulations given to Israel are mainly recorded in:

  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy

 

Legal and Genealogical Records

In western societies, religious and civil or governmental institutions are separate, but in Israel the government was a combination of both the civil and the religious. There are times when the reader will encounter sections that speak about behavior from both perspectives. There are also a number of records that list the genealogies of people—that is, who is the father of whom. Although it’s easy to get lost in the lists of names, these were very important records that were used to establish priestly credentials and to ultimately validate the Messiah in light of his genealogy.  The reader will find genealogical lists sprinkled throughout the Bible.

Having a good grasp of the type of literature we’re encountering in any given section will go a long way toward helping us learn to enjoy the Bible. If you find a section that is confusing or even boring, just skip over it. You can always come back to it at a later time. As you develop a stronger feel for the plans and actions of God, you will be able to better comprehend the difficult sections and gain greater appreciation for what God has done—and is still doing!

(This article was taken from Dan Gallagher’s book “Learning to Enjoy the Bible“)

 

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1 comment

  1. Nice work.

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