What is the Bible? : The Genres of the Bible

The Daily Omer. Bible Commentary. What is the Bible. Omer Dylan Redden

The Bible is a single volume with many books inside. Those books were written over the course of thousands of years and across multiple genres. For that reason, it’s worth understanding what genres we’re dealing with when we read the different books of the Bible.

If we don’t understand how to read different genres, we’ll come to all kinds of wrong conclusions. We might take something literally that should never be taken literally. We might dismiss some historical fact because we were reading it like a fairy tale.

People have “made” the Bible say a lot of things it never actually said, all because they misinterpreted the genre of what they were reading.

The Bible is simple enough for any literate person to understand. But it is not simplistic. And being literate implies that you not only understand how to read letters on a page, but you understand how to read different genres. And let’s not forget how important it is that we understand what we’re reading too.

Let me preface this post with two things:

  1. I am not a ThD or DD, certified scholar in Biblical Literature. So, if I miss something, please show me some grace.
  2. I did, however, earn a Bachelors in Biblical Studies. And I was on the advanced track in seminary pursuing my M.Div. before I dropped out and had to enter the workforce to put food on the table for my growing family. Thus, you can trust I know what I’m talking about.

Now that we’ve covered those two things, let’s look at the different genres of the Bible. Here’s a breakdown of what we’ll cover:

Narrative History & Biography

Another name for narrative is story. Clearly, the majority of the Old Testament is a story. It’s actually one big story, with hundreds of little stories throughout. These stories follow a structure, very much like Donald Miller teaches in Storybrand, “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

These stories either end in comedy (good) or tragedy (bad). Oftentimes, there is a villain, a guide, a victim, and a hero / heroine.

The setting for these stories is Israel and/or the Ancient Near East. Here is a list of the books that would fall under narrative history. I’ve grouped them for ease of remembering:

  • Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Joshua, Judges, Ruth
  • 1 and 2 Samuel, Kings, Chronicles
  • Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Some of these stories are epic, memorable, the stuff movies are made of. In fact, some movies have been based from them. (Remember “Noah” with Russell Crowe?)

Other stories can bore you to tears, unless you understand the inter-workings of what’s going on behind the scenes. Context is king. And the more you understand the context, the more compelling you’ll find it to be. (Leviticus is a prime example of this.)

Now, most scholars stop here and put the New Testament history in its own category. They usually split it as Gospels & Acts. But here’s the deal:

These New Testament histories are just like the Old Testament histories.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts are all historical narratives / biographies.

Just like the Old Testament starts with 4 books that are essentially about Moses and the Exodus, the New Testament starts with 4 books that are essentially about Jesus and the New Exodus. In the Old Testament, Genesis is the setup book to get to Moses. In the New Testament, Acts is the follow-up encore after Jesus.

Poetry / Song / Wisdom

Sometimes, scholars also separate these, but honestly, I don’t understand why. Yes, wisdom literature does feel like its own thing. But when you read Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, you realize they have a rhythm, a cadence, a structure, much like a poem or song.

Psalms and Song of Songs are obviously songs. Duh. But they are poetic in nature too. And there is great wisdom in each of the 150 Psalms, as well as the Song of Songs.

Therefore, these five books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalms, Song of Songs) should all be in the same genre. And I’ll throw one more in this bunch. Usually, it gets thrown into prophecy, but I believe it lives here: Lamentations.

We’d be wise to spend more time in these books and learn from ancient wisdom.

Prophecy

What’s prophecy? It’s an odd blend, unlike any other type of literature. There are elements of historical narrative and biography in the prophets. There are elements of poetry / song / wisdom in the prophets.

But at the end of the day, the prophets are making a ton of declarations and proclamations. They uniquely claim they are acting as a mouthpiece for God. They call down judgments. They speak blessings and benedictions. They call for justice in one breath and beg for mercy in another.

The prophets are a fiery bunch (no pun intended). Their names are as follows:

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel
  • Daniel
  • The 12 Minor Prophets
    • Hosea
    • Joel
    • Amos
    • Obadiah
    • Jonah
    • Micah
    • Nahum
    • Habakkuk
    • Zephaniah
    • Haggai
    • Zechariah
    • Malachi
  • Revelation

Now if you’re an observant reader, you’ll notice I threw in a couple extra there, which normally aren’t included. Daniel and Revelation are usually put in their own category called apocalyptic. But I disagree that it’s a separate category.

Let’s remember that the writers of those books were in a particular time, in a particular political situation, writing to a particular group of people. They had visions and messages from God, so in that sense, they were both prophets.

Daniel was living in Babylon, in exile, and he was serving in a position of leadership. He had to be careful how he wrote about his visions and messages from God. John was living on the island of Patmos, in exile, and he had long been a leader in the church, but was a prisoner under Roman rule. He too had to be careful about what he wrote.

The more we dive in and understand their cultural context, the more I think we’ll find that they were prophets of their times, not necessarily predictors of events 2000+ years later.

The prophets can teach us a lot, if we have ears to hear.

Epistles / Letters

Epistle is such an odd word. It’s essentially a written communication, a correspondence, aka a letter. I’ll call it a letter moving forward.

I’ve always loved receiving letters. I’ve also enjoyed writing them. And in the Bible, I enjoy reading them.

Some letters are from one individual to another. Some letters are from one individual to a large group. Some letters are from an unknown source and addressed to an entire people group.

Paul, Peter, James, and John all wrote some. Paul holds the record for the most letters written, and the most books of the Bible written.

Here are all the letters in the Bible:

Letters to Specific ChurchesLetters to IndividualsLetters to Entire People Groups
1 & 2 Corinthians1 & 2 TimothyRomans
GalatiansTitusHebrews
EphesiansPhilemonJames
Philippians3 John1 & 2 Peter
Colossians1 & 2 John
1 & 2 ThessaloniansJude

What Difference Does It Make

All these facts are interesting, Omer, but what difference does it make?

Well, dear reader, let me counter with this question, “Would you read a letter differently than a history book? Would you read a poem differently than a biography?”

Of course you would. And that’s why understanding Bible genres is so important. If you read a prophecy like an instructive letter, you’re going to miss the point.

The prophets are probably the toughest books of the Bible to understand. But when you put them in a historical context, and you see the themes of their proclamations, they start to make more sense.

They are calling different folks and people groups to the carpet with their judgments and poems of destruction. Then, they are calling other folks and people groups to the clouds with their visions of restoration and glory.

They’re advocates for social change. They’re protestors. They’re reformers. They’re the Martin Luther King Jrs., the Harriet Tubmans, the William Wilberforces, the Luthers, the Calvins, the Zwinglis of their day.

One last thing, the book of Ecclesiastes…

This is not a book of sorrow and misery. It is not the same tone as Lamentations. It is a book of wisdom, from a man who experienced it all. The term he uses for himself has been translated “gatherer,” or “teacher.”

He’s gathered all this experience, and in his later years, he’s looking back and teaching us who aren’t as far down the path. And his message is essentially this:

Life is a vapor. It’s gone in a flash. So enjoy it!

Additional Resources

If you enjoyed this post, visit this page for more in this series on “What is the Bible?”.

Visit this page for commentary on different books in the Bible.

Published by omerdylanredden

I write.

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