This post was originally published as Bible Study Made Simple podcast episode 8, How to Find Background Information. You can listen here.
When studying the Bible, one key thing to take note of is the genre of literature. This refers to the style of writing that particular book of the Bible was written. There are several different types of literature in the Bible, so what are they, and how does that affect the way we study the Bible?
I am Eva Kubasiak, and this is Bible Study Made Simple. Have you ever felt intimidated or confused by the Bible? Or maybe you have started studying the Bible before but haven’t found a way to incorporate it into your regular routine. The Bible Study Made Simple podcast is here to help you move from intimidated and confused to confident and joyful in your approach to Scripture, and help you find a routine that sticks. The goal isn’t checking off a box perfectly, but instead, our goal is an intimate connection with the God of the Bible - plus having tons of fun along the way!
If you have been following along with the last few episodes of the Bible Study Made Simple podcast, then you have heard me talk about genre of literature. It is one of the things I like to make note of when studying background information before starting to study a book of the Bible. Knowing the genre helps you know what filter to put on as you are studying.
The Old Testament includes the genres narrative, poetry, wisdom, and prophecy. The New Testament contains gospels, letters, and apocalyptic writings. These genres help us to see how to interpret what we are reading. Let’s look at each of them and how to use them in Bible study.
Narrative is telling a story of someone in the past. We cannot take narrative as something actionable, or something to do, because it is simply descriptive of what happened in the past. If we took Noah’s story in Genesis as actionable, we would all be building arks for no reason. Instead, that story serves a larger purpose in the story of scripture. That purpose is to show that God will protect His people and that He values faith in Himself.
The books of poetry in the Bible are full of metaphors and grandiose language. We would not take Shakespeare literally when he said, "Why, then the world's mine oyster.” We know that the world is in fact not an oyster. But it is a metaphor to help describe that the character could accomplish anything he set his mind to. This is similar to the poetry of the Bible. It is not always literal, but there is a point that the author is trying to get across as we read. Poetry appeals to our emotions, and through that, we can see that God cares about the fullness of our person, not just head knowledge.
Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament is neat because we can see the style of the phrases. Usually, the first line agrees with the second line. It is like they use two-line poetry to hammer home a point. Look for that parallelism as you read the books of poetry.
The wisdom books are similar to the poetry books in that you cannot take them 100% literally. Often people will count on the books of wisdom as promises. Instead, they are books of just that - wisdom. The action steps in the books of wisdom are wise to put into practice, and generally speaking, they will help you live a moral and ethical life.
One of the Proverbs I hear taken out of context often is, “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” There are plenty of parents who have indeed trained up their children in a way that honors God, but their children simply made choices of their own and did not continue to follow God. So as we read wisdom, we should take the practices to heart, and do our best to live by them, but the result is never guaranteed.
The last genre found in the Old Testament is prophecy books. These books are written by prophets, and can often be in the format of poetry as well. These prophecies are usually very specific about a specific time and place, before Christ and Israel. So if we are placing this in the context that it should properly go, we need to make sure that we are not taking these prophecies as truth for today, but put them in the overarching narrative of God and His people, and know that they are for a different time. Our goal when reading these books should be to understand what they meant for the original audience of God’s chosen people.
As we move into the New Testament genres, you are most likely familiar with the first one - the Gospels. Gospels are like narratives because they are telling a story, but it is a very directed story. Each of these books was written by a believer in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. They proclaim the good news that Jesus came to die for us. They are real accounts by real people who followed Jesus closely during His life. These accounts teach us about who Jesus was while on this earth, and what He taught.
The next style of writing is pastoral letters. The New Testament is mostly letters written from one person in the church to another church, or another person. These letters give us an inside look into what it would have been like in the early church and give us practical knowledge for following Christ in our daily lives. However, context is not exempt here. These letters were written to specific people at a specific time. So as we get to know the context, we can better understand how each of these books relates to our lives today.
The last genre is apocalyptic writing. This is writing that points us to the end of time in the book of Revelation. This is similar to prophesy but can be a little harder to interpret. We cannot forget to take into account context, and we must consider what the book would have meant to the original audience. With lots of symbolism, it is necessary to cross-reference to other sections of Scripture with similar word pictures.
So if it is specific to another time and place what does that mean for me? How do I apply it to my life now? What we need to figure out is what specific principle would have been applicable for that day. This is still not for us, but this is looking to see exactly what the text would have meant for the people it was written to.
Once we know what that principle is, we can look at it and see if there is an underlying spiritual truth that can bridge the gap for us. This spiritual truth can help us see if what was applicable back then is applicable to us today.
Then the next step is to see how that truth applies to my life. Knowledge of the Bible for knowledge’s sake doesn’t do us any good if it doesn’t change us. Take what you have learned and apply that spiritual truth to your life.
Genre is an important part of understanding Scripture. When we look through the lens of how a book of the Bible was written, it is easier to understand how it fits into the greater narrative of Scripture, and how it points us to who God is and who He wants us to be.
One thing that helps understand how genre works together is reading through the entire Bible. I know that is a big task, and it can be overwhelming, but hear me out. When you read through the entire Bible, you see how each of the books works together with the others to give us the overarching narrative of Scripture. Each of the books has their own theme, yet they work together to form an overall theme and story as well. But like I said earlier, reading through the entire Bible on your own can be tough! It took me several years and many incomplete attempts to get through the whole Bible myself. That’s why I created the Bible reading group. In the Bible reading group, we start reading in Genesis each year and finish the year in Revelation. If you follow along with us, over the course of the year, you will have read through the entire Bible! So yes, it’s a big task. But with friends and a guide walking with you, there is no doubt in my mind that you can do it!
If you are listening to this in real-time, we are about to start the New Testament on October 1, and I would love for you to join us. What would it look like for you to intentionally commit to reading through the New Testament before the end of the year? I have seen God work powerfully through a commitment to reading His Word, and I would love to see Him do that in your life. If you are interested, check it out here, and I even have a free Bible reading plan through the gospels for you too.
So how can you start to utilize genre in your Bible study time this week? I challenge you to look up the genre of the book you are studying and note how that affects the way you are studying. You might be surprised at how that one simple thing changes the way you look at the books of the Bible.
Here’s a prayer for you as you are learning and discovering genre in your Bible study:
Father, I am so grateful for the depth of Your Word. I will never come to the end of the glory that You reveal to me through the Bible, and how comforting that is! I don’t want a small god that I could completely comprehend, but I want You. I want a God that sustains all things by the power of His Word. Thank You for continuing to show me who You are. Amen.
As you take your next steps towards God through studying the Bible, I pray that you remember our goal is connection with God over perfection in our process. Remember, your time with God doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.