Why Genre is Important in Bible Study
On October 30, 1938, it was reported that cities across the USA erupted in panic over a dramatic broadcast of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Although the broadcast was introduced as a drama, it was conducted as a series of news bulletins without commercial interruption. Some who tuned in late to the broadcast reportedly thought an actual invasion from Mars was taking place! This event is an excellent example of how crucial it is to know what genre we are reading, or in this case listening, to.
Genre is simply the kind or type of literature/art that something is. Examples of genre include, novels, letters, poems, songs, or, as in the case above, radio broadcasts. Within the broad category of genre, there are subgenres. For example, a letter could be a love letter, a business letter, or a legal document of some kind. Novels can be fictional or nonfictional. Further subdivisions may include biographies, love stories, fairy tales, or some other kind of literature. It’s also important to recognize that various genres can be mixed. For example, a novel that is classified as a love story may include comedy, drama, and may be set in the days of the “Wild West,” thereby making it a “Western Novel.”
We often don’t think about genre because it is usually intuitive. In the example above, a novel set in the late 1800s in the Western USA is clearly a Western Novel, and if the heroes are clumsy sort of fellows, as in Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang, we recognize the story is a comedy. Two things are obvious from this example: 1) genre is frequently identified subconsciously; and 2) the form of the genre tells us what kind of literature/art we are experiencing.
The examples I have given to this point are all examples from modern Western culture. Because we know our culture and the language, identifying genre happens naturally. Of course, there are still occassions when we can be fooled, as in the dramatic radio version of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds mentioned above. The misunderstanding which resulted demonstrates how important a correct identification of genre is. The correct identification of genre is even more challenging when we are dealing with a literature written in a different language, in a time long ago, whose culture was very different from our own. Before talking about Biblical genres, however, I want to give one more example which shows how our understanding of genre determines the meaning of a word.
Genre Determines Meaning
In demonstrating how genre determines meaning, let’s use the word “pitch.” Without context, the meaning of the word “pitch” is ambiguous. However, if I’m reading a baseball magazine and come across the word “pitch” I intuitively know that it refers to the act of a pitcher throwing a baseball. If I’m talking to someone who plays soccer (or football) and I use the word “pitch,” it refers to the playing surface known as a “football pitch.” Then again, if I’m talking to a musician, “pitch” refers to the proper tone of a musical note. But, if I’m talking to a roofer, “pitch” may describe the angle of the roof, or the black tarry substance used to water-proof a roof. Context makes all the difference when it comes to the meaning of the word “pitch” and genre is clearly the determining factor in that meaning. Since genre is so important in determining meaning, this fact can not be overlooked when interpreting Scripture. Along this line, one of the mistakes commonly made in biblical word studies is to use a concordance or lexicon and look up every meaning of a word and then apply all of those meanings to a particular passage. This method is as incorrect as thinking that a roofer is talking about a musical note, a playing surface, and the throwing of a baseball, all at the same time when he uses the word “pitch.”
What Kind of Genres are Found in the Bible and How Can We Identify Them?
The chart on the left gives some broad general categories of biblical genres. The Bible includes genres that we are familiar with such as narrative or poetry, and genres that are more challenging to understand such as apocalyptic or prophecy. A large portion of the Bible is narrative, but the narratives of Scripture consist of many different subgenres. For example, the Gospels, which many today would classify as historical biographies, also contain such subgenres as parables, wisdom sayings, prayers, and genealogies. The letters of Paul also utilize a mixture of genres such as hymns, prayers, diatribes, poetry, etc. Similarly, the Old Testament poetic literature is very diverse. The Book of Psalms consists of psalms of praise and thanksgiving, petition, lament, and imprecation, just to name a few. The prophetic books use various genres to effectively communicate their message including, the prophetic lawsuit, lament, funeral dirge, parable, or song.
How can we tell what genre or subgenre is being used? Sometimes this is pretty straight forward, for example, the Book of Proverbs consists of…well…proverbs. Other times, it is more challenging. At times the literature tells us what the genre is. For example, the Book of Proverbs begins with a description of its contents (Prov. 1:1-6), and the Gospels usually tell us when Jesus is speaking a parable (e.g., Mark 4:2).
It is important to remember that form is essential to the identification of genre. All genres take a particular form. This is how we can identify narrative from, say, poetry. Or, to give a more specific example, this is how we would identify a love letter from a business letter. Love letters never begin “Dear Sir,” or “To Whom It May Concern” (unless we are being funny or deliberately misusing terms to make a point). Everything from telephone books, to tweets (on Twitter) has a recognizable form. When I read a tweet from a friend, I am not offended if it is only a couple of sentences long. I understand that is the form the genre takes. If my friend wrote a one or two page response, it would not be a tweet. Thus genre is determined by form. This helps us to understand how a biblical genre is identified when it does not specify what genre is being used–and most of the time it does not.
One example of this is what scholars have called the prophetic lawsuit. Note that this is not an ancient name, but one that Bible scholars have devised to identify the genre. Even though it is a modern classification, the prophetic lawsuit is easily identifiable by its form as well as by the Hebrew word riv (pronounced “reeve,” meaning “contend”). In this genre, God is usually cast by the prophet as the prosecutor and judge, while Israel is the defendent. The charges consist of Israel violating her covenant with God. An example of the prophetic lawsuit can be found in Micah 6:1-16 or Hosea 4:1-19. Understanding the genre and the courtroom picture that is conjured up by it, helps in correctly interpreting the passage.
Examples of the Importance of Identifying Biblical Genres
We finally come to the point of this article, which is to demonstrate how properly identifying genres can help with biblical interpretation. Let’s begin with the Book of Proverbs. A proverb is, “an axiom or a maxim—a pithy saying—that, by and large, generally speaking, is going to turn out to be true. But a proverb is not a prophecy. In other words, a proverb has no guarantee to it” (Heiser, M. S. (Ed.). (2013). BI101 Introducing Biblical Interpretation: Contexts and Resources. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press). An example frequently used to demonstrate the nature of a proverb is the oft’ quoted “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). This statement does not guarantee that a child will always grow up to follow the Lord, instead, it is a statement that is generally true. A misunderstanding of a proverb like this can cause godly parents a great deal of unnecessary guilt. A great example of the nature of a proverb is demonstrated in Proverbs 26:4-5 which states, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” These statements, that have obviously been placed back-to-back by the compiler of Proverbs, would be considered an outright contradiction of each other. But when we recognize the genre and understand that a proverb is something which is generally true, we can see that the author is inviting us to use wisdom in each situation, in order to know which proverb to apply.
Perhaps the most controversial of all biblical genres is apocalyptic literature. Biblically speaking, this includes portions of the Book of Daniel, as well as the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic literature has certain stock features that identify it. A few of these features include: the message being conveyed in terms of a vision, dream, or supernatural journey received by a great man from the past; animals representing various nations; and the use of numerology. I am not going to be able to solve any age old debates on how to interpret apocalyptic literature in this short article, but what I hope to accomplish is to demonstrate why people differ in their intepretations. In short, it all boils down to genre, and how one understands the nature of apocalyptic literature. All are agreed that apocalyptic literature consists of symbols and imagery. The question is how far one should go in advocating a figurative vs. a more literal reading. Premillennialists would argue for a more literal rendering unless the text suggests otherwise (e.g., the lampstands in chapter 1 are clearly identified as the 7 churches–Rev. 1:20), while amillennialists would interpret things more figuratively (e.g., the 1000 year reign does not mean a literal 1000 years, but a long period of time). What is important to recognize here is that an understanding of how one should interpret the apocalyptic genre is the issue. It is not a question of orthodoxy, or of one side being more sincere in accepting the Bible as God’s Word.
Concluding Thoughts on Biblical Genres
Many years ago when I was teaching an adult Sunday School class on 1&2 Samuel, we were looking at a passage that, to the best of my recollection, is found in 2 Samuel 23:20. In this text, it is said that Benaiah, one of David’s mighty men, fought and killed “two lionlike men of Moab.” One lady raised her hand and read from her version which said something like, “they had faces like lions.” She then wanted to know if the men’s faces literally looked like a lion’s face. She missed the simile, because she was so focused on the account being a literal historical narrative. This might seem like an extreme example, but it demonstrates the mistakes that can be made when we do not properly identify the genre or, in this case, the way in which language is being used.
When studying the Bible, we should always ask ourselves what the genre of the book we are studying is. We should also remember that all books of the Bible consist of many subgenres. Just because we have identified the main genre, does not mean our task is done. If you are in doubt about the genre, a good commentary can be helpful, especially those that have a section that discusses “form and structure.” Again, genre is important because it gives us certain parameters in which to determine meaning. In fact, the genre will usually help us understand the correct meaning of the word, because genre determines meaning.