How to Read the Bible, PART IV

Posted on Jun 1, 2015 in Theology blog | 0 comments

by Roland Wrinkle - More on the Biblical Genres, Idioms and Rhetorical Devices Used In the Bible

In Part III, I opened with this point: HERE’S THE KEY: Look For the Intended Meaning—We All Know What the Words (Translated From Ancient Languages by Others) SAY, But What Do They MEAN? I tried to explain why, in order to understand any particular passage in scripture, we first need to appreciate the genre of literature, rhetorical device or idiom being used. To read all of scripture literally, while ignoring the genre or rhetorical device, will lead to missing the author’s intent, i.e. what he was trying to say. I went over the use of idioms, hyperbole and narratives. Now, on to some more examples (I have relied at times on, a terrific resource).

Discourse: This genre is where people are speaking. It can be a sermon, a prayer, or any other long speech. The book of Job has a lot of this, but there are also examples in the Gospels, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and in the book of Acts. In fact, I believe that there are nine sermons by Peter and Paul in Acts that tell us exactly what the gospel is and is not. Determine the main point of whatever the person is saying. Take things literally, but don’t believe everything that people say. In the book of Job, there are a lot of things said that are simply not true. If you know who is speaking you can determine if what they are saying is true or not.

Poetry: Poetry is the genre of Psalms. It is full of symbolic language and is full of emotion. Look for repetition. In ancient times, repetition was used for emphasis, so pay attention to the things that are said more than once. Look for parallelism. Sometimes (especially in Proverbs) an idea will be stated and then restated either as its opposite or from a different perspective. The two ideas are basically saying the same thing. Don’t take the figurative parts literally. Look for the comparisons being made by the figures of speech. Many scholars believe Job to be the greatest poem in the entire bible. From The Great Poems of the Bible by James Kugel (Simon and Schuster, 1999):

From the Psalms to the Prophets, from Job to Ecclesiastes, much of the Bible is written in poetry. The poems of the Bible include some of its best known and most beloved passages: “The Lord is my Shepherd,” “Let justice roll down like water,” “By the rivers of Babylon,” “Remember your Creator,” “Arise, shine, for thy light is come!” These poems live in the hearts of those who are familiar with the Bible and offer rich rewards to anyone who is approaching the world’s greatest book for the first time. . . . . Taken together, these poems represent the very essence of the Hebrew Bible. Reading them one after another is like taking a guided tour through Scripture, meeting firsthand some of its most important teachings and opening the way to an understanding of the Bible as a whole.”

Law: This includes the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The purpose of law is to express God’s sovereign will concerning government, priestly duties, social responsibilities, etc. Knowledge of Hebrew manners and customs of the time, as well as a knowledge of the covenants, will complement a reading of this material. One of the principle purposes of the law is to teach us what sin is (What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. Rom 7:7) and how we can never get in a right relationship with God by following the law because it serves to convict us. Enter the perfect Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, who gathered all unwitting evil together and had them thinking they could destroy the Son of God but, instead, He nailed them all to the cross for all time. The law served a pedagogical purpose and we will never understand the Old Testament unless we understand that.

History: Stories and epics from the Bible are included in this genre. Almost every book in the Bible contains some history, but Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Acts are predominately history. Knowledge of secular history is crucial, as it dovetails perfectly with biblical history and makes interpretation much more robust.

Anthropology: This is the study or science of humankind and the bible is just loaded with it. Genesis, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and the passion narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke are great studies in anthropology. They are, for sure, brimming with cruelty, massacres, wars and atrocities, but not because this was how God made us but because we rebelled against God and His plan for Creation. These are “merely” stories about fallen and broken human nature. It all sets the stage for the eventual unfolding of God’s grand plan to restore us and all of Creation to the way things were supposed to be in the first place. The bible is a text book on human anthropology.

Prophecy: A process in which one or more messages communicated to a prophet are then communicated to others. Such messages typically involve divine inspiration, interpretation, or revelation of events to come. These books are easy to recognize: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, etc. There are also prophecies in the Gospels, the Epistles and Revelation. When you come across a prophecy see who it was given to originally (Israel, Judah, everyone). Interpret it first in light of the original hearers of the prophecy. Look to see if the prophecy has already been fulfilled. The Gospel of Matthew is one big exercise in explaining to the Jews (and to us) how, in considerable detail, the entire story of Israel is fulfilled by the story of Jesus. Indeed, this is the heart of what we call the Gospel of Jesus.

Apocalypse: The genre of revelation. It is something big revealed to someone. This is similar to prophecy although in an apocalypse the events being described are of a large scale. This genre can be found in the book of Revelation and also parts of Daniel, especially chapter 7. This is that part of the bible where God tells us how everything turns out in the end, i.e. the Christian hope for the “new heaven and new earth,” promised in Isaiah 65:17, preached by Peter in 2 Peter 3:13, set as the cornerstone of Christianity in 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 and vivified and glorified in Revelation 21 as the culmination of history, when heaven comes down to and merges with earth, when the Creator’s project—begun in Genesis 1 and 2 and grotesquely distorted in Genesis 3 when humans, formed and designed to reflect the image of God, rebelled—is finally fulfilled. This is the Good News. This is the Gospel.

You want to know about allegories, parables, similes, exhortation, wisdom literature, household codes, covenants, myths, aphorisms, dialectics and metaphors? Come stop by the benches outside the church before service. I’ll give you a biscuit.

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