The Bible expresses its unique message in a rich variety of literary forms. The literature of the Bible is an aesthetically beautiful interpretation of human experience from a divine perspective. As we read, interpret, and seek to apply the truths of Scripture, we must be careful not to overlook this artistic dimension, or we will miss an important part of enjoying the Bible. The are many literary styles in the Bible which can fit into three loose categories, Narrative, Poetry and Discourse.
Narratives are a spoken or written account of connected events, and they are the most frequently used literacy style in The Bible (43%). Narratives can include, historical narratives which are factual accounts, written in prose, of what happened at a certain time and place, and involve people, nations, and events. Narratives can also be parables, a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. Lastly, Narratives can be biographical, meaning an account of a life or the description of a person is through the eyes of the writer. Biographical narratives are probably the easiest to read and are woven throughout the Bible in almost every book. In each of these stories, we witness God using sinful, flawed and ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Old Testament narrative is found in:
Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther Parts of Job and the Prophets.
New Testament narrative is found in:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (see ‘The Gospels’ below for more) and Acts.
Some of the greatest pieces of poetry ever written can be found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, we find various forms of poetry, such as Psalms, Songs, and the majority of prophecy was in poetic form. Poetry makes up 33% of the Old Testament and unlike most poetry today, Hebrew poetry doesn’t follow a rhyming structure, instead, Hebrew poetry is more focused on repeatings and rearranging thoughts rather than sounds. This called Parallelism. It is when a poetic line consists of 2 parts which run parallel to each other. It can be known as “thought rhyme,” balancing thought against thought. Hebrew poetry also often uses vivid images, similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical devices to communicate thoughts and feelings. There are three kinds of poetry:
- Lyric poetry– which was originally accompanied by music on the lyre (the Psalms).
- Didactic poetry– which, using maxims, was designed to communicate basic principles of life (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes).
- Dramatic poetry– which used dialogue to communicate its message (Job and the Song of Solomon).
Only seven Old Testament books – Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi – appear to have no poetic lines.
‘Discourse’ is a literary style in which the author is presenting the reader with information engaging the reader’s intellect, reason and rationale to persuade them to make a certain type of choice. They are often written with a tone of authority and typically speeches, letters of essays. Discourse forces the reader to think logically and come to a certain decision. This is what we examine in Deuteronomy. Moses uses discourse literature to persuade the Israelites to be faithful to the Covenant. Discourse literature makes up 24% of the Bible. Prose discourse and can be found in The Law, The Wisdom books and The Epistles.
Why is this important?
God uses many different literary styles to bring His word to us. This is because some literacy styles would be better at conveying certain messages than others. In order to truly grasp what is being said, it is important that we understand what literary style is being used to that we can better interpret the Bible. Just as we would read an encyclopaedia in a different manner to a novel, so too should we read and interpret a Psalm differently than we would an Epistle. For example when the Bible says that God “shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings, you shall take refuge…” (Psalm 91:4), it’s imperative to understand that poetic language is being used, and not historical narrative.