Genres in the BibleUltimate Questions
In day to day life we make meaning out of the things we read by categorizing them into different genres: a scholarly article, a text message from a friend, newspaper article, etc. This applies to the bible too. This week Jon discusses the importance of understanding genre when reading the bible and how we can understand the genres of historical narrative and epistle. Join us in two weeks to learn about the other genres found in the bible!
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Hello, I’m Jon Topping, and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
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For the past couple of episodes we’ve been looking at how to read the Bible. Last episode, we began looking at how to get the most out of Bible study, by looking at historical context. Before that, in the first episode on how to read the Bible, I gave you some tips about getting started, because it can be confusing to just pick up a Bible and turn to a random page, so it’s nice to have some pointers when starting. Near the end of that episode, I gave an example of how to determine the literary context of a passage, in order to help in our understanding of it. The example I gave was from Proverbs, where it says that if you raise up a child they will not depart from your teaching. If we look at the context of this, the genre of this passage is that it is a proverb. When people interpret this to be a promise, they are not appreciating the genre of it. This also happens in many other passages where God is speaking to someone, or speaking through a prophet, and then people today take it as a promise for themselves personally. As an example of how weird this would be in any other situation, imagine I am speaking to my wife on her birthday, telling her that she can have whatever she wants, just name it, and I will go get it for her as a gift. Imagine my dad overhears the conversation, and interprets me to be saying that he can ask me for literally anything as well, and I will give it to him as a gift. That seems ridiculous, right? I mean, if you understand the context of the conversation, I am talking to my wife, on a specific occasion. The promise of that gift is not available to anyone for any reason! It's the same thing when we take Bible passages that are contextually quite specific, and then apply them across the board.
Here, the literary context is crucially important. Where exactly is the statement found? With my example of giving a gift to my wife, the promise I’m making is found in the conversational context of being between my wife and I, for her birthday. I was not making a universal statement. For an example of how this would apply to a biblical literary context, we can look at another famous passage that is almost always used inappropriately. I might get into some trouble with this one, because it’s a favorite verse of many people.
Jeremiah 29:11 = “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
This passage is used to encourage people that God has a plan for their life. The problem is, this passage was not a universal statement made by God to all people throughout all time. It was specifically to the Israelites, during their captivity. I mean, just read the previous verse!
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.
Then it says… “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
This is specifically to the Israelites during their captivity in Babylon. It even continues a few verses later, going into the details of how God is going to bring them back to their homeland, which eventually did happen. This verse definitely shows an aspect of God’s character, which is very important, but this passage shouldn’t be used as a promise for all people throughout time. All that said, I still believe God does have a plan for everyone’s lives, and God is sovereign, which is shown in other passages.
Proverbs 16:9 – The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.
Romans 8:28 – And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
2 Corinthians 2:9 – But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
So in these verses we can see that the character of God is revealed as Him being sovereign, which basically means God is in control of all things. We also see that God’s plan ends up with His followers being very blessed. That said, Jeremiah 29:11 shows us this character of God, but that verse shouldn’t be used as a promise for an individual person in today’s time; it just wasn’t meant for that purpose. The important tool we used in this case, as well as the previous case, was to look at the genre of the passage we were reading. The genre is part of the literary context. What this means is, we analyze and look closer at different elements of the book itself. What style is it written in? How is the language used? What poetic elements do we see? Where is the emphasis being drawn? What came before and after our passage? What’s the purpose of this book of the Bible? How does the passage fit into this overall purpose? These sorts of questions address the literary context.
So to start, let’s dive into the concept of genre. Now, you’re likely quite familiar with genres. We learn about them in our English classes in high school, but we also deal with it a lot, just in terms of what media we enjoy. When deciding what movie to see, a friend might say they prefer comedies over action flicks. Another friend might veto going to see a horror film. When looking at the biblical context, it’s quite similar to these ideas, but it ends up being different, because, after all, we’re not dealing with fictional writing. As a quick example of how genre affects the things we read every day, think for a moment about the things you read, and how you read them. When you’re reading a blog from a friend of yours, you recognize they aren’t an authority on the issue they’re writing about, so you likely feel comfortable challenging what they say. However, if you’re reading a scholarly report done by multiple professionals that involved years of intensive research, you recognize there’s a difference, and you’ll treat it differently (likely with a great deal more respect). Then, if you’re romantic interest writes you a love letter, you’re going to read that entirely differently than you would read something in the news. In everyday life, we automatically assign genre to the things we read. There’s also the very interesting example of satire, where the entire point is to switch the genre in a way that’s subtle in order to mislead the audience.
For the Bible, there’s quite a few different genres within the different books of the Bible. Each of the different genres deserves to be studied with their own unique nuances in mind, which is an incredibly important part of Bible study, and one that is often missed. Now we won’t go into each genre in detail, we’ll just cover the basics here, so you get the idea.
First up, a very important genre in the Bible is called “historical narrative”. This makes up a great deal of the Bible, and so usually gets a lot more attention. What this means, is that the text in question is describing real historical facts about events that took place in reality. You can usually tell a passage is historical narrative when it has a lot of people, names, dates, places, and events described. When you read a portion of Scripture, and it’s giving detailed accounts of events that unfolded, it’s likely historical narrative. Now before we move on, one difficulty we have with historical narrative, is that skeptics will place doubt on whether these events described really did happen. For example, with the story of David and Goliath, a skeptic will disbelieve that this event actually occurred as a literal event in history. Now while each historical event in the Bible deserves to be evaluated on its own, and we can look at the archeological data regarding these events, in order to determine whether they really happened, that doesn’t change the genre of what we’re reading. The audiences that have read these books have always understood these pieces of writing to be historical narrative, or, actually describing real history. It even seems as though the original author intended it to be understood as historical narrative. This contrasts nicely, with say, Homer’s Iliad, which is clearly a myth. It’s written differently, and so the style is different, the genre is different, and it’s meant to be understood in a different way. At times people confuse the Bible as being mythology, when they really don’t know what that means. Epic poems and myths read differently than historical narrative, and so we need to evaluate what genre each piece of writing is, and then interpret what it was meant to convey based on that genre.
Another common genre in the Bible is the “epistle”. This is commonly where pastors draw a lot of the sermon material from, because it’s just so easy to do. An epistle is basically a letter someone would have written to a group of people. In the Bible, the epistles are those books in the New Testament like Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and first and second Corinthians. For the examples I just gave, the titles of the books I just listed are the names of cities. So these letters were written for the churches in Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, and Corinth, to speak into the specific things that were going on in those churches. These cases were usually corrective, so they were essentially being told how to fix the problems that were happening in their congregations. Then we also have the pastoral epistles like Titus, and first and second Timothy, where these were books written to a specific individual, by their mentor, as a means of pastoral training and encouraging. When looking at these epistles, they’re usually filled with practical advice, ethical statements, and theological teaching. This is why they’re so popular in sermons, because it’s just so easy to apply epistles to our own lives. The problem that usually happens with epistles, is that the person reading it today forgets that these epistles were usually written to a very specific audience, in a very particular circumstance. In many cases, what we read was meant to address a specific problem that was occurring in the church. While we can still apply these areas of Scripture, the historical context becomes very important with these sorts of passages. If we read an epistle without understanding the context of the audience, and the purpose behind the letter, then we can easily misunderstand many points made in the letter. Then, just to make things confusing, we also have odd cases like Romans, where, although the book was written to a specific audience, it seems more like the book was written as a general theology, that wasn’t context specific, as a means of teaching Christians in general. That said, the basic point in reading an epistle is that we need to remember that this was a letter written to a specific audience for a specific purpose. By keeping that context in mind, we can better understand what we read, and then apply it in a more appropriate way.
As an example of how understanding the genre of epistle can be important, we’ll look at the issue of whether women should remain quiet in church services. 1 Timothy 2:12 is one of the most divisive passages in the Bible for our culture today, because it deals with how Christianity views women. While I don’t have time to go into the full debate on this topic here, I’ll probably do so in the future, either as part of this podcast, or as an additional video on YouTube. However, I’ll make some brief comments here. One of the controversial things in this verse is that women are told to remain quiet in church. Now, while there are many different issues revolving around this, let’s focus on the idea that women can’t talk in church. Some will use this verse to make the point that women shouldn’t speak in church in any way; after all, that’s what the verse says! If you rip the verse out of context, that becomes the reasonable conclusion to come to. But remember, our goal is to understand the original intention of the author, and how the audience would have received it. It also becomes difficult, where we see something that looks like a contradiction, because other places in the Bible include women being in positions of leadership, which includes speaking. For example, in the Old Testament we have examples of female prophetesses like Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah. We also find in the New Testament that there are references to women prophesying in Acts 1 and 21. We also find different women in positions of leadership in the Early Church, like Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Eudia, Syntyche, and Priscilla, as well as other women being including in ministry. It’s fairly difficult to be in a position of leadership without speaking, and I don’t even know what it would mean to have a woman prophesying during a church service without it involving words coming out of her mouth. So we arrive at this difficulty, where just looking at these verses alone poses a problem.
To solve the issue, we want to get a good understanding of how to interpret the passage that says women should remain quiet during church. If we look at the context and genre, we will see that this was Paul writing to Timothy, which was a teacher student sort of relationship. Timothy was in Ephesus, and Paul was writing to him to encourage him, and give him advice on how to handle various situations in that church. Again, we don’t have time to go into all the details in this matter right now, but for our purposes today, I’ll make this comment. In different cultures, even today, men and women are physically separated in public places, sometimes including church gatherings. From some research I’ve read, it seems this was the case in the culture of places like Corinth and Ephesus. Apparently the men and women sat on opposite sides of the church service. Because of this, husbands and wives wouldn’t be sitting next to each other. If the woman wanted to talk to her husband, for example, to ask him a question about the sermon, she would need to try and talk to him from across the room! If we understand that the book of 1 Timothy is the genre of a pastoral epistle, meaning the book is actually a letter written from Paul to Timothy to give him advice on how to handle specific issues he was dealing with in the church of Ephesus, and if we understand that this was one of those issues he was trying to deal with, it makes a lot more sense why Paul would say that women should be told to be quiet during church.
Now I completely recognize the issue goes a lot further than this, but at the very least, understanding the genre here of the book being an epistle to address specific issues in that church, and then also diving into the historical context of that church, helps us better understand this strange verse that seems to contradict other verses in the Bible. The main point being, when we study epistles, we keep in mind that what’s written there is likely very situation specific, and while we can learn from these discussions in the epistle, not everything found in them is universally applicable. Here, we understand that this was a pastoral letter of encouragement from a teacher to his student, in order to encourage the student with specific problems his church was addressing. Merely gaining this literary context helps us better understand the real point of the passage, and leads us to a completely different interpretation than what, at first, seems like the obvious answer.
As we learn more about genre, I hope it will help you better appreciate what you read in Scripture. Next time we’ll look at some of the more artistic genres in the Bible, like poetry, wisdom, and then also prophecy and apocalypse. So I hope you’ll join me next time for the artistic genres of the Bible, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, from Power to Change Students.