10 Things You Should Know about the Genres of the Bible

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Individual genres have their own specific ingredients.

Do you want to know how to preach the book of Job? How about Proverbs, the first and second (!) halves of Daniel, and the teachings of Jesus? Then you need to know how to handle the various literary genres found in the Bible. There are two aspects to a genre. The first is that every genre has its constituent elements. A story, for example, is comprised of plot, setting, and character. A poem consists of images and figures of speech. Identifying the genre of a text gives us the right terms for interacting with it. Conversely, if we do not interact with a text in terms of its genre traits, we cannot deal adequately with it.

2. Every genre also has its own ground rules.

Every genre operates in keeping with the ingredients that comprise it. We might speak of the ground rules of a genre. If we are not clued into these ground rules, we cannot accurately or fully experience a text. That would be like playing tennis without knowing what 40-love means and who serves when. An example of a ground rule is that the essence of plot is conflict, so we can trace the unfolding conflict throughout a story and analyze its resolution at the end. An example from poetry is that metaphor and simile compare one thing to another, so as readers and preachers we need to carry over the meanings from one level to another.

3. The pay-off of being aware of genres is that it can guide our encounter with a text.

It is impossible to overstate the practical usefulness of knowing about the genres of the Bible. An awareness of how a given genre works programs how we interact with a Bible passage. We know what to look for and what to expect.

The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition

Douglas Sean O'Donnell, Leland Ryken

Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken give pastors tools to better understand the literary nature of Scripture in order to give sermons that are interesting, relevant, and accurate to the author’s intention. 

4. Paying attention to the genres in the Bible is not optional but required.

Because every piece of writing in the Bible belongs to one or more genres, we cannot adequately understand and assimilate the Bible without attention to genres. This begins by correctly identifying the genres that are present. We need to take the time to assemble the ingredients that belong to a given genre. After that, we need to apply the ground rules that apply to those ingredients as we live with a text and master it.

5. More specifically, expository preaching and Bible teaching require attention to genre.

The first task of expository preaching and teaching—and in fact the first task for really understanding a Bible passage—is to experience and relive a text as fully as possible. We cannot relive a text without interacting with its genres. For example, if we do not pay full attention to techniques of characterization in a story, we are cutting against the grain. If we do not realize that an essential ingredient of satire is an object of attack, we will mishandle the text.

6. Contemporary preaching largely ignores the genres of the Bible.

In evangelical preaching today, there is a great neglect of the specific genres of the Bible. Every text is treated in exactly the same way, as though the whole Bible belongs to a single amorphous genre. And what is this genre? The assumption is that the Bible is a collection of ideas, and that individual texts are a delivery system for an idea.

If we do not interact with a text in terms of its genre traits, we cannot deal adequately with it.

7. Genre analysis fits perfectly with the hermeneutical principles that we claim to accept.

Paying attention to the genres of the Bible puts into practice the hermeneutical principles that we profess. Conversely, not paying attention to genres is a betrayal of those interpretive principles. Authorial intention is one of these. When the authors of the Bible wrote in specific genres, they intended that we read their works in keeping with the ground rules of those genres. Another hermeneutical principle is the need to do justice to the specificity of a text. If we ignore considerations of genre, we are not doing justice to the specificity of the text.

8. Literary scholars have a great deal to bring to the table in regard to genre.

The exclusion of literary scholars from biblical interpretation has been a great loss. They are the ones who deal with issues of literary genres day in and day out. Further, because the genres of most of the Bible are standard literary ones, it should be self-evident that the discipline of traditional literary criticism holds the key that can unlock our understanding of the genres of the Bible.

9. Paying attention to the genres of the Bible enables us to preach and teach the whole Bible.

A preacher once confided that although he would often read a psalm to people in the hospital, before he embraced a literary approach he would never consider preaching from a psalm because he did “not know what to do with it.” If we master the genres of the Bible and how they operate, the entire Bible becomes available to us.

10. Sensitivity to genre will show people the variety of material in the Bible.

The unintended effect of treating the entire Bible as belonging to a single genre is that most people's conception of the Bible is that it is a monotonous and boring book. Adding genres to the discussion will create the excitement that the Bible deserves.

Leland Ryken and Douglas Sean O'Donnell are the authors of The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry and Genres of the Bible.

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