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Literary Styles and Genres in the Bible

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16–17
Literary Styles and Genres in the Bible Book Cover

Imagine walking into a library. Inside you will find books of all different genres and styles. Some are full of poetry, some are full of letters, some are full of history. The Bible is no different. Inside you will find sixty-six different books, but, unlike a library, they each fit together to tell one big story.

The Bible includes law, history, wisdom, poetry, letters of correspondence, and teaching texts. Uniquely, God’s Word also includes promises for the future that we can be assured will come to pass. Why? Because the body of evidence in Scripture that’s already been fulfilled proves that God always does what he says he will.

Historical / Narrative

Let’s break it down. In the coming weeks, we will go into more depth about each section of Scripture, but for now, let’s talk about a big overview, starting with the historical/narrative books. Nearly half of the Bible is written in narrative form—this is true in both the Old and New Testaments. It makes sense. The Bible is a record of God’s relationship with a particular group of people.

From Genesis through Deuteronomy, we have a front row seat for the events that take us from Adam to the Exodus, from the garden of promise (Eden) to the land of promise (Canaan), with the law given and census taken in between.

The history lesson continues through Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and Esther. These books continue to recount the nation of Israel’s history and their ups and downs with God. While it can seem overwhelming to keep track of so many kings, foreign enemies, and false gods in these books, there are countless valuable lessons to learn about our utter inability to be faithful to God by our own willpower.

In Ezra and Nehemiah, we read of God’s people returning to the promised land after the exile and rebuilding the temple and walls of Jerusalem.

Prophecy

Next are the books of prophecy. When God says holiness matters, he means it. And when he says there are consequences for abandoning holiness, he means it. But he never disciplines his people without plenty of warning. God is slow to anger and abounding in love (Psalm 103:8), and so he filled the mouths of prophets with words of warning for Israel, calling them to repent, to abandon false idols; and to look to him rather than neighboring nations for deliverance. (These books are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel [which also features apocalyptic literature], Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.)

Poetry and Wisdom

If the narrative and prophetic books record the facts of Israel’s bumpy ride as God’s chosen people, the poetry and wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) express the inner life of God’s people— worship, wisdom, temptation, confession.

New Testament: Historical / Narrative

After four hundred years of silence, the word of God bursts onto the scene again. This time, in the person of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recount the earthly ministry of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection. All four authors contribute unique perspectives, divinely inspired, to paint a full portrait of Jesus as savior. And acting in obedience to Jesus’s parting command, the apostles then set out to teach others about Jesus throughout the known world. This Spirit-led growth of the first-century church is recorded in the book of Acts.

Epistles / Letters

All of those new believers reached through the missionary journeys recorded in Acts established churches in their hometowns, but, like us, they often struggled at the intersection of faith and life. To equip, encourage, and admonish these believers, Paul and others wrote letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude.

Prophecy in Revelation

Just as the Old Testament closed with promises of rescue for an exiled Israel, the New Testament concludes with a dramatic depiction of God’s ultimate victory over sin and death. Revelation—with its combined genres of epistle, prophecy, and apocalyptic literature—may seem beyond our understanding in the here and now, but one day it will be fulfilled just as the Old Testament prophecies were.

The historical/narrative books of the Bible tell the story of what God has done in the lives of people in the past. The prophetic books tell us what God will do in the future. And the wisdom literature and New Testament epistles answer the question of “how then shall we live?” Only when we know where we’ve been, and have full assurance of where we are going, can we fully embrace the call on our lives for today.

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Understanding the Bible

Daily Question

Which part of God’s Word feels most intimidating to you—the figurative language of poetry? The long history of wayward kings and foreign enemies? What resources can you use to support your study of God’s Word so that you don’t become overwhelmed?

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Comments (10)

When I have a question about something I’m reading I go to Biblegateway.com and look at study Bibles to I get an understanding of the verse.

Both lol. I am challenged by parts of Psalms when a psalmist prays God’s wrath pour out on an enemy (how do we reconcile that with love?), when my 10yo asks in our morning liturgy why there are people who live past 120 if Genesis indicates they won’t (smack dab in the middle of Noah’s 950-year walk [and sailing adventure] on the earth), when Paul asks what *could* be a rhetorical question (what if God creates some vessels for noble purposes and others for destruction?) and people indicate that means God created some to be separate from Him for eternity and use it to justify election and predestination (and yet He came so that not one would perish), how to reconcile order of creation disparities in Genesis 1 & 2 (perhaps since one is a Hebrew acrostic poem, we’re to glean more than a scientific analysis of the first week of planet Earth?)…my list goes on lol. My fellowship often claims, "We don’t have to understand everything to believe in Something," and what I do know is "through the living and abiding Word of God we are born again" (1 Peter 1:23). I am reborn when I digest this Bread of Life, even when I don’t get it all, ever transformed by His renewing of my mind and the separation of my soul (preferences) from my spirit (principles), daily being made in His Image. I’m not overwhelmed by it, but rather inspired by it (and I love about a thousand commentaries, especially biblehub.com and solid study Bibles). There’s so many incredible exegetical Bible studies out there, and RightNow media makes many easily accessible for individuals, families, & groups. What a blessing to be inundated with resources, and what a responsibility when we live in a world where a billion people have none…may we be obedient to the command to Go as we write His Truth on the tablet of our hearts. I’m not overwhelmed by the wild Universe of His Love–I’m excited to adventure in it through His Word!

The historical part starts to bore me honesty, then I lose ambition. I may need to read not in a chronological order. I also need a group for support here.

I find the figurative language of poetry difficult to interpret and also the older versions of the bible with "old" language styles. I use the Good News Bible I received decades ago when I was confirmed growing up in the church. I search for resources such as this and then cross-reference them with other sources so that I do not go down a "rabbit hole" of incorrect information. I have begun to watch "The Chosen" and it is a fantastic depiction to show and guide us to a better understanding.

Revelation. It scared me as a child so I stopped reading it. Now I get confused because of human theories and conspiracies. I need to dive deep in to this book, as an adult, with the inductive method of reading at my disposal. It will help to consume a little at a time.

The part of Gods word that feels overwhelming to me is the history part. I can take my time when reading the books of the Bible that are history. I can call on my small group friends to help encourage me. I could even read the history books in the Bible with a close friend of mine. I could read by chapters and write down what they were about and see how they can relate to my life.

I think there are various parts to them all that seem intimidating. I have found that doing devotionals that help to explain the "why this is important" or "this is what was going on during this time" or "this is what this word means in Hebrew and why it is important to know" have really helped.

the most intimidating part for me is how long the bible is. it is so long! i think that i should stop thinking about how long the bible is and just read it.

I find the wayward kings and enemies part difficult, it feels so divisive, cruel at times and it is difficult for me to relate to the culture and behaviors of the people.

I would say, the figurative language. I am a very literal person, and it’s hard to understand the promises of God if it’s not literally written, “I promise”.

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