Understanding Literary Genre

Foundation 1 from the Foundations Workbook is “What is the Bible?”. In the second paragraph, we mention briefly about literary styles also commonly referred to as genre.

Sixty-six books comprise the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. About 40 different human authors contributed, over a period of almost 1500 years. The authors were a diverse group: kings, fishermen, farmers, priests, government officials, shepherds, and doctors. The literary styles include books of law, history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, biography, and formal letters. Yet, there’s great unity with common themes woven throughout (Luke 1:1-5)

Why is genre important?  

We asked Heather on our team – a reading specialist and teacher.  When teaching our children how to read (think non-biblical text),  it’s always important that they understand the genre of what they are reading.  If they are reading Harry Potter (genre: fantasy), they shouldn’t expect that they will be able to cast spells or fly on broom sticks.  If they are reading a history book (genre: non-fiction or history) they should expect that this really did happen in history.  Knowing the genre will help you organize information so you can more easily make sense of what you are about to read. The use of literacy devices (like similes and hyperboles) and understanding the authors perspective, all help us understand how to read the text. This is a key step in comprehension. 

The same is true of the Bible.  

“The Bible is comprised of many different literary genres. It contains historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature and more. Each of these genres abides by certain rules. Each uses language and imagery in a certain way. We cannot read the Psalms the same way we read the Gospels, nor can we read prophecy the way we read wisdom literature. When you begin a particular text, learn about its genre and read it according to how that genre “works.” 

Jen Wilkin, The ESV Women’s Devotional Bible

This past fall, many from our team attended the teaching of The Christian Story from The Village Church by Elizabeth Woodson. Below are some of our notes that may be helpful to you when exploring genre.

“When you know what kind of book it is, you can know what kind of information to expect.” 

Elizabeth Woodson

Old Testament

History:

Includes books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

  • First 17 Books of the Old Testament
  • A historical timeline for the people of God (specifically the nation of Israel)
  • Learn about deliverance from Egypt and how God takes them on a journey to become His People 
  • See the faithfulness of God to purse them and love them
  • See through them the need for a Savior
  • Sometimes the first five books are categorized as “Law”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Wisdom/Poetry

Includes books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon

  • The people of Israel discussing what means for them to live as God’s people
  • See them discuss their pain and struggles and thoughts about life

Prophecy:

Includes books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

  • Talk about the promise of a Savior for the people of God
  • Drawing the people of God back into community with their God
  • The reasons why they have strayed away and the attempts the Lord has to bring them back
  • Sometimes further categorized as Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel and Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

New Testament

History:

Includes books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts

  • Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
  • History of the life of Jesus and the church He established

Pauline Epistles Paul’s Letters:

To Churches:  Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians

To Individuals: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon

  • Letters by the apostle Paul to the churches and individuals
  • Written to help the church to learn what it means to live in light of the salvation they have received through Jesus Christ

General Epistles General Letters

Includes books: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Revelation

  • Instructions to churches and different individuals written by different men to help us live in light of the truth that we have been given
  • Revelation can also be categorized as Prophecy

How to include this information in a Loved Bible

The Loved Bible Project is a tool designed to help ordinary people make disciples through the use of the Bible. Our vision for this year is that you would create a loved Bible WITH a friend or two. We hope that you will journey through a Bible together from start to finish using our free Foundations Workbook as a guide. 

When you get to Foundation 1 on page 8:

  • Read each paragraph of the Biblical Overview and the Key Truths to remember.
  • At the end of each paragraph, mark your key takeaways in a Loved Bible.
  • For example, when you come to the sentence “The literary styles include books of law, history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, biography, and formal letters.” Foundations Workbook, page 8, you could discuss genre more in-depth and highlight the Table of Contents of your Bible with notes to reference.
  • You’ve now created a tool to remember what you learned about genre and it will be available for easy reference when in a discipleship relationship.

Share your Loved Bibles where you’ve included information and notes about genre #lovedbiblegenre.

What is something you learned today about literacy genre? Let us know any key takeaways!

For a deeper look into the importance of understanding types of writing in the Bible, check out

Intro to the Bible: Literary Styles by The Bible Project (video)

Genres of the Bible by Gotquestions.org (article)

Reviewing and Delighting in Biblical Genres, by The Gospel Coalition (lecture)


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