A Quick Guide to Scripture Genres

Posted by Naomi Vacaro on

Reading with Clarity and Avoiding Common Mistakes
Emily Miller

One of the ways the Bible is unique among other religious texts is that it is made up of different genres. In the Old Testament, wisdom, poetry, and complicated biographies weave into the larger narrative of human history. The genealogy of the Davidic line threads through the politics of kings. The rise, fall, exile, and genocide of nations are documented and then interpreted by prophetic voices. Dreams, visions, promises, and encounters with God roar and whisper through the text. And then, abruptly, there are 400 years of silence until history itself is divided into before and after the birth of the Child first promised to Eve.
Then four Gospels peer at the Messiah, capturing his teaching, and his life from four different authors each with their own emphasis, style, and intended audience. Acts documents the beginnings and doings of the church. And apostolic letters flesh out the implication of the life, death, resurrection, and coming return of Jesus for all who believe.
These letters can be complicated since they use different styles and are written to readers in different contexts: Romans uses structured, logical arguments; Ephesians moves from huge theological foundations to very practical instructions; Jude makes references to now obscure apocalyptic literature; Hebrews relies on an extensive knowledge of Jewish ceremonial law; and John writes three simple, beautiful, and encouraging epistles.
Prophecy is nicely fulfilled in the Gospels and apocalyptic literature seems safely left in the Old Testament until Revelation crashes in and leaves the careful scholar humbled and the -less careful- reader with overly confident takes on current world events.

The complexity of the Bible is wonderful because each of these genres adds a key part to understanding and appreciating God, humanity, the course of history, and the relevance of the Gospel to our own lives.
The Bible is also complicated, in part because each genre has its own rules in how we read it and biblical books usually have more than one genre at play in the text. This can make the Bible challenging, intimidating, and overwhelming to read… especially when we first begin. 

Realistically, most of us won’t become experts at reading literary genres. But recognizing different genres and knowing the basic rules for reading each genre is doable! To make that a bit easier, here’s a cheat sheet on how to read the four most common scripture genres and common mistakes to avoid: 

1. Narrative:
Narrative is one of the most prevalent genres in the Bible, consisting of historical accounts, biographies, and parables.

  • Pay attention to the cultural, historical, and literary contexts to grasp the intended meaning.
  • Avoid treating every story as a prescriptive model. While narratives contain valuable lessons, not every action or event in the Bible is meant to guide our behavior. Some narratives serve as cautionary tales, some just lay out historical events for context. 
2. Epistles and Letters:
The epistles, or letters, found in the New Testament offer guidance, teachings, and encouragement specifically to early churches and more broadly to every Christian to follow.

  • Consider the audience and context: Epistles were written to specific churches or individuals facing particular challenges. Understanding the historical context and audience helps us apply the teachings appropriately to our own lives.
  • Discern between instructions meant for specific recipients at a particular time and timeless principles applicable to all believers. 
3. Prophetic Literature:
The prophetic books, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, contain messages of warning, judgment, and hope. Elements of this genre is also found in some of Paul's letters and very prevalently in Revelation. 

  • Recognize the dual contexts: Prophets spoke to their immediate audience, addressing present concerns, but also conveyed messages that found fulfillment in future events or Messianic prophecies.
  • Focus on the overarching themes: Look for themes of repentance, restoration, justice, and God's faithfulness. 
  • Avoid overemphasizing minute details in prophetic literature while missing broader themes and messages.
4. Poetry and Wisdom Literature:
Books like Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes fall under the poetry and wisdom literature genre. In the New Testament, Jesus' beatitudes and James' letter heavily uses the wisdom genre. 
  • Appreciate the vivid imagery, symbolic language, and metaphors. They are meant to engage the full range of our emotions with truth.
  • Identify the overarching themes of praise, lament, wisdom, and the pursuit of meaning.
  • Remember that wisdom literature offers general principles rather than universal promises or rigid rules. Be discerning in how you interpret and apply those principles.
Each of us connects to different genres differently. I love poetry and symbolism. I get a lot out of Psalms and can muster up very little appreciation for maps, genealogies, and building specifications. My husband, Leigh, works at an engineering firm. He loves maps, is fascinated by lists of names, and sees the building the measurements are describing. He finds Psalms frustrating and confusing.
Thankfully the Bible isn’t confined to our own narrow preferences. Each genre adds depth, clarity, truth, and beauty for our benefit. So, I’ll keep reading Leviticus, Leigh will keep wading through Psalms, and the Holy Spirit will keep using the God-breathed-word to encourage, convict, and sanctify all of us who set our hope in Jesus.

Emily Miller began having a daily quiet time at the age of 13. This habit has been one of the few constants in her life as she transitioned from being a missionary kid in Mongolia to a barista in Oregon to a stay-at-home mom in central Florida. The Word of God has anchored Emily to Jesus through depression, struggles with doubt, health issues, and her son’s cystic fibrosis.
Bible genres Biblical Interpretation Biblical Literature Clarity genre-specific reading Poetry Reading Strategies Understanding the Bible Wisdom

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