Different Types of Bible Literature.
(Bible genre such as letters, narrative, psalms, etc.)
Narrative is the largest type of literature in the Bible. Although some will question the historicity of biblical narratives that contains miracles, we must know that biblical narratives are historical events; it means that they actually took place in time and space.
We must interpret and see the meaning of the narratives as a part of the theme of the book. This is how we can read a particular narrative in its context, by treating smaller narrative as part of a bigger narrative. The story of David and Goliath is part of the story of King David, and King David is part of the story of the nation of Israel, and the nation of Israel is part of the main story of the Bible, which is God's salvation plan for all men.
We must focus on the main message of the narrative and not be distracted with matters mentioned in the narrative. When we read stories where angels are mentioned we must not get carried away with trying to understand about angels. Angels are mentioned in the narrative, but the message of the narrative is not about explaining angels to us.
We must not conclude that because it happened in the biblical narrative it should or must happen to us also. Be careful with assuming that a narrative has a message, specially for our situation. Like saying that the story of the Israelites crossing the red sea confirms to you that you do not really need to learn how to swim. We cannot assume that there is always a "moral" to learn in every single narrative. Remember, a narrative can be a part of a bigger narrative where the main theme should be taken.
The majority of writings in the New Testament is in literary form of a letter or an epistle. Epistles are intended to be for a more public or wider audience than a letter. Just like our letters today, ancient letters follow a standard form. Since the author is not bound to follow such form, it would help to take note when the author deviate from it.
An epistle (1 Corinthians) consist of a salutation that includes the name of the writer and the recipient, greeting (e.g., "grace and peace to you from God..."), prayer and/or thanksgiving (e.g., "I always thank God for you..."), body, then the closing comments (e.g, "finally brothers....greet one another...May the grace..."). Recognizing the form of an epistle will help you in reading it in context and following the flow of the authors thought.
It is important to find out as much background that you can about the author, the recipient, and their relationship to each other. Most of all, you need to know the reason why was the letter written in the first place. Is it to correct a problem in a local church? Is it an instruction that they need, or to combat a heretical teaching? What is the mood of the author in writing the letter?
Just like when you receive a letter, you must start by reading the whole letter before going back and studying parts of the letter. Remember to pay attention to details as you read and reread.
A word can have different shades of meaning and you cannot assume that Peter, John and Paul meant the same thing every time they would use a particular word. You must first look at the immediate context, that is, the sentences surrounding the word. If needed, you can refer to another letter that the same author wrote. Lastly, you can refer to other books in the Bible. This last step should be done with much care because this can result in misunderstanding what the author originally meant with a particular word. The farther you get away from the immediate context, the meaning that you get for a word become less reliable.
Everyone seems to like parables. It is a simple story based on life situations. Many would claim that they can interpret a parable without a problem. But parables throughout the history of the church have suffered misinterpretation more so than other forms of Bible literature.
As a precaution, you must start looking at only one main point of the parable. You shouldn't treat a parable allegorically (putting meaning on every elements of the story). Not all the detail in the parable are relevant, and those that are relevant will support the one main point of the parable.
A parable is not a riddle trying to hide the meaning of the story but rather a form of communication that will help the listener hear the message with greater impact. To understand the main point of the parable, you must first try to identify the original audience when the parable was told, know the surrounding context, and find out why the parable was spoken in the first place.
You should avoid using the same parable found in other gospels to get the main point since Matthew will use a certain parable in the context different from Luke. Learn to read in the context of the author who wrote the parable.
Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job and part of James are called "wisdom" books. We can also include parts of Psalms and the Song of Solomon.
One of the more common mistakes in interpreting these books is neglecting the whole context. It is very common for us to pick a verse or two with an instruction that sounds good without considering the surrounding context or the theme that the author intended. Doing so will cause us to misunderstand the teaching, and in the worse situation we will end up believing a bad advise as a teaching of wisdom. Without paying attention on the context you will miss the line of argument in a wisdom discourse.
Proverbs should be read with care. They shouldn't be taken as doctrinal statement for they are written to be easily memorize, and often they are in "figure of speech". Proverbs are not laws, prophecies or promises. We shouldn't take proverbs as a guarantee of successful life, but rather guidelines for everyday living. Exceptions of the proverbs doesn't make it a false statement, because it is not given as a guaranteed formula but a general observation of truth. Many of the proverbs are hyperbolic or an exaggeration form of speech so we need to understand them properly. (see Hyperbole)
Example: Proverbs 13:25 The godly eat to their heart contents, but the belly of the wicked goes hungry. (NLT) Just by looking around today and the story of Lazarus and the rich man proved that such proverb is not a guarantee.
Hyperbole, is also known as an exaggeration. Some feel that in order for God's words to be taken as truthful, it shouldn't contain exaggeration. This maybe the reason why many are having difficulties in distinguishing exaggeration in the Bible. Exaggeration is a powerful way to drive home a message and it is considered a normal form of speech found in all languages. A person who can recognize and understand hyperbole will be able to hear the message of God's Word clearly in order to have proper application today.
- Matthew 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (NIV)
- Mark 9:23b Everything is possible for him who believes. (NIV)
Matthew 23:24 is obviously an exaggeration because we know that it is not humanly possible to swallow a camel. In Mark 9:23, some would find it belittling the power of faith if we say that the statement is a hyperbole. But if we cannot see exaggeration in the word "everything" then that would result misinterpretation. Surely I cannot make things happen that is logically impossible or contrary to the will of God no matter how much I believe. Again, exaggeration is not a deception but rather a powerful way to impress the message to those who can properly understand the figure of speech.
Distinguishing poetry from prose is another important factor of Bible Interpretation. About thirty percent of the Old Testament is written in poetry. Most older versions such as the King James Version doesn't indicate these differences between prose and poetry. Newer versions such as New International Version, New Living Translation, and New English Bible are using different formats in writing prose from poetry. You will notice such differences by looking at the narrative book of Genesis and the poetical book of Psalms in these newer versions.
Since poetry is concerned with emotions rather than the accurate descriptions of the message, it uses more figurative language more than prose. With proper understanding, poetry is just as comprehensible as prose and they are easier to be memorized.
There are common features of poetry called parallelism, and you need to recognized them to help understands the main point of the poetry.
- Synonymous parallelism. A line strengthen, develop, reinforces or repeat the line before it.
- Matthew 7:7-8
7Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find;
knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
8For every one that asketh receiveth;
and he that seeketh findeth;
and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (KJV)
- Isaiah 44:22a
I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,
your sins like the morning mist.(NIV)
What we have in Matthew 7:7-8 are not 3 steps or different types of prayer. They are simply different ways of saying the same thing. The verses are simply expressing that "God answers our prayer " by way of synonymous parallelism.
- Antithetical parallelism. The most common parallelism in the Bible, where a line contrast the message or the point of the line before it.
- Psalms 37:21
The wicked borrow and do not repay,
but the righteous give generously. (NIV)
- Proverbs 10:1
A wise son maketh a glad father:
but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother. (KJV))
- Synthetic parallelism. A line goes further than just repeating or reinforcing but by providing more information on the line before it.
- Psalms 14:2
The Lord looks down from heaven on the son of men
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God. (NIV)
- Obadiah 21
And saviours shall come up on mount Zion
to judge the mount of Esau;
and the kingdom shall be the LORD'S.