Last episode, we began looking at how to get the most out of Bible study by looking at historical context. Today, we will be looking at the importance of literary context, and especially literary genres.
Let me illustrate the importance of determining the literary genre:
I am speaking to my wife on her birthday, telling her that she can have whatever she wants and I will go get it for her as a gift. My dad overhears the conversation and thinks I am saying that he can ask me for literally anything, and I will give it to him as a gift.
What’s the problem with reading the Bible literally?
When you know the context of the conversation, you understand that I am talking to my wife on a specific occasion. The promise of that gift is not available to anyone for any reason!
Here, the literary context is crucially important. Where exactly is the statement found?
In my example, the promise I’m making is found in the conversational context between my wife and I concerning her birthday. I was not making a universal statement that applies to everyone.
And yet, we sometimes commit this error when we study the Bible. Let’s look at a passage that is almost always used inappropriately.
understanding jeremiah 29:11
“For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11:).
This passage was not a universal statement made by God to all people throughout all time. It was given specifically to the Israelites during their captivity. I mean, just read the previous verse!
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.”A few verses later, the text gives details about how God is going to bring them back to their homeland.
Jeremiah 29:11 shouldn’t be used as a promise for an individual person in today’s time; it just wasn’t meant for that purpose. All that said, I still believe God does have a plan for everyone’s life and that God is sovereign, based on other passages. But not on this one.
The important Bible study tool we used in this case, as well as the previous case, was to look at the literary genre as well as the intended audience of the passage.
The genre is part of the literary context. What this means is, we analyze and look closer at different elements of the book itself. What style is it written in? How is the language used? What poetic elements do we see? Where is the emphasis being drawn? What came before and after our passage? What’s the purpose of this book of the Bible? How does the passage fit into this overall purpose?
These sorts of questions address the literary context.
Literary Genres and Literary Context in the Bible
We learn about genres in our English classes in high school, but we also deal with them a lot in daily life. A friend might say they prefer comedies over action flicks. Another friend might veto going to see a horror film. These are different movie genres.
Think for a moment about the things you read and how you read them. When you’re reading a blog from a friend of yours, you recognize they aren’t an authority on the issue they’re writing about so you likely feel comfortable challenging what they say. However, if you’re reading a scholarly report done by multiple professionals that involved years of intensive research, you recognize there’s a difference, and you’ll treat it differently (likely with a great deal more respect). Then, if your romantic interest writes you a love letter, you’re going to read that entirely differently than you would read something in the news. In everyday life, we automatically recognize the genre of the things we read.
There are quite a few different genres in the Bible. Each of them deserves to be studied with their own unique nuances in mind. However, we won’t go into each genre in detail here. We’ll just cover the basics.
A very important genre in the Bible is called historical narrative. This makes up a great deal of the Bible, and so it usually gets a lot of attention. In this genre, the text in question is describing events that took place in history. You can usually tell that a passage is historical narrative when it has a lot of people, names, dates, places, and events described. When you read a portion of Scripture and it’s giving detailed accounts of events that unfolded, it’s likely historical narrative. The audiences that have read these books have always understood these pieces of writing to be historical narrative, or, actually describing real history. It even seems as though the original author intended it to be understood as historical narrative. This contrasts nicely, with say, Homer’s Iliad, which is clearly a myth. Epic poems and myths read differently than historical narrative, and so we need to evaluate what genre each piece of writing is and then interpret what it was meant to convey based on that genre.
Another common genre in the Bible is the epistle. An epistle is basically a letter someone wrote to a group of people. In the Bible, the epistles are those books in the New Testament like Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, etc., where the titles of the books are the names of cities. These letters speak about specific things that were going on in those churches. Often the authors were telling the recipients how to fix their problems. Then we have the pastoral epistles like Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy. These were books written to a specific individual by Paul as a means of training and encouraging them in their pastoral roles.
The problem that usually happens with epistles is that the person reading them today forgets that these epistles were usually written to a very specific audience in a very particular circumstance. In many cases, what we read was meant to address a specific problem that was occurring in the church. If we read an epistle without understanding the context of the audience and the purpose behind the letter, then we can easily misunderstand many points made in it.
When we study epistles, we should keep in mind that what’s written there is likely very situation-specific, and while we can learn from these discussions in the epistle, not everything found in them is universally applicable.
This podcast first appeared on Jonathan Topping’s website.