Today we’re going to wrap up talk about genres by taking a look at what is probably the most ignored genre in the Bible, Law. Then we’re going to go into how to evaluate the surrounding areas of a passage to better appreciate the literary context.
What is the “Law” genre of the Bible?
If you’ve ever tried to read the Bible from beginning to end, you probably discovered that it became difficult in either Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are books that are near the beginning of the Bible. These are sections in the Old Testament that go into detail about what laws should be put in place for the ancient nation of Israel. The important thing to note here is the part that focuses on, “the ancient nation of Israel”.
The laws of the bible need to be understood in the historical context.
To do that, we need to be aware of the historical narratives that surround them because these laws are given when Israel is delivered from slavery to become a nation. Once again, historical context becomes very important, because these laws were given to a specific people in a specific time and place. Ripping these laws out of context and trying to apply them to our lives today can be quite dangerous.
The goal of studying the law is twofold. First, we can get a good understanding of what ancient Israel went through and looked like. Secondly, we can look at general ethical principles and better understand the heart and character of God.
Understanding Deuteronomy 22:9-11 in context
To adequately understand the Law, we need to understand what ancient Israel would have looked like. This can be very helpful because it sheds some light on some of the really strange things we find in the Bible. For example, the other ancient cultures around Israel, like Canaan, were pagan and would worship false gods. We find this even today in different parts of the world, where people will still seek to appease their pagan gods by adopting certain forms of dress or undergoing various rituals.
A biblical example of idolatrous practices would be the pagan ritual of deliberately planting two types of seeds in a single field as a way of pleasing their gods. This helps us understand Deuteronomy 22:9-11, a very popular passage among atheists who love to make fun of the Bible. Basically, the passage says that you shouldn’t plant two types of seeds in one field and that you shouldn’t wear clothing made of linen and wool.
By studying the cultures of the day, we can understand that this might be talking about avoiding different religious and magical rites that would involve things like planting two types of seed in a single field or mixing fabrics when making clothing. Even though this verse seems quite strange, when you understand its historical context, you realize it’s less about agriculture and fashion, and more about paganism. Essentially, God was telling the ancient Israelites not to act like the pagans around them.
When we understand the historical context, that law makes sense. However, that context no longer applies, so the reasoning behind the law doesn’t make sense anymore. Additionally, as Christians, we are not bound by the Law of the Old Testament. Briefly stated, we follow Christ, not Moses.
Even though we are no longer bound by the Law, we can still draw ethical truths from it because the Law describes the heart of God. There were reasons God instilled those laws into ancient Israel.
If we can understand those reasons, we will get closer to understanding the heart of God.
Understanding Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in context
Let’s look at another difficult passage that demonstrates this principle. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says that if a man rapes a girl and she isn’t engaged to be married, then the rapist must marry his victim and he’s not allowed to divorce her. From our vantage point, this is barbaric. How can we demand the victim marry her rapist!?
However, if we understand the context, we see this is actually a case where God was creating a law to protect the victim. If a girl wasn’t married or engaged to be married and was raped, then no one would want to marry her. In that culture, she would then be worthless and would be forced to either stay with family for life, beg, or go into prostitution.
Now this is definitely a flaw in their culture which our culture no longer has. However, if we appreciate the fact that this is the situation they were in, it actually works in the girl’s favor for the rapist to marry her, because now she will be provided for. The fact that the rapist wasn’t allowed to divorce her is actually showing that he is obligated to care for her for the rest of her life! If that still seems strange to you, there’s actually an example in 2 Samuel 13 where a girl is raped and claims this law to defend herself. She actually says that if the guy doesn’t marry her then that would actually be even worse than the sin of rape he had committed! With this law, God was creating a way to care for this vulnerable person, knowing her family would protect her. Even though it’s a very strange verse to us today, we can still see that God cares for the vulnerable in society and wants them to be provided for.
We can gain a lot of theological and ethical understanding from the Law if we do the hard work of discovering the reason it was given.
How to Discover Genres in the Bible
Before we move on, I wanted to comment on genres in general. Each passage of the Bible deserves to be evaluated to determine what its genre is. This gets a little tricky at times because books may contain different genres. The good thing is, this is usually quite obvious.
For example, the Gospel of Matthew is mostly historical narrative, because it’s describing the historical events that happened in Jesus’ life. As an example, when we read Matthew 12, we can tell it’s mostly historical narrative. It’s just describing the events that took place. However, about a third of the way in, Jesus quotes prophecy, so obviously that would be a short paragraph where the genre would be prophecy, because that’s what he was quoting. Then, when we go into chapter 13, the opening of it is a parable, which gets treated differently, because the genre changed. After all, it’s not as though Jesus is telling us of literal historical events that happened; he’s just telling a story to make a deeper point about some spiritual or ethical concept.
Then, Jesus teaches about why he speaks in parables. He then quotes prophecy again, and then goes back to telling parables. Then at the end of chapter 13, the author goes back to historical narrative, describing the different events that took place. In this example, we find different types of genre within a small portion of Scripture. The good thing is, it’s fairly easy to detect changes in the genre. The important thing to remember is to keep genre in mind when we read Scripture so we can be more aware of how to treat the passages we’re studying.
Why Literary Context matters in the Bible
It’s important to look at the literary context of a passage so that you can tell what genre is used in the specific verses you are studying. When we looked at the example of the genre switching between historical narrative, parables, and teaching, we simply had to read the surrounding areas of that book to see what genre we were currently dealing with to better understand your current passage.
A silly little nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb”, illustrates this point. When we hear this title, we automatically assume it means that Mary owned this lamb. However, without the context of the rest of the rhyme, we actually can’t tell what “Mary had a little lamb” means. It could mean she owned a lamb or it could mean she ate some lamb meat. Or Mary having a little lamb could be an allegory for Jesus in the manger with his mother. It could also be that she “had” a lamb, implying that she lost it. Mary could also be a sheep herself, and it could be saying she “had a little lamb”, in the sense that she gave birth. It could also be talking about a mother, Mary, having a little lamb, in the sense of a well-behaved child.
If we rip the statement out of its context, any of these interpretations are equally valid. To discover the original intent of the author, it’s crucial to look at the areas surrounding the statement to see what the literary context was.
While this idea of making sure to read the surrounding text seems incredibly simple, you’d be surprised how often people bring up “problems” in the Bible when all they need to do is read the surrounding bits of Scripture to solve them. One time, years ago, just for fun, I looked up a big list of Bible verses that an atheist organization claimed were contradictory. The list would give two Bible verses which seem to be saying opposite things in order try and show how silly the Bible is. As I read all these apparent contradictions, I was amazed at how many could be resolved merely by reading the surrounding areas of Scripture.
Does the Bible prophesy Muhammad of Islam?
I’ll give one last example of how the surrounding text helps us understand a potentially difficult verse. A common tactic Muslims have learned from their teachers is to claim that the Bible prophesies the coming of Muhammad. The passage they use to try and make this point is John 16:7-13. In these verses it says that, once Jesus leaves, God is going to send the Helper. Muslims claim that this is clearly referring to Muhammad.
However, if we check the broader literary context of the passage, it becomes painfully obvious that Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit.
How would inviting Muslims to look at the broader context of the Bible help?
The following verse says that this Helper will glorify Jesus. Islam teaches that Jesus was merely a man; a prophet, but still just a man, and not deserving of worship. To say that Muhammad glorified Jesus would be blasphemous in Islam. As well, in John 14, Jesus also declares that he is going to leave and that the Father will send this Helper once he has left. Jesus says the Helper will be with his followers forever, will be called “the Spirit of Truth”, and will be in all of Jesus’ followers. It also explicitly calls this Helper “the Holy Spirit”, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name.
Then, in Acts 2, we see this prophecy realized when the Spirit comes upon all of Jesus’ followers. By reading what comes before and after the passage, we get a better picture. Then if we read the rest of Scripture, we get an even better picture of who the passage quoted by Muslims is really talking about.
In conclusion, when we study the Bible, it is really important to do the hard work of discovering as much as we can about the historical and literary context of the passage or book under scrutiny.