What’s your favorite type of book to read? Do you love fiction novels, or do you prefer a memoir? Or what about film? Would you rather watch a romantic comedy or a nature documentary?
In the same way we approach varying genres of books or movies differently, the way we read the books of the Bible depends on their genre. We shouldn’t read books of poetry the same way we read historical accounts, much like we approach the movie “The Wizard of Oz” differently than the movie “Schindler’s List.”
Today, we’ll look at the different genres found in the Bible and the best way to approach each when reading and studying.
The Pentateuch: The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form what is called The Pentateuch (literally meaning “five books” in Greek). This section is also known as the Torah, the Jewish law. These five books were all written by the same author and to the same audience. Moses wrote the majority of these books during the time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before entering the land of Canaan. The books were written to the generation of Israel that was about to enter this land in order to remind them of who God was and why He had set them apart from other nations.
The Pentateuch itself contains several genres. Most of these books contain historical records of the Patriarchs of Israel and the accounts of their lives. There are also several long sections of law codes that God gives to the nation of Israel, instructing them how to live.
When reading these books, we can read the historical records as true events that occurred to real people. These events give us insight into the culture of the time period. We also learn a great deal about God, His character, and the way He interacts with humanity. Whenever you read a passage of Scripture from one of these books, ask yourself, “What does this show me about the character of God?”
Historical Books: Both the Old and New Testaments contain historical books. The books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther make up the historical section in the Old Testament, and the book of Acts in the New Testament contains the historical record of the early church.
These books were written by a variety of authors to a variety of audiences. In the same way the historical accounts of the Pentateuch were real events that occurred to real people, the accounts contained in the historical books are also real events that happened to real people. Each book was written to a specific audience, generally an audience of Israelite people, reminding them of God’s faithfulness. We read these for information about the culture and history of Israel and the way God interacted with His people when they were both faithful and unfaithful to Him.
Poetic Books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are considered books of poetry. Job tells the story of a man who lost everything and how he responded before God. His laments give us insight on how to respond to tragedy. Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes contain collections of hymns, sayings, and poems from Israelite and Jewish literature. The Psalms offer insight into a host of circumstances, Proverbs offers practical insight for life, and Ecclesiastes presents questions about the meaning of life. Song of Songs is a display of the covenant relationship of marriage and the joy of romantic love.
Each of these books contain a host of literary devices, like similes, metaphors, repetition, allegory, hyperbole, and exaggeration. We can learn a great deal from these authors about understanding and expressing emotion, how to ask God questions, how to deal with pain and loss, how to rejoice and offer praise, and how to live a faithful life.
Prophets: The largest section of the Old Testament is the writings of the prophets. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel are called the Major Prophets while Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are considered the Minor Prophets. These divisions have to do with the length of the writings, not particularly the content. The New Testament also contains a prophetic book. The book of Revelation is a message of prophecy regarding the end times and the second coming of Christ.
These books are often difficult and confusing to the modern reader. Not only are we thousands of years removed from the events, but our cultures are often so different that many of the ideas seem completely foreign and confusing. However, these books tell us a great deal about the character of God.
The promises (both of prosperity and judgment) recorded in these books are written to a specific audience. While these promises were not written to us, they tell us a great deal about God’s character. They tell us what God loves and what God hates, what He honors and what He punishes. We should always ask the question, “What does this promise tell me about God’s character?”
Gospels: The first four books of the New Testament are the accounts of Jesus’ incarnation. The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word for “good news.” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell of the good news of Jesus Christ, of His life, death, and resurrection.
These books were written by people who had close, personal relationships with Jesus or with His apostles: Matthew and John were two of His twelve apostles, Mark was an associate of Peter’s, and Luke was a traveling companion with Paul. Each of these authors had seen first-hand the impact of the life and ministry of Jesus and were convinced of the importance of sharing it with the world.
The gospels are accounts of the life of Jesus, each written from a different perspective. These are true events that occurred, and can be read as such. Each gospel highlights a different aspect of Jesus and His ministry. Matthew’s focus is the Kingdom of God, Mark’s is the servanthood of Jesus. Luke’s focus is the humanity and deity of Jesus, and John’s focus is that Jesus is the Son of God.
Epistles: The books of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude are called Epistles. These books are letters, written by different authors to a specific group (or persons) and deal with specific issues.
When reading any of the Epistles, it is important to have an overall understanding of the main message of the letter. Without understanding the overall theme and message of the letter, it is easy to misinterpret individual verses. Taking extra time to study the cultural and historical background of the letter will prove to be invaluable for understanding the context and meaning of the letter. While studying these letters in depth requires looking at paragraphs and individual verses, they must always be interpreted in light of the letter’s overall message. When studying these books be sure to ask, “What is the overall message or cultural context and how does it relate to this specific verse?” Be careful not to apply personal or cultural biases to the commands in these letters, but instead, be aware of the original audience and their situation and environment.
As we read each book of the Bible it is important to keep the genre in mind. With a focus on understanding the theological message of each book we can gain incredible insights from historical accounts, letters, and prophecies written thousands of years ago. Let’s continue to ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and insight as we read and study God’s Word. He’ll be faithful to answer us as we seek Him!
Week 2 Challenge: God is faithful to reveal Himself, regardless of our choices. This week, take special note of the way you see God’s character on display, whether that is through nature, other people, or His Word.
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