Genre is by far the most important thing about the Bible that many people who claim to be ‘Bible-believing’ don’t know. Nothing matters more than genre when it comes to reading the Bible.

According to Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 593-595).

“Genre: A term that refers to different types or varieties of literature or media. In the interpretation of texts, particularly the Bible, most exegetes agree that identifying the genre of the text to be interpreted is crucial and that the text must be understood in light of the common conventions that typified that genre at the time of its writing. Thus, poetry is not to be interpreted in the same manner as historical narrative, nor is prophecy properly read in the same manner as an epistle (letter).”

Simply stated, one must read a poem differently than history, prophecy differently than a gospel, a letter (epistle) differently than apocalyptic literature.

When people claim, “the Bible says …” it can be a bit of a misnomer. That would be like say ‘the library says’, or even worse, saying ‘according to the internet’.

The Bible is not one book per se but a collection of books. These 66 books were written at different times over a 600 year period by dozens of different men and women.

This is why one cannot say “The Bible says X” with any real authority.

It would be better to say “In Romans, Paul says …” or, better yet, “The epistle to the Romans says … ”.

Saying “the Bible says” is like saying “the Kindle says”.

If you said, “according to the Kindle”, one would ask ‘in which book?’ and ‘who was the author?’

We need to do the same with the Bible.

Think about it this way:

Imagine someone taking a newspaper and reading it without distinguishing between the different types of writing. They would read the weather forecast, the police report, the opinion column, and the sports section, and the comics all the same way.

Most of us know to read the different parts of the newspaper in different ways. You take the weather forecast as a prediction based on best data, the political opinions and rantings as such, the police report as an official (if not censored) story, and the comics section as satire. It is almost second nature. You would not claim that a little boy named Calvin was literally pushed by a tiger named Hobbes (as if it were in the police report) or that either the weather forecast is 100% true or else the whole newspaper cannot be trusted. 

All of this is to say that ‘genre’ is an important element of any Biblical reading and is essential to any discussion regarding faith and religion in the 21st Century.

The phase “the Bible says”, is not sufficient and is not helpful in the 21st Century when readers need to be aware of and account for the nuances and differences within the Biblical text.

The books of the Bible need to be read according to the genre that they were written in.

It is by attending to the diversity of the writing styles that we hear the truth contained in them – and Christians, beyond anything else, should be lovers of the truth – wherever that truth leads.

Parables are perhaps the most clear example of this is all of scripture. Parables are tricky: parables are stories told in code in order to come in under the radar of the listener in order to ask them to question the assumptions they came in with. Parables interrogate the established order and the expectations of the listener.

Many of us have been taught to read parables as allegory where each character represents a truth or is a stand in for a bigger idea (like ‘god’ or ‘Israel’). This way of reading leads to some horrible interpretations that present god as vicious, angry, or vengeful landowner or ruler or foreman. It also leads to some odd applications that can actually be counter to the overall theme of the gospels.

A popular way of talking about parables is that they are ‘an earthly story with heavenly meaning’ but Ched Myers says that they are actually ‘earthy stories with heavy meaning’. Remember, a biblical prophet is not somebody who tells the future as much as somebody who tells the truth in creative ways (think of Amos or Hosea). In this way, Jesus by employing parables, in utilizing a prophetic voice to punch holes in the status quo and to interrogate, undermine, and subvert the assumed ‘way things are’ for his audience.

In the Gospel of Luke this often has two results:

  1. It makes the hero of the story somebody that the listener may not have thought very highly of. This can be foreigners, servants, and women.
  2. It calls into question the power and the wealth of the upper-class in the assumption talk to God’s favor is with and who God is working for.

Take Luke 16 for instance. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in the afterlife it is noteworthy that Jesus gives the name to this beggar who would have been I nobody but Jesus does not given name to the rich man who everyone in town would’ve known his name. Jesus is not giving us a map of the afterlife he is using that as a stage to talk about god’s involvement in the drama of human life now. Jesus is telling us what God values in this life. If you were to think that Jesus is giving us the architecture of the afterlife then you would literally think that people in heaven can not only see the people being tormented in hell but that they can converse back and forth. This is not the point of the parable.

Parables are not allegory. When you read parables as allegory assigning each character in the story a corresponding person in real life, you often get the point of the parable 100% incorrect. If each time Jesus talks about someone with power and status, like a landowner, you assume that is the god character in the story then the Gospel of Luke really makes God into a monstrous, violent, and conflicted character. If however, you read the story that God is with the servants instead of the landowner, who is probably Rome in coded language, then Jesus’ parables read entirely inverted from the way most of us have been taught to interpret them.

Which brings up the next point.

We must read the Bible more slowly: if you come in thinking that you already know that point that the text is making, you can easily miss the actual thing that is being said.

In Luke 12: 38-40 we begin to see that Jesus’ teaching reads very differently if you are riding high on the hog then if you are on the underside of the beast (in this case Empire). If you have possessions like many of us in America do, the idea of a thief coming in the night causes worry and anxiety. In the context of the first century Jewish occupation by the Romans the thief coming in the night was the in breaking of the kingdom of God.

Earlier in Luke chapter 11 Jesus had talked about the need to bind a strong man if you’re going to ransack his house. And this was probably and allusion to Roman rule and Caesar would be the strong man.

Take Luke 12

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

When Jesus talks about the one it can be tempting to think he’s talking about God. But it is not God who after he is killed you has the authority to cast you into hell! That is Caesar. Jesus is speaking in code and this should probably be understood as part of the literature of the oppressed. You speak in code when you are not safe just say what you really think. We know that the One in verse 5 (who throws people in hell) is not God because in verse six Jesus name’s God as the one who care about every sparrow.

Jesus often had to speak in code, almost with a wink to his listener, and it’s easy to imagine a Roman century and standing just offscreen keeping an eye on the group that was listening to Jesus. There is so much more that could be said on this topic but I think it would benefit you greatly when you read a parable to ask if the person in power–whether that is a land owner, strongman, the one, etc. – is more likely Cesar character or God. If you make every powerful person in a parable a god character you end up creating a monstrous, even demonic, two-faced and violent character.

If you see ‘the one’ and automatically think ‘God’ you get the exact 100% wrong lesson out of this text. Jesus names god in verse 6 as one who cares about each one. Why would he not have name ‘him’ in verse 5? Because the ‘him’ in verse 5 is not god – it is a contrast to the caring God.

Conclusion:

We can do this same careful kind of reading for the genres of history, epic tales, poetry, proverbs, drama (such as Job and Jonah), prophetic writings, apocalyptic, and epistles. By honoring the genre that a work is written in and by reading slowly without assuming that we already understand the point ahead of time, we allow the text to speak in its own voice and actually negate some of the odder, uglier, and more confusing parts of the Bible that people often find so troubling and distasteful.

I could give you 50 examples of how this is true. One of my favorites is in Hebrews 9:22 (without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins) which actually is saying the exact opposite thing of the point that it is frequently quoted to mean. We could do this for the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac or the book of Revelation or more than 80% of the famous passages of scripture that we read outside of their genre.

Genre really matters when it comes to reading the Bible. Which leads perfectly into our next chapter on interpreting texts: H is for Hermeneutics.

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