Genres are categories of literature, each with its own tone and techniques. The Bible uses a handful of genres—narrative and law, prophecy and letters, poetry, and apocalyptic literature. Understanding the genre in which the passage is written can help guide our reading. Follow the Biblical Genre Series to get the most out of your Bible reading.
The Bible's story is our story. It is the true story of humanity and God—the true story of the whole world.
The Overarching Narrative of the Bible
The Bible tells the story of the world from the beginning. It starts in Genesis with creation; it covers humanity's fall from God's grace and God addressing human brokenness (Genesis 1–11). It then moves to God selecting Abraham and the nation of Israel—as an act toward redemption (Genesis 12–50). The Bible then narrates a history of Israel: from the rescue of God's people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus); to God's establishment of how Israel should live (Leviticus; Numbers; Deuteronomy); to Israel possessing the promised land (Joshua; Judges; Ruth).
The Bible then tells a history of the kings and prophets of Israel—all the way to Israel's fall, exile, and return to their land. The Narrative books involved in this section are: 1 Samuel; 2 Samuel; 1 Kings; 2 Kings; Ezra; Nehemiah; and Esther. The story of Israel's history from its first king to Israel's exile is then retold with further theological insight in 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles.
The exile of God's people—and their struggles after their return from exile—shows the desperate need for a permanent savior. From Israel comes the Savior, Jesus, who is God incarnate. Jesus suffers, dies, and rises again—offering salvation to all of humanity. He creates a bridge for humanity, back into relationship with God. This is narrated in the four Gospels: Matthew; Mark; Luke; and John.
Jesus's resurrection and ascension prompts the coming of God as the Holy Spirit (John 14:15–21). The Holy Spirit inspires the inception of the early church, as recorded in the book of Acts (see Acts 2; 9:31). We are living in this period of the Bible's story—the time between Jesus's ascension and return.
The Bible's story is told through the big genre category of Biblical Narrative. Within this category are three genre forms: Traditional Narrative, Law, and Parables. Without understanding these genres, we will misinterpret the Bible's story and our place within that story.
Interpreting Traditional Narrative
The Bible contains large sections that are Traditional Narrative, articulating "this person did this … and then said this." These sections run from Genesis to Exodus 19. Then, the remainder of Exodus—as well as Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—intersperse Law with Traditional Narrative. Much of the Traditional Narrative is a series of lists and genealogies (which are sub-genres). These lists and genealogies help tell the story of God and God's people.
The books of Joshua through 2 Chronicles pick up the Bible's Traditional Narrative with some interruptions for Law (and its sub-genre of covenant). The genre of Traditional Narrative is then picked up again in the books of Matthew through Acts. (Traditions that embrace the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon will also pick up the Traditional Narrative between the Testaments, in books like Judith; 1 Maccabees; and 2 Maccabees.)
When interpreting Traditional Narrative, ask the key questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why? Who are the characters? Where are we? When is this taking place? (A Bible dictionary or study Bible is where you will find the When answer.) Why is this happening? That's the big theological question.
The genre of Law is incredibly complex—partly because the laws were intended to help ancient Israel live as God's people, in a specific time and place. When Jesus came, he fulfilled the law, bringing a richer meaning to us today (Matthew 5:17–20). The best way to interpret this genre is to use a study Bible or Bible commentary as an aid while reading.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses Parables. The genre of Parable teaches principles through stories. We are meant to place ourselves in these stories, envisioning how we would react.
How the Bible Teaches Us
The Bible teaches us through its overarching story and by telling shorter stories. The Bible's primary mode of teaching is through story, but at times, it stops to directly record a sermon or prayer (which are sub-genres). These are meant to inspire us or to explain the story (e.g., Jacob's prayer in Genesis 49 explains why the Levites do not receive their own land).
The Bible's teachings should be experienced through immersing ourselves in its story. As we do so, the Bible's story will become our story. And our lives will be transformed.
What Biblical Narrative do you especially enjoy sharing with others? In what ways does understanding that each passage of the Bible is part of a larger story change your view of the Bible? Drop us a comment. We would love to hear from you.
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