What is Literature?
The Bible is filled with many types of literature. We know the Bible contains timeless truths and principles, but the way we reliably find and apply them is determined by the type of literature.
We must read the Bible as a unique mingling of historical, theological, and literary writings (The Origin of the Bible).
So, it’s important to be able to distinguish the different forms in which it was written.
Types of Literature
1. Stories – portray a theme of humanity in a universal way. When we read any story, we must keep in mind the writer’s picture of the world at that time and as he understood it, and consider the theme which the story reveals.
For example, A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway has themes of love and war. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling has the classic theme of good vs. evil. Little Red Riding Hood has the theme of don’t talk to strangers.
The same themes we see in our modern stories are found in the Biblical narratives as well. For example, the story of Ruth has themes of love, brokenness, and redemption. There are hundreds of individual stories like this found throughout the Bible.
These individual stories fit together like a puzzle into the greatest theme of all - God’s plan to deliver His people out of darkness into the light of His kingdom.
Why it’s important: Recognize when you’re reading a story. Consider the specific context, setting, and larger story as it fits with the rest of the Bible. Read at face value remembering the text simply tells us what happened. Stories can be found just about every book of the Bible in the forms of parables, allegories, or literal history.
2. Law – The first five books of the Bible make up the section known as the Law. However, references to the law can be found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Within these books there are different types of laws:
Ceremonial law - various regulations such as circumcision and sacrifices. Jesus Christ dying on the cross fulfilled these laws, so we no longer follow them today.
Judicial or Civil law - are culturally specific to ancient Israel. Many ancient cultures developed civil law codes with penalties for various crimes that covered everything from property rights, criminal behavior, slavery, and divorce. Obviously, we don’t follow all of these today as they need to be read in the context of the cultural times.
Moral law – shows us what God desires of us. You can find them laced throughout the ceremonial and civil laws, and they include the 10 Commandments. These laws are reiterated throughout the New Testament. All moral laws are binding today, regardless of cultural contingencies.
Why It’s Important: Read to understand and differentiate between the different kinds of laws and think about how all 3 can show us God’s character. Law can be found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and several places in the New Testament.
3. History - history writings tell the story of Israel’s history. These books describe the activities of the prophets and the kings. They are factual accounts of what happened at a certain time and place, and involve people, nations, and events.
Why It’s Important: Read with the knowledge that scholars and archeologists have confirmed much of Biblical history to be true and verifiable according to other ancient’s texts and archeological finds. History can be found in Genesis, Kings, Judges, Exodus, Numbers, Ruth, Chronicles, Samuel, and more.
4. Wisdom –these are common sense instructions, not promises or guarantees. They have a unique style which raises questions about moral issues and causes one to reflect on the hard questions of life. They are truths for the general rules of life.
Why It’s Important: Read the wisdom passages with an understanding that this is the way of seeing the world as it ought to be, not the way it is. Wisdom can be found in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, James, and more.
5. Poetry - used for worship and prayer and take the form of song lyrics, wisdom, philosophy and even a little love dialog. Many of the prophets used poetry in their speeches as well. God gave us poetry to help us know how to communicate the full range of human emotions – from complete joyfulness to extreme hopelessness.
Why It’s Important: A careful understanding of how images are used (metaphors, hyperbole, and personification) is essential to understanding the veiled truths in poetry. Poetry is found in the Psalms, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, books of the Prophets and more.
6. Epistles – these were personal letters originally written to particular individuals, groups, or churches who had particular issues or questions. Several topics were often addressed. Different kinds of literature can be found in the letters including wisdom, hymns or songs, and moral law and teachings.
Why It’s Important –It’s important to discover why the letters were written – what was going on in the church or group at that time to prompt the letter? Read in context of the cultural times. A great source for this is The Cultural World of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Manners and Customs by Victor Matthews. Some Epistles include Romans, Ephesians, Thessalonians, Galatians, and more.
7. Prophecy – the Biblical definition of prophecy is to foretell or proclaim. The prophets were God’s spokesmen, proclaiming God’s warnings and message of redemption. They all foretold of the coming of Jesus. The prophets often used poetry, wisdom, and stories to relay God’s message.
Why It’s Important: Read to find Christian principles and amazing stories of faith during difficult times. Look for insights into God’s judgements and mercy. The major and minor prophets are: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
8. Apocalyptic Literature – apocalyptic means revelation or unveiling. This type reveals the veiled purposes of God, end of the world, and the creation of God’s kingdom on earth.
Why It’s Important: Understand this type of literature uses symbolism, metaphors, personification, poetry, and imageries. Don’t assume a word is literal when it is not. This type is found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, the Gospels, and Revelation.
When reading the Bible, we are to read it “plainly” which means to understand that poetry is poetry, hyperboles are hyperboles, metaphors are metaphors, and literal history is literal history. The Bible is written in many different types of literature and should be read plainly and in context.
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. Cor 4:2
For more in depth reading, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee & Stuart is a great introduction to reading the Bible "plainly."