Why is knowing the different Bible genres helpful in interpreting the Bible?
The Bible is a complex work of literature. It contains sixty-six different books written by about forty different authors inspired by God over about 1,500 years. Each book was written in a particular style, or genre, to a particular audience for a particular purpose. Understanding what type, or genre, of passage we are reading can help us better interpret the Bible. Just as one would read and understand a satirical political cartoon differently than a government document and a science fiction novel differently than a scientific study, so too knowing the genre of the passage of Scripture helps us understand how to better read and interpret the passage.
There are a few main genres contained in the Bible. These include: historical narrative, law, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, gospels, and epistles (or letters). Some books of the Bible fit neatly into one genre; for example, Genesis is a historical narrative. But other books may span multiple genres; for example, Exodus has parts that are historical narrative and parts that are law. Even within these main genres, there are other literary devices used in Scripture like parables, monologue, dialogue, symbolism, hyperbole, and others. Keeping in mind these literary styles is paramount to correctly understanding the text.
Generally, one would expect poetry, wisdom literature, and prophecy with their many metaphors to contain language meant to be understood more figuratively. Conversely, historical narrative and the gospels can be understood more literally. Law and the epistles would have been taken literally by their intended audience during their day, but it requires historical context and cultural awareness to appropriately apply them in today's world.
A robust understanding of Scripture necessitates recognizing into what literary genre a passage fits, a familiarity with the historical and cultural context of its intended audience, and a general knowledge of how that passage fits into the Bible as a whole. While those prerequisites may seem intimidating, it is important to remember that God is the one who helps us rightly understand His Word. When Paul wrote a mystifying message to Timothy, he reassured him, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Timothy 2:7). Jesus told His disciples that the Holy Spirit "will teach you all things" (John 14:26). The God who has given us His Word has also promised to help us understand His Word. Part of understanding the Bible is to know what genre a particular passage fits into, but ultimately it is a work of God to allow Scripture to do a work in the heart (2 Peter 1:20–21; Hebrews 4:12).
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