By Kristie Anyabwile, Crosswalk.com
Check out Kristie’s book, Literarily: How Understanding Bible Genres Transforms Bible Study, for deeper understanding when encountering God’s Word.
If you wanted someone to remember something very, very, very, very, very important, what would you do to help them remember? You might help them remember by putting it in the form of a song or rhyme.
Maybe you would tell them a story or enlist the help of someone who could remind you in case you forget. Well, there’s no work more important for us to remember than God’s Word.
The really cool thing is that God has organized His Word in such a way as to aid our ability to both understand it and hold it in our minds and hearts.
The Bible is organized by genres, which are categories such as laws, songs, poems, stories, prophetic writings, and letters, to remind God’s people of his expectations for humanity.
Through these genres, the Holy Spirit guided each author of the Bible to write down His words in a specific format so that His people could remember his words, could obey his instructions, be reminded of the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience, and to see Christ from beginning to end.
Working together, the biblical genres serve both a literary and a redemptive function. Literarily, each genre is a type of literature with conventions and tools that help us to know how to read a passage within its literary form.
In other words, we read stories by following its plot line. We read poetry with an understanding that Hebrew poetry consists of sets of parallel lines that lead us through shifts in imagery, forming units of thought.
We read proverbial literature by considering figures of speech such as metaphors and similes. We read letters by considering grammar, like verbs, connecting words, and by understanding persuasive writing techniques. And so on.
Redemptively, as we progress through each genre of the Bible, we see God’s progressive revelation of Christ throughout redemptive history. The first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, consist of laws that teach us what God expects of His people.
Through the biblical narratives, God’s plan for humanity unfolds as He demonstrates the lived experience of His people through history.
The prophets remind God’s people of His laws, warning them of the consequences of sin and calling them to experience the blessings of obedience.
Poetry recalls history through prayer, song, and liturgies to encourage people to worship and remembrance.
Wisdom literature teaches people the value and meaning of life through proverbial wisdom.
The gospels and Acts focus on the life and teachings of Christ, the Savior whom all Old Testament history, prophets, and poets anticipate.
The Epistles are letters written to churches and individuals that instruct and logically clarify the teachings of Christ and how the church should live in light of the gospel.
Apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic and focuses on the End Times so that we might see where history is headed and get a glimpse of eternity.
Understanding genres also shapes us as believers, helping us to know, interpret, apply, and advance the gospel.
3. Know the Gospel
All of Scripture points to Jesus, but how? An understanding of the Bible’s genres helps us to see the specific aspect of the gospel that we should have in view as we read. When we read the law, we understand that Christ fulfills the law.
We see Christ redeeming wayward/sinful people in the historical narratives. Christ’s suffering, glories, exaltation, beauty, love, are the songs and prayers of the Psalms. Christ is the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24).
Christ is our Prophet, Priest, and King. In the gospels and Acts, Christ is God Incarnate, who came in the flesh to save all who would repent and believe in Him.
The Epistles were written after Christ’s ascension to the church. They show us that Christ is the bridegroom, and the church is His bride whom He gave Himself up for, who He will present Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27).
Finally, Christ culminates history in Apocalyptic literature, striking the final blow to sin and Satan. He brings us into His eternal kingdom, where that utopian society that God has been holding out to us will be finally realized.
4. Interpret the Gospel
Not only do we want to know the gospel, but we want to be able to move from mere head knowledge to understanding the implications of the gospel as we work through and study the Bible.
In this way, understanding genres provides a starting place in every aspect of Christian discipleship, teaching, and training. Whether you teach, counsel, lead worship, or serve in some other capacity, all that we do should be informed by God’s Word.
So, we need to know the intended meaning that God, through the biblical authors, wants us to understand from each verse, chapter, book, or genre.
The connection between genre and interpretation becomes very practical in our personal study and in our discipleship with others.
For example, if someone comes to us and says they’ve been reading the OT and it says that tattoos are forbidden, how would you help them interpret Leviticus 19:28? “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.”
Where does interpretation begin when we are faced with such a question? The obvious first answer is through prayer. Our study and discipleship are mere earthly wisdom if we do not seek the aid of the Holy Spirit in prayer.
Next, we need to have some knowledge of which genre it falls under (law) and the purpose of that genre. The law consists of instructions for the people of God that reflect His character, that restrains them from evil, and that reveals Christ in some way.
In this example, Leviticus 19:28 reflects God’s holiness, restrains them from following pagan practices, and reveals Christ as the one who sanctifies us and makes us holy (Hebrews 10:10). We should also keep in mind the context of the Book of Leviticus.
Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus are known as the “Holiness Codes” and primarily focus on ethics, teaching God’s people how to live and act in covenant community. Literarily, this ideal society that God is calling His people to is referred to as Utopian.
From this understanding, we can see that these laws are in alignment with God’s standard of perfection, not with man’s ability to keep them. So, what can we say that God expects of His people?
We would know from reading all the previous chapters of Leviticus that God is instructing Israel on how to live as His holy people (Leviticus 11:44a, 45) and calling them to be set apart, distinct from the pagan culture around them (Leviticus 18:1-5).
The way that God’s people were made holy in Israel was by offering sacrifices over and over again that would atone for their sin, by avoiding anything considered to be unclean, and if they came in contact with unclean things, they would have to perform rituals that would make them clean again (Leviticus 15:31).
Finally, we have to put this verse in the context of Christians today. How are Christians made holy? Believers are made holy by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:10).
5. Apply the Gospel
Genres help to point us in the right direction in our application of the text. Let’s go back to Leviticus 19:28. How do we know whether tattoos are wrong or if they are allowed?
Remember that the Book of Leviticus is about our character and conduct in the world, so we need to consider those things when we are considering a tattoo.
Here are some character questions to consider. Is your intention to honor the Lord, and does your decision reflect God’s holiness? Would your decision align with anything that is ungodly or could be misconstrued as a pagan practice?
Would your decision draw you closer to Christ and demonstrate that Christ is in you, and you are in Him? Likewise, we should consider some conduct questions.
What would change about your behavior as a result of your decision? What effect would your decision have on those around you?
6. Advance the Gospel
One more look at Leviticus 19:28 helps us to see that advancing the gospel does not mean that we have to make judgments about people based on whether or not they have a tattoo.
We want to call people to holiness, the kind of holiness that comes through faith in Christ and that convicts people to live in ways that conform to their profession.
Every area of life and ministry needs a genre-informed understanding so that whether we study, teach, counsel, lead worship, parent, engage with work colleagues, we are able to do those things with clarity and confidence as we go into all the world and make disciples by advancing the truth of the gospel.
What we learn, we model, and train others to take hold of the precious truths of God's Word for themselves and then to share it with others so that they might know, interpret, apply, and advance the gospel as well.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Kara Gebhardt
Kristie Anyabwile is the author of Literarily: How Understanding Bible Genres Transforms Bible Study (2022) and editor of His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God (2019). She is passionate about biblical literacy and uses her gifts to train women in studying and teaching the Bible. Kristie is also a founding member of The Pelican Project, a women’s theology organization. She lives in Washington, DC.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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