Suppose we encounter the simple sentence, ‘Jim was green.’ The first time we come across it is when someone is regaling in story form the events of an evening when various people spent time playing a board game using different coloured counters. We next run up against it in a piece of creative writing utilising intense images to describe in word pictures the reactions of individuals to associates who became much wealthier than them. For a third time, we read the same words in a column summing up a debate between participants who espoused different attitudes towards the environment.
Interestingly, our reading skills relatively easily decode the same simple sentence in three very different ways by accounting for the fact that the first instance of storytelling employed a narrative writing style; whereas the second was written with a poetic flourish; and the last was found in the style of a reported discourse in which opponents traded debatable points.
This may sound heretical, but the Bible should be read in one sense as we read any other book. It is not just another book, of course. Of all the books on our planet it’s uniquely a revelation from God. However, the master communicator employed the same three universal human writing styles to engage our minds with eternal truths. Someone has assigned each chapter of the Bible to these writing styles and found that the Bible is 44% narrative; 33% poetry; and 23% discourse. It’s good to be alert to each of these styles within the Bible.
We may be more familiar with other ways of dividing up the Bible: such as the authoritative characterization of the Old Testament as the Law; Prophets; and Writings.(1) It’s also common to hear of Bible literary genres such as the Apocalyptic (Revelation; and parts of Daniel; featuring graphic, even grotesque symbolism). As far as reading skills go, it’s our awareness of how the Bible is divided into narrative, poetic and discourse writing styles that’s likely to help us most in making sense of what we are reading.
If we read any book designed to hone our Bible interpretation skills, we soon pick up methods that emphasise observing words in their context; interpreting what it means for us sympathetically with what it meant for its initial audience (those to whom the words were originally addressed); thinking through what they made of them; and so applying God’s intended message by adjusting our actions or attitudes. These are surely helpful disciplines.
First, we need to see what’s actually there in the text and not what’s supplied by our imagination. Second, we need to understand what we see as it was understood at the time of writing. Third, we are then faced with identifying the shared truth it teaches and so to the task of responding as intended. Some authors use different terms, such as: observation; interpretation; and application. It’s valuable to stress the key point of ‘shared truth’ and how arriving at this takes different skills depending on whether we are reading narrative, poetry or discourse.
The obvious challenge we face in studying the Bible is that we live in a very different culture from the first Bible audience. This creates a sense of distance. On the other hand, God remains the same and we share the same corrupt human nature with the Bible’s characters. The thrill of Bible study becomes essentially to identify the intended truth God was sharing with a wider audience (i.e. ourselves!) by means of David or Paul or whomever. The shared truth may not be exactly the same as for them, but for us it’s the principle lying behind it.
It’s this idea of shared truth that’s key to successful Bible study. If we don’t pay sufficient attention to this, we run the real risk of ‘proof-texting’. By that we mean lifting and twisting a Bible statement to
superficially support our own opinion (for example, a Prosperity Gospeller may abuse Ecclesiastes 10:19 that – out of the context of the book – seems to suggest that actually ‘money is the answer to everything’)! Again, we may ‘over-spiritualise’ a text. That is, we view the plain text as a type of spiritual code. Now, place names in the Bible do have associations; there’s some symbolic force in certain things (such as snake and lion) and some numbers (e.g. 7, 12, 40) appear to serve as imagery. However, figures of speech and Bible types (or ‘prophetic symbols’) apart, we are not intended to look for hidden meanings by reading between the lines of the text. Nor are we meant to allow our own ‘nice thoughts’ to control the text. I once heard the parable of the Good Samaritan treated as an allegory, with the inn spoken of as a church of God! Don’t differences between believers often come down to flawed Bible study?
So far, we’ve identified the three styles of Biblical material: narrative, poetry, and discourse. We’ve also majored on the chief goal of Bible study and stated that it’s to arrive at finding the eternal truth being intentionally shared with us. We now need to put these two things together: for each style there is a specific approach to get at the truths being shared.
Narratives teach truth in a different way from say, discourse. Narrative has distinguishing features: its setting; its characters; and a developing plot. We do well to pay attention to these. Places can be stigmatised. The timing may be in a time of famine. Characters may be painted as foolish, lame, etc. Plots often feature conflict and resolution. From Abraham, we learn the outworking of God’s purposes demands faith on our part,(2) but there’s also a warning that we can complicate things by our own independent actions (Lot, Hagar, and lies about Sarah). Many narratives feature polygamy. Does this mean that God endorsed it? No, it would be hard to find an example where it ended well. Narratives don’t tell us, they show us. We may ask: ‘Does the author interpret for us or pass any form of judgement? Depending on whether traits or actions by the characters are approved or disapproved, we learn to follow or avoid similar examples. Should there be no explicit judgement stated, we can go to clearer texts where the same action is commanded for or against elsewhere. Should there even be no guidance elsewhere, then we take it simply as what happened, not what should have happened. An example of the last category can be found in Judges chapter 6. This is narrative, with no indication as to whether Gideon’s action with the fleece was right or wrong. Since this is not commanded elsewhere, we should not repeat his action.
There are different skills for extracting meaning from poetry compared with narrative. More than 50% of the LORD’s quoted speech in the Hebrew Bible is poetry, with one third of the entire Bible written in the style of poetry (and it spans genres such as story(3) and prophecy(4)). With poetry, we feel as well as understand. It’s more memorable. There’s little to compare in preaching with the power of a well-turned phrase. We meet figures, images and intense, emotional language. The embedded poetry of Judges 5:26-27 is significant as it tells us graphically with heavy repetition of how Jael killed Sisera. But it’s far from boring, despite the repetition. With Hebrew poetry, we should be switched on to the rhyming of ideas (not words); as well as observing the overall structure – one to look out for is when ideas are presented in mirror image form. Our eye is then guided to the focal central line as its axis of symmetry.
In discourse, material is arranged in paragraphs. A paragraph is a unit of writing organised around a single thought. A logical sequence of ideas is presented from paragraph to paragraph, the flow most usually being connected by words such as: yet; therefore; for this reason. In discourse, logically related ideas argue towards a conclusion.
Let’s take the example of Leviticus 19:19 concerning the prohibition on having two kinds of materials together. The writing style here is discourse (as is most of the Law and the Epistles). This is a specific command to a limited audience. There’s nothing to compare with this elsewhere and no reason is given
here. However, we may deduce a general principle as the shared truth: namely, God does not like any blurring of distinctive things or confusion of things He separates. With discourse, as in preaching, we should find an introduction, body and conclusion. For example, in Philippians, Euodia and Syntyche are to think the same as Paul, even as all the church is to think the same as Christ. This will ensure they put others first. Humility like this provides for unity in the church and greater effectiveness in the Gospel.
Notes: Blogs to follow will expand on dealing with each of the three writing styles.
Although there will be points to challenge, the book ‘Read the Bible for a Change’ by Ray Lubeck is suggested as being worth a critical, discerning read. It has influenced the material above.
References: (1) see Luke 24:44 (2) Gen. 15:6 (3) 1 Sam. 2 (4) Joel
Brian Johnston, Leigh, England