Hermeneutics (Part 2): The Bible as Literature

by Layton Talbert

This article first appeared in FrontLine • March/April 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Click here for Part 1.

God communicated Himself to man in order to reveal Himself, not veil Himself. Consequently, He gave His revelation in a variety of literary forms common to normal human communication.

Since God gave the Bible to reveal Himself to man, and since He gave it in customary literary forms, our approach to understanding the Bible should follow the same principles we use when we approach literature—a characteristically literal interpretation. Hermeneutics is all about the science and art of correctly understanding and accurately applying God’s Word.

Two major keys we routinely apply in everyday interpretation are too frequently ignored in Biblical hermeneutics—context and genre. The previous column addressed the importance of context. Now we’ll explore the variety of literary genres employed by the Holy Spirit and the important role genre plays in fully appreciating and properly handling God’s Word.

What Is Literature?

First things first. Literature is not merely the written communication of an act or truth or idea; a recipe is not literature. Nor is literature defined by length; a cookbook full of recipes is not literature. Nor is literature defined by lots of big fancy words; a dictionary is not literature.

“Great literature is that kind of writing which, in addition to whatever other purposes it may serve, is characterized by aesthetic and artistic qualities,” writes Calvin Linton. “It is peculiarly fitting, therefore, that so much of God’s Word to us should be beautiful as well as true—reminding us that God created man with the wonderful and mysterious”—and unique—“capability of responding with delight to beauty of many kinds,” including literary beauty (“The Bible as Literature,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, I, 130–131).

The Bible is literature. It is not, as many have rightly observed, merely literature. But it unquestionably is literature. It is not merely a book, but a library of books. No one expects a library to be filled with only one kind of literature. Likewise, the Biblical library shelves a surprisingly wide variety of literary types, or genres.

What Is Genre?

A literary genre simply refers to a type or style of literary communication. We are all familiar with many genres, and we understand instinctively that we do not handle or interpret them in the same way. We do not read a Shakespeare sonnet as we read a history textbook, nor approach a personal letter the same way we would a collection of pithy sayings. Similarly, different genres within the Bible require different approaches. When we fail to note the distinctive features of the genre we are in, misinterpretation can result. That is why genre is important to hermeneutics.

A first step to flawed hermeneutics (that is, mishandling the Bible) is the assumption that the Bible is a Systematic Theology, a textbook of theology, a collection of sacred sayings and proof texts. When we use it that way, we reduce a God given treasury of fine jewels and rare gems, vast in its variety and beauty, to a large box of very useful rocks. In the process, we often do violence to the text itself. God did not drop out of heaven a “book of sayings to live by.” He sovereignly and wisely chose very human means through which to reveal Himself and in which to couch eternal truth. In terms of its source, the Bible is a thoroughly divine Book. In terms of its form, the Bible is a profoundly human book.

Literary Similarity Between OT and NT

We tend to emphasize the theological dissimilarity between these two major divisions within our Bible. But consider the broad literary similarity between them.

Broadly speaking, God communicated the lion’s share of His Old Testament revelation in two major literary forms: (1) Historical Narrative (Genesis-Esther), and (2) Prophetic Preaching (Isaiah-Malachi). It is worth pausing to note here that, in most cases, predicting future events occupies a relatively small proportion of the prophets; most of their ministry focused on preaching to God’s people.

Likewise, God communicated the bulk of His New Testament revelation in two major literary forms: (1) Historical Narrative (Matthew-Acts), and (2) Prophetic Preaching (Romans-Revelation). Again, though we think primarily of Revelation when it comes to prophecy, many of the epistles are richly interspersed with prophetic material, even though their primary focus—like that of the OT prophets—is exhorting and instructing the people of God. The NT version of Prophetic Preaching takes the distinctive form of epistles, but their authors are the designated spokesmen of God addressing His people in very practical, down-to-earth, historically occasioned situations—just as the OT prophets were the designated spokesmen of God addressing His people in very practical, down-to-earth, historically occasioned situations.

Variety of Genre in the Bible

The fascination and humanness of the Bible is magnified when one considers the variety of literary genres both within and in addition to these two major forms. Is it not a curious, intriguing, and delightful fact that God has chosen such a wide variety of human ways of communicating to us eternal truth?

In order to give His Word the widest possible appeal to the full range of human interests and conditions and situations, God employed nearly every available kind of literary genre: narrative history, genealogy, chronicle, suspense, law, testimony, debate, poetry, proverb, philosophical treatise, love song, prophetic oracle, riddle, drama, novel, biography, autobiography, fiction (parable), discourse, personal letter, ecclesiastical epistle, sermon, theological treatise, allegory, hymn, creed, apocalypse.

These are distinct genres with different characteristics that often function in very different ways. Beyond the diversity of literary genre listed above, you also have countless figures of speech and a wide variety of literary devices to add even more color and texture to the final product.

Why would God employ such variety? These are devices and genres that we (and we alone of all creatures) have invented, precisely because we (and we alone) are replicas of God, fashioned in His own creative and imaginative image! He is the one who gave us the capacity to invent and understand and appreciate these literary genres and devices. And He has chosen to communicate Himself and His eternal truth to us in virtually every conceivable literary mode.

Human Literature or Inspired Revelation?

The short answer to this question is a simple “yes.” As Fundamentalists, we are convinced on textual grounds of the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit through human writers. That does not demand—and Scripture neither teaches nor evidences—a direct dictation theory of inspiration. The fact that a wide variety of human authors were “borne along” by the influence of the same Holy Spirit does not diminish the unique personality of the human instruments. Rather, it showcases their God-given individuality.

If all believers everywhere were equally sanctified and obedient, would that make us all identical? Hardly. If anything, it would only highlight our distinctiveness and uniqueness from one another even more! Being genuinely godly and Spirit filled does not result in your being like everyone or anyone else, but in your being more fully everything that God has uniquely designed you to be as an individual member of the diverse Body of Christ. Any thoughtful comparison of the enormous variety displayed in the different books and genres of the Bible illustrate this same principle.

How Should We Then Interpret?

The Bible evidences a beautiful creativity of expression and the adaptability of God’s truth to a variety of literary devices and genres. Reading the Bible for all its worth, therefore, demands of us as readers and interpreters that we read attentively with an awareness of these different genres, their distinctive characteristics, and their unique hermeneutical challenges.

How do these observations play out in handling specific literary genres within the Bible? Here are some keys to remember in approaching one specific and often challenging genre: historical narrative.

Interpreting Historical Narrative

This genre constitutes the largest single segment of the Old Testament, though many other literary genres are folded into the large narrative sections of books such as Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. These narratives can be subdivided into two basic kinds of narratives: event-oriented stories and person-oriented stories. The two are frequently woven together. It is essential to remember, however, that in all Biblical narrative, the real hero and central figure is not a human character—it is God. He is always ultimately at the center of every narrative.

Classic examples of event-oriented narratives (such as the dividing of the Red Sea, the death of Ahab, Elijah on Mount Carmel, David and Goliath, or the confrontation between Hezekiah and Sennacherib) demonstrate that usually the event itself is less significant than the theological point being made. In each of these cases, the memorable event connected with each episode is recorded in only one or two brief verses.

The story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 is an excellent example. We all zoom in on the climax, even though it comprises less than four percent of the total narrative—only two verses out of 58. The climax itself is not the point of the narrative. How do you discover the point in narrative? Often by the dialogue. It is the conversations that reveal the motives and the real issues at stake. The slaying of a giant by a boy is no big deal for God to accomplish. It’s a very gratifying conclusion, but the event is not nearly as important as why and how the people in the story do what they do.

Hezekiah’s confrontation with Sennacherib is a similarly fascinating case-in-point (2 Kings 18:13—19:37; cf. Isa. 36–37). The talk goes on for two chapters, yet the final showdown culminates in a fleeting two verses (2 Kings 19:35–37). Never was a more unexpected and unimaginable miracle of intervention recorded in fewer words or a more matter-of-fact tone. The miracle itself is almost incidental to the narrative. The writer records the climax almost nonchalantly, as if to say; “By the way, this is what God did. You’re impressed? Are you surprised? That’s nothing. That’s a snap for God.” Granted, it’s the necessary capstone, but do you get the real point of the larger narrative? It’s to be found where the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to spend 57 out of 59 verses—the dialogue.

Other lengthy narratives, however, are more person-oriented. The story of Joseph is devoted to recounting Joseph’s experiences and observing Joseph’s actions and character, tracing his reactions and responses to outrageously unjust circumstances. In person-oriented narratives, dialogue is still important for determining God’s theological point. Another frequent element is the use of key words, phrases, or concepts. For example, dreams—God’s communication of His purposes to man—become a recurring literary focal point in the narrative.

Throughout the reading or teaching of any narrative story (or any other Bible passage), remember it is the Word of God. He is not only its Source, but its central Subject. The communication of His person and character is always the ultimate point of any story, the true aim of any passage.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC.