6 What Kind of Material am I Reading?

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Read the Old Testament

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

What is Genre?

Any time you read anything it is important to be aware of what type of thing you are reading. You read a news report of a crime differently than you do a mystery story. Both are about crimes, but one is a real crime and one is fictional. Your emotional reaction will be different reading them. Your expectations will be different. You read the mystery story to find out who did it in the end; you read a news report hoping they catch whoever did it. A news report that includes the catching of the criminal is satisfying (unless it turns out the criminal is a friend of yours), but you know that this doesn’t always happen, so if the report ends with the police still looking into the crime, you accept it.

If you read or watched a whole mystery story and then at the end they don’t tell you who did it, it would make you mad, because the rules of the genre of mystery story include finding out who did it. Publishers know that misunderstandings of genre can be disturbing, which is why if a novel contains non-realistic elements such as magic or super science, they find a way to tell the reader that before he starts to read.

If you are reading what you think is a realistic novel about a young woman aging out of an orphanage in Kenya, you expect to watch her grow in her knowledge of herself and her world. You want to see her mature, build connections, find contentment and begin to lead a fulfilling life. You would not expect that half-way through she would find a wrecked alien space ship and use its technology to defeat a group of vampires who are secretly ruling the world. If she did, many readers would throw the book away in disgust (though some of us might think that the story had taken a very interesting turn).

The different kinds of written and artistic materials are called genres. We discern genre all the time without thinking about it. Let’s say someone on television claims that a new type of car is the safest, most comfortable and most fuel-efficient ever made. To really understand him you need to know if he is a researcher reporting scientific findings, a test driver giving an opinion, or an actor in a commercial. If you were watching thinking he was reporting the results of research and then you find out it’s a paid advertisement, you would probably be irritated. You’d also have to change how you understand everything that you just heard. This is entirely because of the differences in the expectations we have for the genre of advertisement as opposed to news report. Sometimes a person will say something that sounds ignorant or stupid, then claim that it was a joke. They are trying to move what they said into a different genre to escape embarrassment because it’s acceptable to sound ignorant in a joke, but not in normal conversation.

Being aware of the genre you are reading will have a significant effect on how you interpret it. Misunderstanding the genre can be disastrous. In the 1930s a radio station did a dramatic narration of the novel The War of the Worlds, in which Martians invade the earth, but instead of telling the story from one man’s perspective, as the book does, they presented it as a live newscast. Before the broadcast, the station explained that what follows was fiction, but not everyone heard the beginning. People who tuned in after the program had begun thought that they were listening to a real newscast of a real invasion. Thousands of people fled in a mass panic. The problem was entirely a misunderstanding of genre.

The same thing happens in reading the Bible. We read that Samson burned the grain fields of the Philistines because Samson’s father-in-law, who was a Philistine, had given Samson’s wife to another man. Some people might think that this shows that it is sometimes good to take revenge, or that whole communities should bear the punishment for the sins of a few of its members, but this is a mistake of genre. The story of Samson is a narrative, that is, it describes what Samson did. It isn’t a law telling us what to do. It doesn’t even imply that God approved of the action. Since God commands us not to take revenge (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 32:35), we can know that Samson did the wrong thing. Learning to understand genre will help you avoid this kind of mistake and notice it when you hear it from others.

These lessons will explain the foundational genre of the Old Testament, which is the genre of narrative, or story. The reason this is important is because misunderstanding genres is possibly the most common source of misinterpretation of the Old Testament. Understanding the various types of writing is the most important step to being a competent reader, and so is pretty important. After you have finished this course, you can read the additional materials I will post on other, harder, genres.

At the highest level you can break the Old Testament into two genres: prose and poetry. Prose is what we think of as normal communication. We usually speak to each other in prose. Prose is composed of sentences and paragraphs. It’s mostly literal and is used to impart information. Instructions and stories are both prose.

Poetry is a special form of speech that is in an artistically arranged pattern so that it has a rhythm of some kind, often a pattern of rhyming words, but it could also be a repeated sound in the middle or beginnings of words, or a pattern in the number of syllables or even in the meaning of the phrases. Poetry is usually intended to stir an emotional response more than prose does. Poetry is composed of lines, which may not be complete sentences, and may just consist of a figure of speech.

Prose and poetry can each be divided into further genres. The most common and important prose genres of the Old Testament are narrative, law code and didactic (or teaching). The most important genres of poetry are wisdom, prophecy, apocalypse and psalms, a type of poetry including both songs and prayers,.

You should be aware that not all genres are equally easy to understand. Some are definitely easier to master than others. Fortunately, the one that is easiest to master is also the one with the most foundational information and is the one you should start with. Since the goal of these lessons is to get you started reading the Old Testament, we will look at how to understand the stories (called “narrative”) so that you can read them with some confidence. Being familiar with the content of the stories allows you to understand the world in which the other materials were written. You really need to be familiar with the narratives of the Old Testament before you try to understand prophecy.

The books from Genesis through Esther are mostly narratives, though the first few books also contain law codes and genealogies and they all have some poetry. Parts of other books are narratives as well, such as Jonah, Job, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

You will learn to understand poetry by reading the Psalms. These are usually not too hard to understand and many of them you will find easy to relate to. They are written from and about the whole range of human emotion and experience. When you read the Psalms you will certainly find some that reflect your current thoughts and feelings. Because of this, some of them are as easy for a Christian to understand as the narrative stories. Their humanness makes them accessible and this is probably why many Bibles are printed as just the New Testament and Psalms, because the Psalms are the only part of the Old Testament many people read. They aren’t the place to start if you want to read the rest of the Old Testament though, not the way the stories are. When you get to them, they will help you develop an instinct for how to read Hebrew poetry. Since the prophets wrote mostly in poetry, this is a vital step to understanding them.

Start with the Stories

When you start reading the Bible from Genesis, the first book, it soon becomes clear that what you are reading are stories. It is important to actually notice this since about half of the Old Testament consists of stories. God did not have to begin with stories, but he did. The Old Testament begins with books that tell the story of God’s relationship with the human race so that we human readers can understand Him. Then there are books of wisdom and prophecy that talk more directly about what His plans and desires are.

Notice that the New Testament follows the same pattern: there are the gospels and Acts, which tell a story, then the epistles and Revelation. This is no accident. There is a reason that stories come first. In both cases, these stories are vital to understanding the books that follow. Many of us would have begun with teaching and some basic facts, then used stories to illustrate the teaching. But we find that stories take first place in the Bible and there are good reasons for this which might challenge some of our assumptions.

Many of us assume that God should prefer to teach in the same way that teachers in modern schools do. But God teaches us in story form much more than in a direct teaching format because it is a better method for teaching truths that have complex application. In this case, the application is how to live our lives. Stories are not as good as direct statements if you are explaining something simple such as how to use some piece of equipment, how to cook a particular food or how to get to someone’s house. Since mastering life is harder than mastering a computer, another way is needed.

Stories are also better than direct statements at getting to know a person. Here’s a story. When David, who later became king, came to bring supplies to his brothers who were in the army, he saw and heard the giant Goliath challenging the armies of Israel and asked about what reward would go to the man who won the challenge. This big talk from an inexperienced little brother made his oldest brother angry. He said,

David’s oldest brother Eliab listened as he spoke to the men, and became angry with him. “Why did you come down here?” he asked. “Who did you leave those few sheep with in the wilderness? I know your arrogance and your evil heart—you came down to see the battle!” “What have I done now?” protested David. “It was just a question.” (1 Sam. 17:28-29 HCSB).

Who hasn’t heard an older and younger brother have just this kind of interaction? You see the whole relationship in a few sentences. If I try to summarize their relationship directly, how should I do it? Eliab resented David? He didn’t like David? David was intimidated by Eliab? David avoided conflict, but his brother didn’t? You see that none of these really capture what is communicated in the two verses above. None of them even feel completely correct. Direct statements can rarely capture the complexities of personality the way a story can.

There is more, though. As we reflect on these verses we see that Eliab didn’t have a pure heart and he assumed David didn’t either. Eliab’s assumptions about David’s motives gives us an insight into his own motivations. We see, too, that Eliab didn’t see the issue as David did – that what was at stake is the honor of Israel’s God. Not only did he not believe in David, he didn’t believe in God’s ability to deliver them from this giant. Do you see how all this was contained in just two verses? It actually takes more time to directly state this content than to tell the story, and even what I’ve said here does not exhaust what is contained in those verses.

Stories can also drive home a point that goes against our assumptions when we think we understand something, but really don’t. In Genesis 28, Jacob was sent away by his parents to find a wife. On the way, God appeared to him and repeats to him the promises made to his grandfather Abraham. God specifically promised to protect Jacob and never abandon him. When he woke up Jacob was afraid and we read,

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” (Gen. 28:20-22 NIV)

Do you see a problem with Jacob’s attitude? He said “If God will be with me…and will give me food to eat…so that I return safely…then the Lord will be my God…” How much does he trust God? What is he looking for from God? Does he think that God is worthy of worship even if He doesn’t give Jacob what Jacob wants? No. We see a self-centered relationship with God. Jacob thinks that if he wants something, he has to get it for himself. Jacob decides what is good for himself and sets his own goals. For Jacob, God is a potential partner in this scheme. If God backs him up, then he will give God a share of what he gets. Jacob suffers a great deal in life as a result of this attitude.

Jacob’s story is a journey of him letting go of control, trusting God and genuinely worshiping God. The Bible could have just told us this about Jacob in a few sentences, but this would not have the same power to challenge us about our own attitudes toward God. When you read Jacob’s vow, you might hear the echo of some of your own prayers and be reminded of some of the “deals” you’ve made with God.

The Old Testament is not a book that lends itself to simple truths and easy answers. You have to be willing to grapple with truths that point in different directions. You will see that obeying God does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Being financially blessed is sometimes associated with faithfully following God (Abraham), but often isn’t. In 1 Samuel 25 the arrogant and self-centered Nabal is wealthy, while David is an outlaw on the run.

Knowing God is not an easy thing. It involves ups and downs. The choices we make as we go through our life with God are vitally important. The New Testament writers understood this, but rarely wrote of it directly. They didn’t need to because their Bible was already full of this message.

One reason Christians abandoned the Old Testament in the first few centuries after Christ (Okay, they didn’t abandon it, but they came close) is because they didn’t know what to do with it. They were culturally Greek and Roman and weren’t steeped in the Old Testament like the Jewish leaders of the early Church. They were overwhelmed by its size and complexity. The Old Testament was written in a different cultural world, whereas the New Testament was written within their own culture and so was much easier to identify with. It is not surprising that these early leaders concentrated on the New Testament. They were also put off by the Old Testament’s ambiguity, its lack of simple answers. It leaves the reader with as many questions as it answers and these early Christians made the assumption, like many of us do, that answers are always better than questions. But unanswered questions lead us to explore further in a way answers do not. Do you know anyone that thinks they already have all the answers and know everything? What do you think of them?

How to Read Narratives

Part One

Hebrew narratives are “stories.” It’s too bad that today many assume that if something is a story, with plot and characters, it is fictional, because this is simply not true. When you tell a friend about a strange thing that happened to you, this is a story, but, unless you are a liar, it is also true. These stories in the Bible really happened, and are perfectly true, since they are the words of God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).

These stories are selective in what they tell us because all stories are selective. It would be impossible to tell a story containing every visual detail and answering every question. Anyone who has tried to tell a story to an inquisitive child knows this. The child can ask so many questions that, unless you cut them off, the story will never finish.

It’s also important to remember that these stories are a form of history. They are true retellings of actual events. They are not allegories or fables, nor are they filled with hidden meanings. This doesn’t mean that they have to fit with our idea of history, whatever that may be. Some people suppose that if a history book is trying to make a point, it isn’t really history because it isn’t written from a neutral perspective. They view it as propaganda. Since the Bible’s stories all have a theological point, they don’t look like “good” history if that assumption is made, but we don’t have to make it. The books should be judged against what the authors were trying to do, not what people today think they should have been trying to do.

Many well-meaning, godly people through the years have interpreted Old Testament stories as allegories. This means that they see the characters as representing something else. So they might say that Abraham, called by God to leave his people and go to a new land represents the Church, which is called out of the world to follow God to Heaven. They did not deny that Abraham was a real person who really was called by God, but they thought that the way a Christian profited from the story was to read them as symbolizing something else. This type of teaching was well-meant, coming from a genuine desire to apply the Bible to people’s lives when these teachers couldn’t see any other way to use these stories because the accounts are filled with lying, murder and adultery.

Other well-meaning people try to see in everything a foreshadowing of Jesus. They might tell us that Joseph foreshadows Christ because he was sold for silver and saved his people. Or, more extreme, the Ark of the Covenant foreshadows Christ because it was made of boards which were cut and so Jesus was cut off from His people (I have actually read this).

There are foreshadowings of Jesus in the Old Testament, and there is a sense in which Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. However, there is a problem with this approach that is not immediately obvious. Besides missing the plain meaning of what’s written, this method robs the text of its ability to challenge us. It does this by replacing the original meaning with a safe one we already know. Interpreting this way assumes that we already know what we need to know and already have full understanding of God and the world. It fixes the stories by making them say what we expect them to say before we read them. What this looks like in practice is that the reader searches for something that reminds him of Jesus, or a teaching familiar from the New Testament, and once he finds it, he stops searching the passage. He think that he has found the treasure he was digging for and so doesn’t see most of what God has for him to learn. Hopefully, what follows will help you to use the stories profitably and not to look for hidden meanings.

One of the reasons people read narratives in these ways is because they expect direct teaching, and don’t find it. This is because it is not the purpose of these stories to teach directly. They are not children’s stories that each have a lesson at the end or even have only one point. They illustrate teachings given elsewhere in the Bible. In them we observe real people having real encounters with God and so what we learn, we learn indirectly. This means that not every particular episode has a lesson we are supposed to learn. Often, the profit comes from reading many stories which together build a picture we can learn from.

Numbers records many instances of the children of Israel complaining and rebelling against God. Few of these stories, by themselves, contain a unique lesson, but when we read them together we can see an answer to one of the biggest questions humans have pondered through the centuries.

Notice that the children of Israel in the wilderness saw God in the form of a cloud by night and a fire by day. He performed a miracle every day to feed each of them by giving them manna to eat. Everyone always had just enough to eat every day. God spoke to them directly through Moses. They had seen him part the Red Sea for them.

Were these people a really strong and faithful group? Did they love the Lord with all their heart? No, whatever faith they had was very weak. Their trust in God was all but nonexistent. So when you wonder why God doesn’t show himself with miracles, speaking from heaven, and shaking the earth on a very regular basis, remember the children of Israel. Did this help their faith? It seems that the more God intervenes in this way, rather than creating greater faith in his people, it actually weakens it. Why this is the case, it doesn’t say, but we can know that it’s true because we’ve seen it in these narratives.

This is why we shouldn’t read the stories of the Old Testament looking for a single lesson from each. We should also be careful about reading them to get a general principle, because once a principle is extracted, we tend to discard the story like an orange we’ve squeezed of juice. The stories are there for us to experience again and again, learning about countless numbers of things. Learning from the stories is like learning from life.

Imagine a three-year-old girl and ask yourself what did she learn today. Since she isn’t in school, the answer might be that she learned how to run a little more steadily, how to say some words a little more clearly. Maybe she noticed a word her mother uses, but doesn’t yet know what it means. Maybe she figured out where her mother keeps the sugar and tomorrow she will figure out how to climb up to it and soon after that learn that she should not do so. Her learning is in a hundred areas and almost impossible to specify, but without learning of this kind, she will never become an adult. We should read the stories the same way.

For example, the book of Judges says a lot about women. Women feature in the book from beginning to end in a wide variety of roles. It is something I have contemplated many times, but I still couldn’t tell you with any confidence what Judges is actually saying about women. I don’t believe it has only one message. It is just a feature of the book that the Lord included to develop and challenge everyone who reads it regarding their understanding of women. Different readers will be effected in various ways based on the background they bring to the story, and, obviously, whether they are a man or a woman. It is a tool the Holy Spirit can use to draw anyone into a more balanced understanding of this topic, one a little closer to the truth. It will enable the reader to understand the women in his or her life a little better (including understanding herself if the reader is a woman), to appreciate them and to love them more effectively. The reader will be just a little more like God.

This has hopefully introduced you to the idea of the genres of the Old Testament. We should read each of these types of Scripture with somewhat different expectations. Of these genres, narrative is a good one to begin to with and it’s the one you will start with if you just begin reading the Bible in Genesis. The next lesson will be specifically about the narrative genre and give you a some ideas about what to look for as you read and how to better understand the Scriptures Jesus read.

Name Famous stories and people
Foundations Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
Family Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Fulfillment and Failure Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth

Kings Saul, David, Solomon
Kingdoms Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Kicked Out Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
Came Back Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Series Navigation<< 5 Big Points7 How to Understand the Stories >>

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