As a poet and writer, I’m just naturally interested in the effects literary forms have on readers. For instance, narratives draw us into stories with which we can relate, while poetry expresses for us the praise, laments, thoughts, and feelings we have in common.
In other words, poems and stories help us to connect with God, one another, and ourselves. It’s not surprising then that the Bible consists primarily of two main genres or types of literature: narratives and poetry.
In the Introduction to the Literary Study Bible, which Crossway kindly sent me to review, we learn that biblical narratives come in sub-types such as the “hero story, Gospel, epic, tragedy, comedy (a U-shaped plot with a happy ending), and parable. Specific poetic genres keep multiplying as well: lyric, lament psalm, praise psalm, love poem, nature poem, epithalamion (wedding poem) and many others.”
The Introduction goes on to say, “In addition to narrative and poetry, we find prophecy, visionary writing, apocalypse, pastoral, encomium, oratory, drama (the book of Job), satire, and epistle. Then if we start adding more specific forms like travel story, dramatic monologue, doom song, and Christ hymn, the number of literary genres in the Bible readily exceeds one hundred.”
Since we might not be familiar with all of these literary terms, the publisher included a Glossary in the back of the book, explaining, for example, that encomium is “A work of literature that praises either a general character type (e.g., Psalm 1 on the godly person and Prov. 31:10-31 on the virtuous wife) or abstract quality (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13 on love and Hebrews 11 on faith).”
Does any of this matter? I think so. For example, if you know I’m a fairly well-traveled Southerner who grew up believing in God’s love for all people, in Jesus as the full embodiment of God’s Word, and in Christian fellowship as vital for up-building the church, you’ll have a better idea of where I’m coming from and, therefore, more likely to connect. Similarly, the literary forms in the Bible help us to know where the writers were coming from and what they hoped we, the readers, would relate to, hear, and heed as they bring us God’s message in a particular way. Or, as the Introduction puts it:
“Whereas history and the daily news tell us what happened, literature tells us what happens – what is true for all people in all places and times…. The goal of literature is to prompt a reader to share or relive an experience. The truth that literature imparts is not simply ideas that are true but truthfulness to human experience.”
To give you a better idea of the features in this edition, let’s begin in the beginning with Genesis, “The Book at a Glance.”
“As its title signals, the book of Genesis is the Bible’s book of beginnings. It is a foundational book that informs us about the first principles of the biblical faith – such first principles as how the world came into being, how sin entered the world, how God began to unfold his plan of salvation, and what people and human institutions (especially the family) are like. Although Genesis is a history book, its history is packed in highly literary forms, the most dominant of which is hero story. Because the history that is recounted in the book of Genesis reaches back to the primitive origins of the human race, it is particularly rich in universal, elemental human experience. Despite the seeming remoteness of the world of Genesis, the experiences are actually very close to our everyday lives.”
In one example of the timelessness of these experiences, we read how the serpent in the Garden of Eden cast doubt on whether God meant what He said – a question that troubles many people today. (Unnecessarily, I must add! If God said it, God means it!) Another example of a common experience is the sibling rivalry Cain felt for Able (though we pray it doesn’t have the same tragic ending in our families!) Or what about Abraham’s lying to protect himself or Jacob’s learning the hard way that deceitfulness is apt to boomerang?
“The Book at a Glance” for Job has its own theme and purpose as “It raises the question not simply of why people in general suffer but specifically of why the righteous suffer. Philosophers and theologians call this ‘the problem of evil’ and the attempt to offer a satisfactory solution to the problem is called theodicy.”
Regarding the genres used in Job, “The story begins and ends with a narrative frame in which the author tells the story of the fall and restoration of the protagonist Job. Within these bookends, though, the primary form is drama, as we are presented with the speeches and dialogues of the actors in the story. The form in which these speeches are cast is poetry.”
Before reading The Psalms, its “Theological Themes” introduce us to “(1) The nature of God: no book of the Bible offers a more comprehensive survey of the acts and attributes of God. (2) The nature of people: because every psalm is at some level a personal statement by a poet. Psalms is also an index to what people are like, both good and bad. (3) Nature and the physical creation: the psalms say and imply many things about the external world that God made and sustains. (4) Worship: the psalms are used in worship, and many of them talk about worship. (5) Suffering: the many lament psalms yield a theology of suffering.”
Skipping ahead to the New Testament, a footnote on Matthew 5 points out that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount “has the nature of an inauguration speech.”
The footnote goes on to say, “The beatitudes are one of the most patterned passages in the entire New Testament. They follow the Hebrew verse form of parallelism: In each beatitude, Jesus (a) pronounces a blessing on a group of people, (b) names the group according to their essential trait, and (c) offers a reason (which is at the same time a promise) for their condition of blessedness.”
A distinctive feature in the Gospel of John “is the linking of a sign or other great symbol with a corresponding statement made by Jesus in the form of either a conversation or a full-fledged discourse. For example, Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink from the well (4:7-8) and then pursues a conversation with the woman about water that climaxes in Jesus’ claim to be the source of living water that wells up to eternal life (4:9-15). To cite another example, Jesus feeds five thousand (6:1-14), and a few verses later we read his discourse on Jesus’ being the bread of life (6:25-40).”
Symbolism reaches great height in the book of Revelation as the author uses narrative story and poetic imagery, metaphor, and simile in presenting its “pageant of visions.”
With these unique aids and insights into studying the highly acclaimed English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible,I look forward to sharing this excellent resource in my Sunday School and mid-week Bible discussion groups, which, Lord willing, will begin again soon, even if we need masks to accompany our prayers.