Grace Institute: Bible Study Methods: Literary Genre

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership

Literary Genre

Bible Study Methods

Winter 2009

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The Importance of Literary Genre


More than that, the entire bible really is one large historical narrative; one grand story from creation to the cross to the coming kingdom. Therefore it should not surprise us that historical narrative makes up nearly half of the bible. The bible is the story of God's interaction with humanity in history.

The narratives do not directly teach doctrine. They might illustrate doctrine which is taught propositionally elsewhere, but they should not be a primary source for determining theology. Narratives are selective and incomplete, only presenting the historical facts necessary to make the point of the author.

When reading narrative, then, we begin by looking at each story and asking how this story fits within the full scope of the biblical narrative. How does each story fit within the eternal, universal plan of God and His salvation story.

After this, then we look to see how a story fits in with the story of God's people. What impact does this story have on the nation of Israel or the church? What development or foundations are being laid in the story of Israel or the church.

Finally, after looking at these broad strokes, we look at the story of each individual. What examples are being provided for us. But be careful! Sometimes the examples are negative ones. For example, in Judges 6:36-40, we see the story of Gideon laying out a fleece to determine God's will. Many have taken this passage as an positive example to follow. However, this is a story of Gideon's lack of faith, and serves as a negative example!

Finally, remember that in each narrative the real hero of the story is not the individual, but God himself! Rather than looking a the human characters as heroes to emulate, take a larger view of God as hero, and that He is the one we should emulate.

Books of the Bible

OT : Genesis, most of Exodus and Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Additionally many of the prophetic books have large sections of historic narrative as well.

NT : Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts.

Basic Unit of Study

Think big! We should be looking at the broader sweep of the narrative rather than the individual events.

Primary Contribution

Narratives provide us with an understanding about God's eternal plan and how he works in human history. With each narrative passage, we should ask, “what doest his passage tell me about God, His plan, or the role that His people should play in His plan.”

Secondary Contribution

Narratives provides us with positive and negative examples of people living life in relationship with God. With each passage, we should ask, “what is the positive or negative character quality being highlighted in the passage.”

The Law

The Old Testament law was given to the nation Israel as the foundation of their political and religious constitution. This law dealt with issues of importance to an Israelite of the 15 th century BC. In addition, the Old Testament Law was never given as a means to salvation, but are the regulations which apply to those living in the Israelite community. As such, there are many situations addressed in the Old Testament law which are completely irrelevant for a 21 st Christian.

The purpose of the Law to a Christian reader today is therefore not to provide direct commandments to be obeyed, except where is is renewed in the New Testament. The essence of the law was indeed renewed (i.e. the ten commandments, the greatest commandments- love God, love your neighbor).

Furthermore the law provides a broad understanding of who God is and, in a broad sense, the way He wants his people to live. Secondly, the law is used to illustrate our own sinfulness, and how impossible it is for us to live up to any standard.

Books of the Bible

Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Basic Unit of Study

Because most of the details of the Old Testament Law are not specifically binding on us today, rather than study each detailed element of the Law, a bigger view is better. Look at each section of the book as a whole and look at the greater principles behind the commandments.

Primary Contribution

The law explains to us the holiness of God and the standard of holiness God desires for His people. With each Law passage, we should ask ourselves, “what does this passage teach us about God and His holiness? What principle of holiness does God desire for His people?”

Secondary Contribution

The law provides an illustration of the ethical and moral guidelines for His people. With each Law passage, we should ask ourselves first, “is this commandment reaffirmed in the New Testament, and therefore relevant to me as a New Testament saint?”


Wisdom literature is are a unique form of literature within the bible. Proverbs are, well, they are proverbial. That is to say, the Proverbs are generalized statements about common-sense issues in life. The Proverbs are not promises, per se, but observations about what is true in life. For example, we have the modern English proverb, “an apple a day will keep the doctor away.” Now this is not a promise that by eating apples everyday you will never get sick, but a general observation that eating healthy foods will improve your health.

Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are books which present one single point per book. The development of the argument in Job and Ecclesiastes begins by presenting alternative viewpoints to the author's main point. Those alternate viewpoints, in both these books, take up the bulk of the book. Then finally, in the closing chapters, the author's real viewpoint is expressed. Great care must be taken in Job and Ecclesiastes to not pull things out of the context of the entire book, or the reader will be reading a false viewpoint, and not the intent of the book!!

Books of the Bible

Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon.

Basic Unit of Study

In Proverbs, the individual Proverb.

In Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, the entire book.


They directly (Proverbs) or indirectly (Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) tell us how to make wise choices for living in real life situations. Therefore, ask, what does the proverb or book tell me about general patterns of living which will be beneficial to me?


The Old Testament prophets were messengers of God, calling on the nation of Israel (and Judah) to remember and keep their covenant with God. They were the enforcers of God's covenant, serving as God's direct representative and messenger to the people. The prophets were addressing specific situation in the history of Israel as they brought forth the word of God to the people.

In conjunction with the role of “forth telling” the prophets often also were “foretelling” the future. Usually this foretelling was the simple consequence to their sinful behavior. However, foretelling in the prophets presents significant interpretative difficulties for the modern reader. To understand foretelling, we must understand the law of “double-fulfillment.” This law states that most prophecies in scripture have both a near term fulfillment and a later, greater fulfillment. For example, in Isaiah 7, he foretells that “the virgin shall be with child.” This was fulfilled first in Isaiah's lifetime when his wife gave birth, but was also fulfilled in a fuller sense when Christ was born.

Books of the Bible

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

Basic Unit of Study

The oracle.

Primary Contribution

The prophets were to encourage and admonish the nation Israel to keep the covenant God had with His chosen people. Therefore asks, how does this oracle speak of Israel's keeping of the covenant, and might we be susceptible to neglect in this area in keeping of the new covenant?

Secondary Contribution

The prophets also give us glimpses into the future of God's kingdom program. Sometimes these prophecies were immediately fulfilled, sometimes they are yet to be fulfilled, and sometimes the prophecy had both an immediate and a greater distant fulfillment. Therefore, ask, what does this oracle tell me about God's future plans for Israel and/or his future plans for His new covenant people?


The epistles are letters written to specific people in specific situations. The epistles are addressing their specific concerns and issues. The epistles are not theological textbooks expounding a systematic teaching of doctrine. Having an understanding of to whom and where each epistle was written is critical to understanding. When we come across difficult passages to understand in the epistles, it is usually because we aren't familiar with the background to the book. When reading the epistles (as with all scripture), we must remember, the basic rule: the text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his readers. However, the second rule is critical to remember as well: wherever we share common particulars with the readers, God's Word is the same to them as it is to us.

Books of the Bible

Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude.

Basic Unit of Study

The paragraph.


To teach exhort and admonish the various churches addressed to live consistent with the grace they have received, to live in unity with other believers, and to keep to the doctrinal truth they had been taught by the apostles. Therefore ask, what does this paragraph tell me about living according to grace, living with other believers, or persevering in the truth of God's Word?


Books of the Bible

Revelations, Zechariah.

Basic Unit of Study

The whole book.

Primary Contribution

Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage and exhort us to overcome persecution, knowing that God's kingdom program resulting in His victory over all evil in the end. Therefore ask, what does this passage tell me about God and his long-term plan for the world which encourages me to live faithfully for Him today?


Poetry is an expression of the author's feelings. As a result, you find some very intense and deep emotions within the Psalms; emotions and feelings that sometime may sound contradictory to other passages within the Bible. If we don't understand the nature of poetry, we could draw some very erroneous conclusions about who God is. Take Psalm 22, where it says,

“My God, my God, why have you left me alone? You are too far away to save me. You are too far away to hear my moans.”

If we read this as a doctrinal treatise or a theological lesson, we might incorrectly conclude that God sometimes is far away and unable or unwilling to intervene in our lives. But if we understand that this is a poem in which the author is honestly and truthfully describing his experience and deep feelings. As such, as you read on in this Psalm, you would see that actually, the intent of the author is actually communicating just the opposite!

So we must be careful when reading the Psalm to understand that these poems are truthful to the author's feelings, and only when read in their full argument can we draw accurate principles of who God is and how he relates to us.

Books of the Bible

Psalms, Lamentations, and portions of the Old Testament prophets.

Basic Unit of Study

The psalm.

Primary Contribution

Poetry in scripture is a model of a God-centered world view, through expressions of worship, prayer, and the way a saint is to express their deepest emotions and concerns to God. Therefore, when approaching a psalm, ask, what does this psalm tell me about God and his relationship with the author in the midst of difficult of joyous circumstances?

Secondary Contribution

The poetry in scripture gives us a model for worshipping God. Therefore, ask, what does this psalm tell me about how we are to pray, praise and express ourselves in worship to God, both individually and corporately;

Studying Hebrew Poetry

Importance of Poetry

Poetry is not very important in American culture. Outside of pop music, which has is a very unsophisticated form of poetry, we are strictly a prose culture. But in other cultures poetry is a highly esteemed and deeply ingrained form of literature. In ancient cultures the epic poems, such as the Illiad in Greece or the Aeneid in Rome, are the basis for national identity.

In the Hebrew Bible, poetry is extensively used, not only in the Psalms, but throughout the prophets. Poetry is used to impact the reader not just in the head, but the heart. Poetry is used because it is more readily memorized than prose. Poetry has a way of making profound statements in such simple and emotive language that it can penetrate through our cynical rationalism and hit us right in our soul.

The Structure of Poetry

It is the very nature of poetry that makes it memorable and penetrating. Poetry is required to follow certain ground rules. For example, in English, we expect poetry to follow a certain rhyme and meter. For example, every other line might end in a rhyme. Hebrew poetry uses rhyming and meter as well. However rhyme in Hebrew poetry tends to be not at the end of the line but in successive words. Hebrew poetry might also use alliteration in the successive words in a line. Hebrew poetry often also uses alphabetical acronyms, where each line starts with a different letter of the alphabet (e.g. Psalm 119).

However, the most distinguishing characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism . A Hebrew poem is divided into lines which repeat the point of the author in different words. This repetitive style is the most distinguishing mark of Hebrew poetry because, unlike rhyme and meter, it transcends translation.

For example, in Psalm 19:7-9, each line in these 3 verses is really saying the same thing in a repetitive fashion.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.

The psalmist is trying to penetrate our heart and get us to feel his point rather than making a rationalistic argument to make his point. Therefore, when studying Hebrew poetry, we don't dissect each line and try to determine the subtle differences in each word. Rather we let the overall sense of each parallel section give us an overall sense of what the author intends for us to feel about the passage.

When analyzing a psalm, we begin by breaking it into “stiches.” A stich is a group of related lines which have the parallel structure. In a passage, there can be a distich (two related lines) or tristiches (three related lines), as seen in Psalm 1:1-2:


How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,


Nor stand in the path of sinners,


Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!


But his delight is in the law of the LORD,


And in His law he meditates day and night.

Type of Parallelism

•  Synonymous Parallelism – Subsequent lines reinforce the first line.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.(Psalm 51:2)

•  Antithetical Parallelism – Subsequent lines contrast the first line.

The perverse in heart are an abomination to the LORD,
But the blameless in their walk are His delight. (Proverbs 11:20)

•  Synthetic Parallelism – Subsequent lines add further information to the first line.

The LORD also will be a stronghold for the oppressed,
A stronghold in times of trouble (Psalm 9:9)

Steps for Observing Hebrew Poetry

  • Break the poem into stiches.
  • Determine the type of parallelism for each
  • Look for the parallel elements in the stich.
  • Summarize the stich into a 2 to 5 word phrase.
  • Divide the stiches in to sections which are related. Summarize the sections into a 2 to 5 word phrase.
  • Look at the sections of the poem. What is the development of thought in the passage? What is the overall theme of the poem.

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