In the last post, we looked at the biblical genre of law. In this one, we’re going to look at history, poetry and wisdom, and prophecy and apocalypse. If that sounds like a lot to get through, don’t worry. These genres are no less significant or demanding, but we’ll be addressing them in smaller bursts.
By word count alone, narrative easily makes up the most significant chunk of the Bible, and the historical writings account for the largest part of that, with most of the rest being filled out by the gospels. This reminds us that scripture is primarily a lived language, a dialogue between God and creation, rooted in intimacy and experience, and the stories are trying to capture that.
We expect history to be objective and factual, yet when we say that it is written by the victors, we acknowledge that it is subject to bias and interpretation. Sometimes this might be due to wilful manipulation (or even creation) of the facts, and sometimes it might be due to a limited perspective, but either way it is rooted in a natural inclination to tell stories of the past in such a way that they have meaning in the present. Ancient Near Eastern history was less concerned with fact and objectivity, and more interested with creating narratives that shaped societies and legacies that defined kingdoms, so we should not be surprised if bias and interpretation are even more pronounced than modern history.
This means that when we are dealing with biblical narratives, we will be confronted with issues regarding historical inaccuracy, but that doesn’t meant that we must reject them. When I studied history at school, we learned about the difference between reliability and usefulness, and that’s an important lesson here. A text may not be entirely accurate, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tell us anything. For example, archaeologists have found evidence of a great fire at some point in Jericho’s history, but no indication that it ever had a great wall that was brought down, with or without trumpets. That doesn’t mean that the Israelites never won a victory there, but it does suggest that they added a few details for dramatic effect and to emphasise what was most important about that encounter, and that in itself tells us how they understood their activity and place in the world.
The stories we have inherited may have been crafted and embellished, but it seems clear that we are meant to read them as being rooted in history, and by paying attention to the way that history is told, we can learn far more than the bare facts. That means that modern archaeology and contemporary accounts can be valuable resources rather than opponents, and it also means we can benefit from drawing on literary techniques such as plot, setting, character, dialogue and rhetorical devices.
It has been suggested that the Bible contains a hierarchy of narrative, with the grand metanarrative of God’s relationship with his creation encompassing the more particular redemptive action of salvation history and the whole thing being expressed through individual stories. It’s important to remember that these narratives are not in themselves doctrines, although they do contain both explicit and implicit teaching. So for example, not every example in the Bible is a good one, which means we can’t read every character or action as a model of godly behaviour, but must instead look for what we can learn from them.
In reading biblical history, we must avoid allegorising (assuming that every story has a hidden message), decontextualising (forgetting the social and geographical world in which a story occurred), selectivity (ignoring the stories we don’t like), moralising (turning every story into a teaching point), personalising (making stories about us), misappropriation (making stories aboput other things they were not originally about), false combination (slamming two stories together in order to make a point that was never intended), redefinition (changing the meaning of elements of a story in order to change the story). That doesn’t mean that God won’t use scripture to speak in ways the original authors never imagined, or that we won’t find aspects we can relate to, but it does mean we must avoid any tendency to force new meanings.
Acts deserves a special mention before we move on, as Christians tend to read it as a precedent or a paradigm in way they do not always read the Old Testament. Everything that has been said above still applies, but we must be especially careful to remember that not everything is normative, and to concentrate on principles and repeatable practices.
The books that come under the heading Poetry and Wisdom are difficult to lump together because they are so different to one another, which is perhaps why they are known in the Jewish tradition simply as the Writings. They can also be difficult to handle because they are so unlike anything else in the Bible, but they were considered significant enough to be included, so they are worth a shot.
The Psalms served a vital purpose within the life of Israel, as they framed and gave voice to the people’s worship, and they continue to play that role today. They include laments, thanksgivings, praise, salvation-history, celebration and wisdom, although these forms are often combined to highlight the importance of balanced prayer. It is important to recall that they are words about and to God not from God, and as musical and poetic works they are intended to evoke emotion rather than thought, so we must guard against translating them directly into doctrine. And as beautiful as they are, they frequently contain expressions anger and hatred, modelling honest discourse with God, if not healthy attitudes.
Other texts in this category are also emotive in content, and they are meant to be evocative and memorable more than theologically accurate. Many of them need to be read as whole pieces as they develop a line of thought, and the advice of Proverbs must sit alongside Job’s reminder that right actions do not always mean success. It’s also interesting to consider that this literature probably represents the collected wisdom of many generations, and is an accumulation of shared knowledge about God and society and human nature.
Perhaps the best way to approach this set of texts is to remember that the poetry is primarily a response to God, and that wisdom is about making godly choices, and allow them to prompt our own response and inform our own choices.
It is easy for us to overlook the prophets, but more individual books are designated as prophecy than as any other genre. The prophets are divided into major and minor purely on the basis of length, and other prophets are mentioned in Bible, but they were known more by their actions than their words. The prophetic books are divided into pre-exile, exile and post-exile, which immediately raises the significance of context for understanding their message.
We often associate prophecy with predicting the future, but that was only a small part of it, and often the events prophesied are in the immenent rather than distant future. The main role of the prophets was to enforce the covenant, calling the people to remember all that God had done for them and required them to do in response, and reminding them of the need to balance orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action). We live within a new covenant but we follow the same God, and so there is much that we can take from the prophets, perhaps bet summed up in the command to ‘act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).
Although the essential message of the prophets was the same, it was spoken afresh into each context, and each prophet had his own idioms, so that together they form a kaleidoscopic voice of God. Styles of prophecy include covenant lawsuit, promise, woe and enactment, and the prophesies use lots of poetic and rhetorical devices such as parallelism, where images are placed alongside one another for contrast or comparison.
It is interesting that prophecy was used creatively by both Jesus and Paul. For example, when Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4, he stops short of the line about the day of vengeance, suggesting that he had not come to fulfil that aspect of the prophecy.
Apocalypse translates as revelation, and it is a distinct form of prophecy that comes out of a time of oppression and both looks to the future saving activity of God and speaks truth about the way things are. It is based on vision rather than speech and is communicated in the form of dreams, with heavy use of symbolic numbers and fantastical language. It is important to pay attention to the background of the imagery, and it is perhaps best to read the visions like parables.
It think that is more than enough to be going on with for now. In our next post, we’ll complete our run through the standard biblical genres by looking at the gospels and the letters.