In our local university, there is a course called “The Bible as Literature”. I’ve always been told the very idea was the height of sacrilege. Of course, this particular course is taught from an atheistic point of view where it’s not even an option for anything (other than some of the historical references) to actually be true. I’ve always viewed the Bible as a special book that is so different from any kind of other literature as to be off in a special category all by itself. Lately though, I am beginning to realize that this can give us an incomplete understanding of the passage. The holy spirit gives us understanding regardless of how much we understand, but let us strive to understand more.
The Bible is true and divine, but it also IS literature. Each book was written down by a human being and directed, not to just generic Jews or Christians, but intended for a specific audience. It has clear genres. Some of it is straight up history, as reported by a royal chronicler. Job is NOT history literature (regardless of whether or not it describes actual events). Psalms and Song of Songs are poetry. Philemon was a letter written to one recipient. Corinthians was written to a whole group of Greek people, not Jews. Now, all of this seems pretty obvious, so why mention it?
It’s because if you throw these things out (which happens more often than I ever realized), then you can come up with all kinds of goofy ideas. Grabbing a verse from Song of Songs to back up a particular point of doctrine from Romans might not actually work. Really! Revelations is full of metaphors and imagery. When you take something from it and stick it next to some verses from Mark, it may sound more “literal”, but that is only confusion. This is beyond just the idea of context, but stretches to the authors original intention for each particular section of the Bible.
A recent commenter at the Boar’s Head Tavern pointed out an excellent example of this:
Let’s say you are studying Deuteronomy, and right at the beginning of the study, one of your students says the following:
“I’ve been reading this book for years and it clearly teaches that, if you obey and worship God, he will financially and materially bless you. It’s plain and clear. Anyone can read it in chapter after chapter. Obey, worship and God will bring you prosperity and wealth.”
What would be your response? (No seminary level answers allowed. These are regular laypersons.)
I would tell him to be aware of who God’s talking to. The Bible is not God’s personal letter to you, and in this case, he really DID promise Israel prosperity if they as a nation continued in his commandments and his worship. He made no similar promise to any other nation.
Posted by: Josh S
The Bible is not God’s personal letter to me? I’ve been told so many times that it’s his personal LOVE letter to me. Actually, I still think this is true (in some sense), but if you just stop to think, you’ll realize that in many other ways, it never has been. Above is a great example. Can you find an image of God’s love for you in the types and liturgical instruction in Deuteronomy? Yes, I believe you can. But it actually was written for some old guys with beards living in tents in the desert 3500 years ago. The author (God, through a human writer) wasn’t EXACTLY writing it for you sitting on your couch listening to your iPod. That’s fine, but that must be taken in to account!
I hope to explore the different genres of the Bible in the next while and maybe blog some about how that has helped me to understand (and appreciate) it better.