Last night we were ordering Chinese food for dinner. I had the menu pulled out and I was studying it carefully. We have recently found a Chinese restaurant that has become our go-to place the order from on Saturday night, and I was trying to remember all of our favorite items from the menu.
Emerson was eating her snack at the table, next to her sister Elliott. I asked her, “Emerson, what would you like to order from the Chinese restaurant?” She noticed what I was reading, and, pointing to it, she asked what I was holding. I told her I was reading the Chinese menu, and I asked her again what she would like to order for dinner.
“Ballet shoes,” she responded.
I could’ve died with laughter! Such an innocent request, and something regularly on her wish list these days. She noticed that I was studying some kind of document, and she knew it was some kind of thing we would order from. She also knows that we order things online, things like ballet shoes. So naturally, she wanted to order ballet shoes from the Chinese restaurant for dinner!
Her statement was entirely innocent, but it did get me thinking. How many times do we approach a book of the Bible this way? How many times do we look at a book in scripture that is written in one biblical genre, and misunderstand how we are to apply it to our lives, because we have misunderstood what we are reading! Did you know that the Bible is written in many different genres? The Bible is full of poetry and wisdom, literature, historical narrative, and covenant literature. The Bible contains both prophecy and apocalyptic literature. And while they are all the inspired Words of God, no two of these should be confused for the other.
The risk we run when we confused one genre for another is that we are bound to make a similar mistake to Emerson‘s! We might look at a Chinese menu and ask if we can order ballet shoes. We might look at apocalyptic literature, and read it as if it was historical narrative. We might look at prophecy and read it as it is wisdom literature. Each of the genres are meant to be interpreted according to the kind of writing that they are, and we will only get proper application when we first properly understand what we are reading.
Here are a few tips as you start understanding biblical genres!
Step one: Understand that there are different biblical genres
This might seem too obvious, but it really is the first step! If you want to grow in reading your Bible more aptly, you first simply need to understand that there are different genres, and that they should be read differently. Without this key step you will end up with a flat reading of scripture, trying to interpret every single book exactly the same. But even if you’re unfamiliar with a different biblical genres, you probably already have some gut-level impulse that they should be read differently. Do we understand the complaints of Job against God in the book of Job in the same way that we understand Jesus‘s words in the New Testament? No! We understand that Job is telling us a true historical story, and that it is serving to teach us a bigger purpose, illustrating eternal truths. We understand that Job is wisdom literature. We also understand that Jesus’s words in the New Testament are part of historical narrative! They are telling us true things that really happened while Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God.
See? You already have a gut instinct regarding reading the different books of the Bible, according to their different genres!
Step two: Know the different genre categories.
This is an important step because it will give you an idea of all the different interpretive options as you’re reading your Bible! Even if you don’t know how to interpret or understand each individual genre, knowing the different options will help you sort each book of the Bible that you read into the appropriate category. Here’s a list!
Law and Covenant
Step three: Pick up a typical genre resource and keep it inside your Bible!
While you can absolutely understand each biblical genre and interpret it properly without going to seminary, something that might serve you really well is to pick up a Bible study tool that will explain each genre to you in a simple and concise way. On September first I am launching a set of cards that you can keep within the pages of your Bible that will tell you each genre included in the Old Testament and each genre include the New Testament! Each card will tell you the books of the Bible included in that genre, and also give you points for identifying the genre and proper interpretation. These are seminary-level skills that I learned during my days studying for my Masters of Divinity (GCTS), and they have served me so well since! Be on the lookout for Old Testament Sturdy Notes and New Testament Study Notes if you’re interested in these cards from the Bible Study Schoolhouse! Each card set has so much more helpful information included as you’re sitting your Old and New Testament!