I don’t usually watch the local news or any of the twenty-four hour cable news channels (unless there’s a major event under way). I prefer to read the news rather than watch it. Of course, I do live in the twenty-first century so most of my news reading comes from the internet. I’d rather browse new sites than watch news shows. Even as I’m browsing, I have an aversion to videos.
In this age of online news reading, though, I’ve had to learn a valuable lesson. More than once, I’ve clicked on an article without noticing that it was labeled “advertisement.” Seeing that word changes everything. An advertisement, even if it looks and sounds like a news story, is a different kind of writing all together. It belongs to a different category of literature (if you can call an internet advertisement “literature”). Even without the label, you’d eventually figure out that you weren’t reading a news story after a bit. You may not be able to list all of the reasons for knowing, but you’d know. We recognize different kinds of writing, or literary genres, and adjust our expectations accordingly every time we read.
This business of recognizing different genres is really important in our everyday reading, but it’s also important when we read the Bible. The Bible is a collection of many different writings, by many different authors, covering a variety of literary genres. There are historical narratives, letters, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.
Some of these genres are more familiar to us than others, but even that familiarity can be misleading. For instance, the Bible is full of historical narrative, but if we read it like a history textbook, we are sure to take a wrong turn eventually. The Bible’s historical narratives do not pretend to be “neutral” in any sense. They record real people and real events like any historical document, but they don’t do so with the same goals as a textbook. The biblical narratives aim to show us who God is and what he has done throughout history.
Ancient letters of the kind Paul wrote also show themselves to be different from our modern letters (or email). For instance, Greco-Roman letters tended to name both their authors and recipients at the beginning. Then comes a typical greeting, followed by the main content of the letter, and finally closing remarks and personal greetings. The New Testament letters follow this pattern. Paul wasn’t inventing a new form of writing or trying to emphasize anything by, for instance, placing his name first. That was standard Greco-Roman letter writing. Most of us are familiar, to one degree or another, with poetic literature. Those more familiar will know that poetry takes on many forms and doesn’t always show itself in simple rhyming patterns. Hebrew poetry (as seen in the Psalms) prefers something called parallelism. The same statement or point is often made with different language in successive lines. For instance, the opening verse of Psalm 34 reads:
I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
Two lines of this verse express the same truth using different language. "Bless" and "praise" are parallel, as are "at all times" and "continually be in my mouth." The Psalmist is not distinguishing two types of worship. He is expressing the same thought in two parallel lines. Other features of Hebrew poetry abound, but without noticing them we may read too much into the details of particular Psalm without realizing that the writer is simply using standard poetic devices.
Consider the book of Revelation. More than any other book, Revelation has confounded modern day readers while at the same time captivating many end times enthusiasts. Much of the difficulty of the book is found in the fact that it falls into a category of literature that we do not have today: apocalyptic. We see this same writing style used in portions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. A number of non-biblical books from the ancient world also fall into this category. Apocalyptic literature tends to use figurative imagery and symbolic numbers to describe prophetic visions and dreams. If we read Revelation as a kind of straight-forward “history-before-the-fact” then we will miss the point of the book entirely. The future is depicted in Revelation, but not in a literal fashion. There is no need, then, to try to figure out what the locusts “really are” or to identify which type of technology might be used for the “mark of the beast”. These things are symbolic. Locusts symbolize God’s judgment, and the mark symbolizes one’s ultimate allegiance. Understanding the genre of Revelation can help us to avoid many of the errors made by end times enthusiasts and others.
None of us would read a story that begins “Once upon a time” as a historical narrative. We wouldn’t assume that a newspaper article should be read in the same way as a novel. We need to extend that same kind of common sense reading to our reading of the Bible. If we don’t then we run the risk of handling the Word of God in an irresponsible manner and we won’t see the beauty of Christ in it as clearly as God intends.