Last week, I wrote about the importance that the Bible is a book, specifically that it is a divinely authored and humanly authored book, and that our purpose is to discover what those authors, under inspiration, intended at the time of writing. Today, I want to discuss another crucial aspect of the Bible and that it is a literary work.
The Bible is a unified whole. It is not a collection of articles like a Newsweek magazine. The Bible has 66 different books with 66 different purposes, but they all come together to present one, unified truth. From the excellent book 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, Robert L. Plummer says this:
From the outset, the Bible establishes that though God created a perfect world, humans destroyed that perfection through their rebellion (Gen. 1-3). Only through the promised Messiah (Christ) would the creation be restored to perfect communion with its Creator (Gen. 3:15). The story line of the Bible reveals the need for Jesus, the promise of Jesus, the anticipation of Jesus, the incarnation/arrival of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, the crucifixion of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the ascension of Jesus, and the promised return of Jesus. the Bible is a book about Jesus.
The Bible has a plot. It has characters. It has a protagonist and antagonist. It has a theme, conflict, climax, resolution. It begins with the creation of this world and end with the creation of new earth. There are subplots throughout the Bible, but they all lead in the same direction. It is important that we understand this because it contributes to how we interpret the Scripture. I am going to give you a real example.
I sat under some teaching about Genesis. We came to the story of Joseph, and at one point, it was highlighted that Joseph was a good-looking man. Now, that is a detail, and not all details need to be spiritualized or even given much attention. The ability to figure out the important details of the account is the first step in discerning the importance of a passage. One application which was brought out of this account was that if we are good-looking (like Joseph) we need to practice good stewardship of those things. I am not kidding; that is a true story. The speaker did not share with the congregation how that story fits in with the larger story line, that God had promised a people, a land, and blessings to Abraham, and that even though there was a famine in the land, and it looked like the nation of Israel was going to starve, God had provided, through Joseph, a way to survivie. So the moral of the story is if you're not all that great looking, feel free to let yourself go, but if you are, expend energy to keep yourself that way.
Joseph's struggles and experiences do provide us with teaching, such as the need to flee from sin but that is not all the story is about. There is so much more about going on. That's like saying Hamlet is a story about a girl who gets told to go to a nunnery. When we isolate details from Scripture from the overall story, we can easily end up with moralism. Dare to be a Daniel, be courageous like Esther, put out that fleece for guidance. This is especially problematic in the Old Testament because the narratives are so long and detailed. But keeping them in their larger context is a way to sort through those details. It's not wrong to find moral examples from characters in Scripture, but if that's all we're getting out of it, we're not getting the bigger picture and we can miss the most important lessons.
The Bible as a literary work contains numerous literary genres, and I actually would like to have individual posts about the genres, or at least a few at a time, because how we approach a text is important. Just think of it this way. If I open up a math textbook, I don't read it in the same way as a novel. There is no plot in a newspaper article. When a student interprets an essay, he looks for different things than he would if he was evaluating a poem. The same is true in Scripture.
Some of the genres in the Bible are historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, proverb, epistle, parable, and apocalyptic literature. Some books of the Bible, like the gospels and Acts contain mixtures of many genres. Why is it important to recognize which genre we are reading? Beause they present truth in different ways. The narratives are truth presented through stories. The Psalms are truth through poetry. We approach them differently. For example, apocalyptic literature relies on imagery and allegory. The truths that lie behind apocalyptic literature are hidden, and the writers wrote with that in mind. The Old Testament narratives have some of that, but the stories are generally presented as something that happened. If we start to think of everything in a narrative as an allegory, we're going to have problems. The Garden was an allegory? So it wasn't real? What happened to Daniel and his friends was an allegory? So there was no real power of God in that situation? Jesus was an allegory to represent forgiveness? So, there was no substitutionary atonement? You see what I am getting at. Similarly, the book of Proverbs are proverbs; they are not promises. When we start assuming that they are like covenants, we run into trouble. Knowing exactly what we're reading means we know how to better interpret. Just imagine assuming that all literature needs to rhyme like some poetry does. Imagine trying to find the meter of a newspaper article; that is, after you've waded through the atrocious grammar some journalists use.
I recommend two very good books that can help us wade through these literary issues:
Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1984)
Next week, I think I will begin to post about some of the tools that will help us with Bible study, beginning with the very first tool in our arsenal: a good translation.