The Bible contains a collection of works of literature usually called “books.” But this label is a little misleading because some of the “books” are in fact letters, collections of poems and songs, or collections of spoken material. It is not always easy to navigate the Bible. Not every type of writing in it can be treated in the same way. For example, poems can be read individually – they can stand alone – whereas one section of a story doesn’t really make sense without the other sections.
The stories of the Bible are among the most well-known pieces of biblical literature, with fascinating twists and turns and engaging characters.
Most people love a good story that captures the imagination, draws readers into the fine details and compels them to find out what happens at the end. Most importantly, individual Bible stories are part of a bigger story: the story of God relating to and revealing himself to the created world. This overriding story, and the smaller stories it contains, is engaging because it evokes many different emotions, often stimulating empathy for characters whose life experiences are comparable to our own. Bible stories can be used pedagogically because they are engaging – this perhaps explains why they make up nearly 60 percent of the Bible and are generally speaking its most well-known parts. After all, stories are easy to pass on. They are a universal medium and appeal to young and old, male and female, rich and poor, across a diversity of cultures. Every culture has its own favorite stories and its own preferred styles of story writing.
“Story” Does Not Imply Fiction
The label “story” does not imply fiction. In fact, most of the stories in the Bible read like true accounts of events in history. In the light of this, these parts of the Bible are sometimes referred to as “histories” or “narratives.” But “story” seems an appropriate term because it serves as a reminder that the writers intend to draw in their readers. Their purpose is to involve the reader and provoke a response, not simply to give historical information. The authors of the Bible stories present their material in their own preferred style and from their own point of view. They add statements that evaluate what is going on, just as any good storyteller does. It is important to bear this in mind where one biblical account of an event differs from another. Rather than raising questions about the text’s veracity, it may be better to try to understand the reasons why one author’s writing differs from another’s.
Understanding a Bible Story
To understand a Bible story, it is useful to think particularly about four features:
- Its setting and background;
- Its shape (for example, it’s beginning, middle, and end;
- Its special features (how are characters presented? How is tension introduced?);
- Its author’s point of view.
Characters in Bible Stories
Because characters are so important in stories, it is worth giving them careful attention. Sometimes characters reveal where the author’s sympathies lie. This is often achieved by setting up contrasts between characters. The best biblical example of this is perhaps the contrast between Mordecai (the righteous Jew) and Haman (the evil villain) in the story of Esther; but we also have Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, David and Saul, to name only a few others. Some characters develop as the story unfolds and readers become interested in them, whereas others are not very intriguing because we are only told one thing about them. All these aspects of character presentation indicate the author’s concerns. It is often those stories whose main character has both weaknesses and strengths (King David, for example) that are best remembered. They are more realistic and true to human experience.
It is always better to read Bible stories in their entirety rather than break them down into smaller units. For example, it is preferable to read the stories of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), Ruth (chapters 1-4), Jesus (any one of the four Gospels) or the early church (the book of Acts) in one sitting. Stories are meant to be enjoyed – so relax and enjoy them.
Celebrations of Faith
In the end, Bible stories are celebrations of faith. They announce, loudly and clearly, that in the authors’ opinion God is active in the lives of individual people and in the world as a whole. The Gospel stories about Jesus seem to show this most clearly. They are not simply biographies of Jesus but are written to persuade, and to announce to their readers that Jesus is someone worth believing in (John 20:31).
Bible stories, then, are more testimonies than biographies or straight historical records. They are included in the Bible as evidence in favor of accepting the faith to which their authors adhere.
Some people wish that the entire Bible was made up of stories. Certainly the legal portions of the Old Testament have received a bad pre is connected with ideas of punishment, restriction and imposed authority. Sometimes the Jewish and Christian faiths are condemned as legalistic. They have been caricatured as faiths of obedience defined only by a list of “dos and don’ts.” Closer examination of biblical religion will reveal the nature of the authors’ passion for the Law and help to reassess this caricature.
It is true that many laws are listed in the Old Testament (613 in fact) but it is worth noting that these laws occur in the storybooks. In other words, laws find their place within an account of the people’s journey and discovery of God. This is emphasized in Jewish Bibles, where the first five books together (the Pentateuch) are called “The Law,” or the Torah, to use the Hebrew word. Part of the difficulty is that there is no easy translation of this Hebrew word. “Law” fails to convey all of its meaning. Torah means “teaching” and “guidance,” and that is what the law sections of the bible provide. They offer guidance to a people who want to ensure that the God they trust in will bless them and be with them. So, rather than being life-restricting, the law of the Torah gives people security and identity. That is why the psalmist says, “How I love your law” (Psalm 119:97).
There are four main collections of law in the Old Testament:
- The Book of the Covenant, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20-23);
- Tabernacle laws (Exodus 25-40);
- Laws of Leviticus (Leviticus 1-27, containing the Holiness code in chapters 17-26);
- Laws of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12-26).
These law collections display parallels with other law codes from the Old Testament era, but also have distinctive aspects.
Within these four collections there are two types of law:
- Laws that are timeless standards of behavior, often beginning “You shall” or “You shall not.” The most famous example of this kind of law is the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. It is all too easy to overlook the introduction to these commands, which it very clear that God gives them not in order to outline how people can earn favor, but because God has already called the people out of slavery and into freedom. A loving God offers people the way to enjoy life to the full by following guidance. This fact has been realized over the centuries by those countries that have based their own law codes and ethical standards on the laws of Exodus 20.
- Laws which give instruction for various situations, often with the structure “If this happens, then do this.” This second group of laws is firmly rooted in the context of ancient Israel’s religious and civil life. Such laws therefore sometimes seem quite irrelevant to today’s world. There are many examples of this type of law in the regulations about purity in Leviticus and Numbers 5:1-10:10.
So it is best to understand the law passages in the Bible not as restrictive rules but as a way of protecting the relationship between God and God’s people. It is this idea which best makes sense of the apparent criticisms of reliance on “the law and the prophets” by Jesus himself and in Paul’s writings. The law was never meant to be an end in itself. Instead it is a vehicle for God’s presence, purpose and power in the world. It is in this way that Christians believe Jesus becomes the fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17).
Over the centuries there have been many famous orators, politicians, human-right campaigners and religious leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, C.H. Spurgeon and Billy Graham come to mind. If Jews in Jesus’ time were asked to name a great orator, they would undoubtedly have suggested one of the Old Testament prophets. But what makes a great orator? Certainly having a powerful message and a powerful way of delivering that message are key qualities. The power of the prophets’ message comes from its origin: the prophets believed that their role was to bring a message given to them by God, not one they had devised for themselves. They were God’s messengers, and they employed poetry, rhetorical skill, passion and drama to get their message across.
Old Testament Prophets
The Old Testament prophets were a diverse group of people whose main job was to speak God’s word. They primarily addressed God’s own people, to warn them or to encourage them, but they also spoke to the nations that surrounded Israel. In total, their words make up nearly one third of the Old Testament, and one fifth of the whole Bible, so their importance should not be underestimated. They were responsible for keeping people’s attention focused on issues of faith, religious practice and social injustice. Although there were earlier prophetic ministries, prophets were most active during a 300-year period (760-460 BC) when Israel experienced political instability and change.
There are two words used for “prophet” in the Old Testament. The first means “called one,” indicating that the role of the prophets was really a vocation; in other words that their ministry found its origins in God’s call to them. We sometimes read very specifically about this call, for example in Isaiah 6, where God’s call comes to Isaiah himself. The second word means “seer,” suggesting that prophets had particular insight and could see into the future. It is only in this sense that the prophets are predictors of the future. They certainly reflected on how people’s present behavior and way of life might have future consequences, but they primarily addressed their contemporaries rather than future generations.
Over and over again, the prophets’ great oracles are introduced by the phrase “the word of the Lord came,” and this is distinguishing mark of true prophecy in the Bible. Prophets do not speak their own words, but the words of god. For this reason the prophets are to be considered as servants of God, presenting God’s words and so making god and God’s purposes known. Although their message was sometimes one of judgment, their purpose was always to point to the hope of restoration.
Christian people believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic hope, but also the Word of god himself (John 1). For them Jesus is the messenger of God, and the prophets were, but he is also the message himself: this is how he fulfills the prophetic hope. His life and ministry summed up all that the prophets talked about and everything for which they longed. Jesus, like the prophets before him, made God known but, much more, he made hope and salvation attainable.
“A prophet does not speak his own words but the words of God himself.”
Poetry and Song
In most English versions of the Bible it is quite straightforward to identify poetry because it is helpfully set out in lines of verse. In fact, nearly 30 percent of the Bible is written in poetic form, and this form has many different uses, including prayers, blessings and songs of victory or praise. It is also the main form for prophetic and wisdom texts.
The Purpose of Poetry
But why does the bible use poetry? Most people agree that poetry achieves different ends from narrative prose. Poetry can create humor and intensity. It can appeal to the senses and engage the imagination and the emotions. It conveys what writers felt as much as what happened to them. (The sorrow in the book of Lamentations and the joy in the Song of Songs are examples of this.) Poetry also stirs up vivid associations and is memorable. It can convey meaning that literal words might not be able to express, and in so doing it provokes a response from us. Like a musical chord, poetry can play many notes all at once and thus present the reader with challenges at more than one level. Poetry is especially apt, therefore, for describing God and God’s work. God demands a response, but human language can never fully describe someone whose divine nature and being is beyond human comprehension.
Take, for example, probably the most famous piece of biblical poetry, Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want,
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me besides quiet waters,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Try putting this poem into literal language, removing all the poetic features and figurative language. What is the result? At best it would be a rather flat piece of writing, twice as long, not easily memorable and conveying a mere fraction of the intent of the original poem.
So poetry has a lot of advantages over literal language, but it also has its challenges. Poetic language is less precise, and good interpretation skills are needed to unpack its meaning. In Hebrew poetry, words can be placed in an odd order or missed out entirely. This is particularly common in poems that are carefully structured (for example, Psalm 119, in which each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Another unusual feature of Hebrew poetry is the rhyme is not as important as parallels between lines. (Perhaps this is just as well since most of us have access to Old Testament poetry through a language other than Hebrew!) But it is worth remembering that parallelisms can serve different purposes:
- Sometimes the second line brings out a contrast.
- Sometimes the second line completes or explains an idea.
- Sometimes the second line repeats the same idea.
These features must be recognized if biblical poetry is to be understood correctly and if its main ideas are to be identified. It has been suggested that understanding the poetic features of the bible is like watching television in color rather than black and white. St Augustine, who lived in the fifth century AD, said that the psalms helped to nurture his love for God and breathed new life into his spiritual pilgrimage. It is no wonder, then, that the psalms and other poetry in the bible have become so well known to Christians throughout the centuries and have played an important part of their worship of God. The hymns in the New Testament are evidence of this too (Philippians 2:6-11; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).
The wisdom texts in the bible find their origin in the belief that principles of wisdom that bring about harmony in the created order are inherent in the universe. This basic idea was widespread in the Ancient Near East, deriving from Egyptian and Mesopotamian writings that praised learning and science. The biblical wisdom texts discuss learning, lifestyle and worship, and commend an approach to life centered on understanding the principles of wisdom. Some of the biblical texts criticize this approach to human existence (for example, Ecclesiastes and, to some extent, Job), but in so doing they adopt the themes of the literary genre.
The wisdom texts in the Bible are grouped together because of their subject matter rather than their form. So we have a story book (Job), poetry collections (Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the wisdom of Psalms) and even a New Testament letter (James), all of which could be classified as focusing on the theme of “How to be successful in life.” These texts have different approaches and moods. Proverbs contains some light-hearted advice; Ecclesiastes is much more speculative or even cynical; James is sermon-like; and the tone of the Psalms is lyrical. But all these texts have some themes in common.
Wisdom in Proverbs
Proverbs provides a clear definition of what wisdom texts are all about in chapter 1 verses 1-7:
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge an discretion to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the discerning get guidance – for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
These verses suggest that wisdom texts have a specific purpose: they increase our insight and understanding and change the way we live. They are universally applicable – to young and inexperienced people, equally to wise and discerning people. But verse 7 highlights the basic principle of all biblical wisdom texts: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” It is by fearing the Lord that success in life is secured as far as the wisdom writers are concerned. People need to chose whether to put the Lord at the center of their lives or to follow a foolish and unsuccessful path. This idea of “fearing the Lord” is an all-encompassing one. It includes experience and knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:5), action (doing what is right, Proverbs 8:13) and appropriate attitude (including humility and reverence, Proverbs 22:4). It also brings its own reward, as the poem about the successful wife at the end of Proverbs illustrates. She fears the Lord and is to be praised because her life’s work (within the home and outside it), her speech and her reputation bring her the reward that “she has earned” (Proverbs 31:31).
Wisdom and God
Although the wisdom texts are more about human life than they are about God, they do rely on the main ideas about God represented in the Bible as a whole. They speak about god as the creator who has revealed God’s wisdom in God’s creation. As a consequence, human life should be directed towards god, respecting the needs of other people while aiming at self-improvement. So godliness, willingness to learn, selflessness, careful speech and hard work are commended in the wisdom writings. As James writes, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peach-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). The wisdom writers urge you to live a life that recognizes God as the center of the universe, if you want to be successful.
Twenty-one of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament are letters. Paul, the founder of many New Testament churches, perhaps wrote as many as thirteen of these, while others were composed by Peter and John. As you might expect, these pieces of correspondence served very particular practical purposes. They were written in the years that followed the extraordinary events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They were sent to Christian groups and individuals who faced concerns, joys and pressures as the first believers in Jesus began to meet together. The individual recipients had their own relationships to the writers as well as their unique personalities and gifts. Likewise, the early Christian groups who received these letters differed in size and character, each having their own emphases, experiences and contexts. Some letters were circulars, intended for a variety of recipients. It is not surprising, therefore, that the letters in the New Testament are varied in content, length and style. Most people vary what they write and how they write it, depending on the recipient and the subject matter. Even a writer’s mood, personal circumstances or available time can affect how letters are written. The New Testament letter writers were no different.
A General Style of Letter
There was an accepted letter-writing style in New Testament times, and most of the biblical letters follow this pattern:
- Greetings (usually formal, identifying the writer first and then the intended readership);
- Indication of purpose;
- Main content;
- Words of farewell (usually informal with personal touches).
This pattern is fairly consistent in the New Testament, although the letter to the Hebrews doesn’t really have a greeting and James’s letter finishes without the normal words of farewell.
The content of the letters can largely be divided into four subjects:
- Christian worship and church organization;
- Christian belief;
- Christian living;
- Personal messages (encouragement and testimony).
Paul tends to make his sections about Christian living follow on from his sections about Christian belief. In other words he writes in a sequence that itself points out how Christian belief will always have practical implications to be worked out in life.
The Occasion of Letter Writing
Despite similarities in form and subject matter, each letter has its own occasion. For this reason it may be unwise to come to conclusions about church practice purely on the basis of a single section in one New Testament letter. It should be remembered, too, that reading the letters in the New Testament is sometimes like hearing one end of a telephone call: you don’t always get a true impression of the whole conversation.
It is always sensible to ask why the writer wrote what he did before trying to assess what words written in one first-century letter might mean for the Christians church today. This is not to undervalue the New Testament letters, but to recognize them for what they are. They are a valuable historical witness to developing church practice and doctrine in their own times. They show Christians today that issues relating to church life and organizations are not new. Although the church in its early days was not perfect, it grew and developed under the guidance of apostles who cared for it. Clearly, early on in the history of the church the central core of its message was focused on the unique life and work of Jesus and his claim on his followers’ lives as they lived for him together as God’s people. These New Testament letters may not give guidance to the church on every issue it faces today, but they do suggest that the presence of god will be found in the church’s corporate life.
How they respond to political cartoons tends to divide people into two groups. Some people love them and find them easy to understand, whereas others struggle to make sense of them at all. Usually cartoons require a certain amount of knowledge about the culture in which they are set and the people they feature. Some readers immediately pick up on the sarcasm implicit in the details of the illustration, whereas others cannot see what is quite so funny or poignant.
The medium of the political cartoon is similar to the medium of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. In both there is a strong element of symbolism, and both require familiarity with their context to be properly understood.
The Meaning of “Apocalyptic”
The term apocalyptic comes from a Greek word meaning “to uncover” or “to reveal,” so it is clear that this form of writing, which often focuses on describing visions, is meant to clarify things for us rather than confuse us. In content, the apocalyptic writings develop the ideas of the prophets (although there are different emphases), which explains why apocalyptic visions are found in prophetic books; both Daniel and Revelation are called prophecy an apocalypse.
This visionary literature is strongly connected to the political crises that the Jewish people and the early Christians faced when they experienced persecution. They found themselves pawns in a political game, without the power to intervene, as the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans controlled world events. It is not surprising, then, that many symbols (especially significant colors and numbers) and cryptic expressions are used as people are encouraged to persevere, whatever the political circumstances, in the safe knowledge that God controls history from its beginning to its ultimate end.
The result of these circumstances is a type of literature that combines pessimism about the present with optimism about the long-term future. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the way that visions in Revelation are punctuated by words of blessing and hope. The literary qualities of apocalyptic texts are certainly intriguing to us today, even if, because of changing times and cultures, every detail is not fully appreciated. It is worth remembering that these visions were not meant to be analyzed word for word but to paint a picture. It is certainly important to recognize that, as with political cartoons, some of the imagery is effective because it is exaggerated.
Most importantly, when we read the apocalyptic visions we should not use them as guide to history. In fact, one of the main difficulties with apocalyptic literature is trying to work out how far in the future its point of reference is. Its purpose is clearly not to provide a historical chart about future events but to offer hope within history, on the basis of the divine control that lies outside it. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Daniel an Revelation provide us with portraits of God (Daniel 7) as well as many titles for Jesus. Apocalyptic literature provides us with a theological mindset for surviving life, whatever it may throw at us.