How Do We Study The Bible? – Genre

When we are reading the Bible, the meaning of it also depends on which genre we are dealing with. We would obviously read and study an encyclopedia differently to The Complete Works of Shakespeare and yet we sometimes forget to distinguish between genres in Scripture.

The Bible is rich with historical narrative, prophetic literature, poetry, wisdom literature, epistles or letters and apocalyptic literature, just to name a few. Let’s use this example from the book of Revelation:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.
Revelation 12:1-3 ESV

How would we read this text if it was Historical Narrative? How would its meaning be different if it was poetry or apocalyptic literature? One of the big reasons why we don’t understand the book of Revelation or fail to read it, is because we don’t know what apocalyptic literature is. A lot of people assume that it means the ending of the world, but that is not its primary meaning.

The Greek word apocalypses literally translates to “revelation” – to reveal that which is hidden. According to Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary “apocalyptic literature is characterized by the following: Visions, ethics, powerful symbolism, warning messages…the kingdom of God…the passing away of the present order, and the coming of a new order when the promises will be fulfilled to God’s people.” What an apt title for the last book in the Bible. “And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new”
(Revelation 21:5).

This meaning of apocalyptic might be news to us, but the first readers of this book would have been very familiar with apocalyptic literature. There are even some Old Testament books that also fit into this genre, such as Ezekiel, Zechariah and the second half of the book of Daniel, and the reading of these books will help us to understand the book of Revelation much better.

Try this exercise:

*Please note that it is possible for a book in the Bible to contain more than one genre!*

What are the genres of the following passages in Scripture:

  • Exodus 15:11-13
  • Ruth 1:1-5
  • Isaiah 9:6-7
  • Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
  • Zechariah 4:1-5
  • Colossians 1:1-2
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