For the next couple of weeks, we’re going focus on how to read the Bible more effectively. More specifically, I want to help us read the Bible well—especially when it comes to texts that are hard to understand. My hope is to provide some practical tools that will help you approach the “Good Book” with more curiosity, interest, and passion.
To begin, an observation: The Bible is not a “book” at all! It is an inspired anthology of sacred texts written by many authors over nearly 1,000 years. Scripture contains many different types of literature (or genres). History, poetry, gospels, Wisdom literature, and prophecy, are just a handful of examples. Of course, there are sub-genres and mixed genres to complicate things further.
If we want to read the Bible well, we need to know what kind of text we are dealing with.
As we engage with Scripture, we need to ask ourselves, what am I really reading? For instance, if you find yourself in Jeremiah, you are reading prophecy. The first four books of the New Testament are gospels. Paul’s letters are epistles, and so forth. This question is vital because biblical texts function very differently.
Think about it this way…
Imagine that you are a person living 3,000 years from now on a Martian space colony. You are vaguely aware of America but, for the most part you’re largely ignorant of the nuances of the culture. Your area of interest is America’s armed conflicts—the war in Vietnam in particular. Sifting through the archeological evidence, you stumble across an ancient repository of cultural documents… it is called, “Netflix.” You find three “documents” that seem to deal with your subject matter—one is called “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns. The second is called “Apocalypse Now” by Francis Ford Coppola. Third, we find “Full Metal Jacket” by Stanley Kubrick.
…you get where this is headed.
Each movie (which is a “text” in a certain manner of speaking) deals with the Vietnam War. In their own way, they help you to understand certain events and their cultural impact. However, if you have seen these movies (which I’m not necessarily recommending) you know how radically different they treat a similar topic. One is meant to be understood as a comprehensive historical work, another is an artistic and psychological exploration of war, and Kubrick is… well… Kubrick.
I will not belabor the point more, but suffice it to say, the Psalms need to be read very differently than a Gospel. Keep this in mind when we approach a difficult text. As a case study in the importance of genre, let’s look to what is, in my view, the most challenging book of the Bible: Revelation.
To modern ears, the Book of Revelation can seem very strange: visions of creatures and angels, cataclysmic disasters from scrolls and bowls, and a fascination with the number 666. Can we just say it? Revelation is strange—especially to those of us who are not as familiar with the particularities of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (OT).
Though Revelation is strange to many of us, it would have been less strange to a 1st Century Jewish reader for at least two reasons: The first reason is because Revelation belongs to a genre known as “apocalypse” which was well known to Jews of the ancient world. There are many examples, and a quick Google search will keep you busy if you are interested! Though none of these texts are inspired or authoritative, they are indicative of the genre—they contain shocking imagery and metaphor that is designed to communicate an important message. The genre of Revelation would immediately have been recognized and therefore approached in a particular way by an ancient reader or an astute modern one. [By the way, we’ll look at the second reason next week.]
Genre shapes our expectation of a text.
Before reading a single word of Revelation, we can learn a lot by thinking about the genre to which it belongs. We can answer important questions before we even begin.
- What do we expect to find in the text? (Concrete teaching or abstract metaphor?)
- What can we infer about the historical/social context? (Is this a time of peace or persecution?)
- What kind of community is this text written to? (Jew or Gentile?)
- What is the purpose of this text?
First, since we know what genre we are working with, (apocalypse, rather than say, an epistle) we expect to be confronted with shocking and abstract images rather than practical teaching or doctrine. Second, the genre itself gives us important historical and sociological cues. Since apocalyptic literature is often a response to persecution and upheaval, it comes as no surprise to learn that Revelation was written in the late 1st Century under the reign of Domitian. He was an evil emperor who was famous for persecuting Christians. Third, since apocalypse is largely a Judeo-Christian literary form, we can assume a particular audience (Jewish Christians). This meant that the first readers would have been comfortable with John’s many allusions to the OT. Finally, this community was in desperate need of hope. This is the purpose of Revelation—to point believers to the day that Christ would come back and rule.
Though genre does not answer every question, it helps us as readers to approach the Bible in the right way. If we understand the genre of a text, our minds will be better able to receive from it and our hearts more likely shaped by it.