The Bible: Navigating Genres

The Bible is a massive collection of books written by many authors spanning hundreds of years. Because if this variety, we have to learn to recognize the many genres used in the Bible so that we can appreciate meaning as expressed through the writing style.

A genre is a class of writing having a particular content or technique.

Ship Obvious ones in the Bible are poetry and narrative. But that just gets the pump started. The Bible also includes satire, prophecy, epic, oratory, drama, epistle, and much more.

Recognizing genre helps us recognize techniques of writing.

I directed a puppet team for several years and our favorite performances always included parodies. We thought we were clever with our spoof of the Ghostbusters theme song until we discovered lots of people spoofed Ghostbusters, including Apple in 1984.

But the parody can be an effective way to comment on an original work. The Bible uses parody to that end. Here’s an example.

Proverbs 23:29-35 includes an intriguing poem:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging.
“They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?” NIV

First, we have to recognize that this is poetry and so the rules for history or epistles don’t really apply. Instead, we see repetition: woe, sorrow, strive, complaints, needless bruises, bloodshot eyes.  As the words progress, the meaning emerges.

Notice how the lines move from woe to bloodshot eyes. That’s a nice segue to the observation about those who are drawn to drinking wine. Someone might come to wine because of woe but they depart with bloodshot eyes.

The wine sparkles at first but in the end bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. The similes (bites like a snake, poisons like a viper) help direct our understanding.

A description of drunkenness follows: your eyes will see strange sights and your mind will imagine confusing things.

By this point, the poem has also veered into humor: “when will I wake up so I can find another drink?” This idea comes after the snake and viper images and after the strange sights.

Ultimately, this poem teaches a lesson: too much drinking results in negative circumstances.

This poem also uses parody to make its point. It is modeled after an ancient drinking song, using parody effectively by employing a drinking song to reveal the downside of too much drinking.

The Bible uses genres expertly to reveal meaning in many ways.

More on genres next week.

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