Genre in the Old Testament
When we think of the Bible, many people will think of a single book of scripture. However, the Bible is really a collection of many books, written at various times, for various peoples, and in various places. Each of these books are written in different genres, and our understanding of the Bible can be greatly improved by our ability to correctly recognize a work’s genre and its ultimate message.
Some of the genres that are employed by the biblical authors include (but are not limited to) sacred history, law codes, genealogies, poetry, oracles, lamentations, parables, and songs. These genres can be used together in the books of the Bible to further deepen the meaning of the book’s message and add literary beauty to the text. While many of these genres may sound familiar to a modern audience, such as history or poetry, the ancient authors of the Bible had different worldviews and expectations in the composition of their books. It becomes not only important to recognize the genre, then, but also viewing the work in its wider context as a whole.
For example, biblical authors did not view history as modern readers view the term. Rather, biblical histories were composed to retell history through a theological lens. Historical facts may be selected or omitted to fit the needs of the overarching message or theme of the book. Similarly, while law codes are often a secular topic in the modern world, ancient views of law placed them in sacred light and context as God-given, rather than man-made. Hebrew poetry also differs from modern poetry in that it typically uses parallelism and repetition instead of using rhyme.
Recognizing genre is important because it can help readers identify what is important to the text itself. For example, knowing the genre helps us understand whether a book was intended to be read as history or as something else, such as poetry or satire. With this understanding, we can better judge whether historical accuracy is important to the message that the book shares.
The ultimate goal of scripture is to bring us closer to Christ. Viewing scripture in its proper context, taking into account how the Lord speaks to people according to their language, we can come closer to Christ just as its original audience was brought to Christ through the scriptural text.
Amanda Brown, “Misunderstanding the Bible—Benjamin Spackman,” LDS Perspectives Podcast, July 19, 2017.
Ben Spackman, “Virtual Sperry Fireside On Reading the Old Testament in Context,” Ben Spackman Blog, November 15, 2017.
David Snell, “Is There Fiction in the Bible?,” Saints Unscripted, November 25, 2021.