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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Genres Within Books

We have already noted that a given book may contain diverse types of materials either because it is a compilation or because the author used and reproduced diverse sources (documents); moreover, the utilized sources themselves contain various forms. Our task now is to suggest the range of diverse materials, and to account, in a sketchy way, for their inclusion in the biblical documents.

The diversity of genres is so rich and the problem of distinguishing one from the other sometimes so complex, that only a general sampling can be undertaken here. Nonetheless, it may show both the variety in the Bible's forms, and the importance of paying attention to them for understanding the text itself. One fundamental factor must be borne in mind—that much of the content of the Bible was handed down by word of mouth (technically called “oral tradition”) before it was written.

NARRATIVES. It is important to recognize that there are different narrative genres within the biblical books, for they arose in different social settings and served different purposes. Histories, because they attempt to reconstruct the past on the basis of the best information available, are more reliable documents for the modern historian than, for example, fables. And impersonal records or reports are more reliable still.

The Old Testament document which most closely approximates history in the modern sense is not the longer popular or salvation histories mentioned above, but the court history of David (2 Sam. chs. 9–20; 1 Kgs. chs. 1–2 ). Its writer, having access to excellent sources of information, reconstructed a segment of the past into a meaningful account, and interpreted the events in terms of cause and effect. The sense of divine providence and activity is here implicit rather than explicit, as it is in the Book of Judges.

A great many of the individual narratives in the Bible are stories; as noted earlier, they generate interest by arousing tension and releasing it. Most stories in the Old Testament—such as ancestral narratives in Genesis—are folktales; that is, they use motifs, patterns, and techniques supplied by the oral tradition. Stories serve many different purposes: to amuse, to teach, to enlighten, or to present the most profound theological affirmations. If a story is primarily concerned with the wonderful and aimed at edification, it is a legend (though a legend need not take the form of a story; it may be a simple report). Legends ordinarily deal with holy people, holy places, or religious ceremonies. They speak of the miraculous and the awesome. But the legends of Elisha, for example, do not mean to boast of the prophet's power as such, but to bear witness to the power of Israel's God made visible through him. Very often legends or other stories of sacred places or religious ceremonies are etiological, that is, they explain the sacredness of the place or the importance of the ritual by an account of its origin. For example, the story of Jacob's dream at Bethel (Gen. 28.10 ff. ) is told—in part—to explain how the place was known to be holy, and how it got its name.

In the New Testament, and especially in the Gospels, many different traditional narrative genres are employed. Often the shape and content of these types are clues to their use in the oral tradition handed down by the earliest Christian communities. One genre is the pronouncement story or paradigm, a short, concise narrative which focuses upon a memorable saying of Jesus. The story provides the occasion for the saying. Thus the story of the disciples eating grain on the sabbath (Mk. 2.23–28 ) is the framework for the saying, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Another kind is the miracle story, which concentrates on Jesus himself (instead of on his sayings) and secondarily on the other characters. Most of these stories tersely report the malady, the healing, and the onlookers' response of wonder. The Christian miracle stories are similar to those in Hellenistic culture generally, but unlike the latter, they seldom report the techniques of the miracle worker. The New Testament also contains narratives which are classed as legends because they express the church's esteem for the hero, such as the story of Peter's release from prison (Acts ch. 12 ) or the accounts of Jesus' temptations.

PROPHETIC GENRES. In understanding prophetic literature, the reader's first step, as noted above, must be an effort to distinguish the individual units from one another. The meaning of individual lines depends in large measure on the context to which they belong, including the limits of the unit of which they are a part. (The chapter and verse divisions are misleading as often as they are helpful; anyway they date from medieval times.) In distinguishing one unit from another, the reader should be aware of the formulas and genres of prophetic literature, their typical structures, and intentions. Certain formulas, for example, indicate quite clearly the beginning of speeches. Among these are the call to attention, “Listen to these words …,” and the expression, “The word of the Lord came to me. …”

We have noted that generally speaking the prophetic books contain speeches, narratives, and a few prayers, but in order to recognize the units and interpret them we must be more specific. The range of types of speech found in prophetic utterance is wide; the prophets employed virtually every possible form of verbal communication known in their culture. While the freedom with which they borrowed and adapted from all spheres of life has led some to doubt that there is a distinctively prophetic form of speech, it is preferable to recognize that there are some genres which are particularly and intimately related to the prophetic role. The frequent recurrence of the messenger formula, “thus says the LORD,” and the fact that the prophets speak for the Lord often quoting God directly, have led many scholars in recent years to characterize prophetic address as messenger speech. Whether “messenger speech” or simply “prophecy” is the most apt description of the prophetic addresses, it is clear that the prophets regarded themselves as persons speaking for the Lord both revealing and setting into motion God's future activities.

One of the genres most frequently encountered in the preexilic prophets is the prophecy of punishment (or prophetic “judgment speech”). This type has two main elements, a statement of reasons for punishment (or accusation) and the announcement of punishment (or judgment), bound together by a transition which emphasizes that the latter is the result of the former. Such speeches were addressed to individuals, to groups, or to the nation as a whole. On the other hand, in later prophets such as Deutero-Isaiah and in the additions to the preexilic books, prophecies of salvation predominate. In these addresses the prophets announce the Lord's intervention on behalf of Israel, usually without giving reasons.

Other genres closely related to the prophetic office itself are reports of visions, reports of God's call of the prophet, and reports of symbolic actions. Vision reports range from the brief accounts in Amos to the lengthy and detailed descriptions in Ezekiel which often approach the imagery of apocalyptic literature, but they ordinarily include an account of what was seen and an interpretation of its meaning. The “call reports” are not presented in order to give autobiographical information, but rather to authenticate the person and message of the prophet. So, too, the symbolic action stories are not biographical or autobiographical, but means of communicating the prophetic word.

The prophet's freedom to employ forms of speech from all spheres of Israelite life seems unlimited, but when such genres were used they usually were modified. When Amos sings a dirge, for example, it has become an announcement of punishment: “She has fallen, to rise no more, the virgin Israel, prostrate on her own soil, with no one to lift her up” (Amos 5.2 ). Proverbs, parables, and other forms of speech associated with Wisdom literature are employed freely. And though the prophets should not be viewed primarily as preachers of repentance, but as proclaimers of God's future, they often instruct, admonish, exhort, and warn their hearers. Further, the image of the prophets as consistent opponents of the cult is tempered when we recognize their frequent use of cultic genres. Second Isaiah (chs. 40–55 ), for example, often speaks in the words of the “salvation oracle,” a genre similar to the Old Testament priestly absolutions. Often, of course, the prophets employ cultic expressions to criticize the cult, as when Amos ( 4.4 ) uses a call to worship ironically. And frequently we recognize that the prophets are speaking in juridical terms, either in allusions to Israel's laws or in using expressions and motifs from the legal procedure.

LEGAL GENRES. Since the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians often have thought of the Old Testament, in whole or in part, as “the law.” This impression stems in large measure from the Greek title of the first part of the Jewish canon, the Torah, which Greek Jews translated “law.” But to characterize the Torah (the Pentateuch) as “law” obscures as much as it reveals. We have already observed that the first five books of the Bible are narratives, not law books. But a considerable body of legal material is presented within that narrative framework, either as the report of what was revealed at Sinai or—in Deuteronomy—as part of the report of the last will and testament of Moses.

In fact, none of the books of the Bible can be accurately described as a law book. What we do find, however, are legal codes of different kinds. It seems clear that most of these codes had been organized and handed down in the context of juridical and cultic activity long before they were placed in their present literary contexts. Some of these codes are quite short; they are the collections of ten or twelve laws found in Exodus chs. 20 and 34, and Deuteronomy ch. 5 . Other codes are “the book of the covenant” (Exodus chs. 21–23 ), containing laws mainly concerned with what we would call civil and criminal matters; the Holiness Code (Lev. chs. 17–26 ), which is not so much a code as sermons on law. (In view of its expansive literary character it is doubtful that we should call the large body of instructions in the Priestly document—Exodus ch. 25 –Numbers ch. 10 —a law code.) The Old Testament law codes are similar in many ways to their ancient Near Eastern predecessors: all are collections which tend to organize laws loosely on the basis of content and form; all are the results of many centuries of growth; and there are some distinct similarities of form and content.

In recent scholarship the individual laws in the Old Testament have been classified into two categories. The first is casuistic or case law. These laws closely parallel those in the ancient Near Eastern codes both in form and content. Each has two main parts, a conditional clause describing a case and a conclusion specifying the penalty: “When [or if] a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters or sells it, he must repay five beasts for the ox and four sheep for the sheep” (Exod. 22.1 ). Such laws must have been related to the everyday practice of law. The second genre has been called apodictic, absolute commands or prohibitions which require no accompanying argumentation or condition, since they are taken to be expressions of the will of God. As the Ten Commandments reveal, their content is not limited to specifically religious or cultic affairs, but include social relationships. Whatever the origin of these different genres may have been, eventually all of Israel's laws were associated with Moses and the covenant at Sinai.

In addition to laws, the Old Testament contains a considerable body of material from the judicial process itself. This material is in the form of reports of legal proceedings, allusions to the practice of law in court and cult, and judicial genres and formulas employed in different contexts, such as prophetic speeches. Viewing this data as a whole gives us a picture of the formalities of the trial, of the way contracts were formalized, of the way priests instructed the laity concerning the interpretation or application of cultic laws, and of how law was related to the life of Israel.

WISDOM AND INSTRUCTION. The proverb is one of the most widely known forms of expression and its original oral character is beyond dispute. Proverbs are found in many parts of the Bible apart from the book bearing the name. Proverbs are folk wisdom distilled into pithy, memorable sayings. In isolation, a proverb expresses a general insight (e.g., “haste makes waste”); inevitably one can think of exceptions or of other proverbs which express an apparently conflicting insight. Thus, proverbs must not be treated as first principles but rather as practical wisdom gained from experience. In contrast with divine oracles and apocalyptic visions, proverbs themselves do not claim to be revealed knowledge but distilled human insight. Their specific meaning depends almost entirely on the context in which they are used.

Biblical proverbs or wisdom sayings have many forms. Some are simple declarative statements, such as, “Where the carcass is, there will the vultures gather” (Lk. 17.37 ). More common is the doublet in which the second half contrasts with the first, as in, “A simpleton believes every word he hears; a clever person watches each step” (Prov. 14.15 ). Others are structured according to the principle of synonymous parallelism, as in, “Experience uses few words; discernment keeps a cool head” (Prov. 17.27 ). Sometimes a proverb is put in the form of a comparison, as, “Better live humbly with those in need than divide the spoil with the proud” (Prov. 16.19 ).

Because proverbs express wisdom, it is natural that in the Book of Proverbs wisdom itself is extolled, and even spoken of as if she (the word “wisdom” is feminine) were a person. Furthermore, the proverbs are then regarded as “wisdom's counsel”: “My son, keep my words; store up my commands in your mind” (Prov. 7.1 ). Wisdom can also tell a story (in poetic form), as occurs in Proverbs ch. 7 and especially in Ecclesiasticus. In the Wisdom of Solomon wisdom guides the history of Israel. Wisdom materials were originally secular; however, there developed the view that human wisdom is derived from divine Wisdom. Indeed, divine Wisdom—especially when personified—came to be regarded as the self-manifestation of God; inevitably, the sages came to regard both the Wisdom tradition and the Torah as revealed.

Wisdom materials are found in various parts of the biblical literature, especially in the Synoptic Gospels. Often proverbs have been expanded to make the meaning explicit, as in the case of “No one can serve two masters,” to which has been added, “for either he will hate the first and love the second, or he will be devoted to the first and despise the second. You cannot serve God and Money” (Matt. 6.24 ). On the other hand, proverbs have also been added to teachings to provide a broader application. Thus, some form of “Whoever gains his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it” (Matt. 10.39 ), is added to various sayings of Jesus (Matt. 16.25; Lk. 17.33 ). Wisdom materials need to be read on two levels: the inherent meaning of the original material (usually discerned by noting the balanced structure of the phrases and ideas), and the specific meaning which the material receives from its present context.

The most famous genre associated with Jesus is the parable—the New Testament rendering of the Hebrew mashal, which refers to a variety of forms found in the Old Testament and in various post-biblical texts: the riddle, epigram, and story. Although Jesus did not invent the parable, so fully did he exploit its potential that it is widely assumed to be the hallmark of his teaching. Like the mashal, Jesus' parables range from epigrams (e.g., “nothing that goes into a person from the outside can defile him,” Mk. 7.15 ) to terse comparisons (e.g., “the kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and mixed…”, Matt. 13.33 ) to short stories like the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15.11–32 ). Students have found it useful, however, to distinguish the parable from closely related forms, especially the simile, the metaphor, and the allegory. The simile (A is like B) uses the typical to ask one to recognize the truth of a comparison already made; e.g., “Like a lightning-flash, that lights the sky from east to west, will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24.27 ). The metaphor, on the other hand, unexpectedly transfers an image from one domain to another (A as B), thereby breaking the literal meaning. Thus: “[You] Vipers' brood!” (Matt. 3.7 ); it requires the hearer to share the speaker's assessment or reject the figure of speech. Thus in Matt. 16.11 Jesus warns against “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” To this the evangelist adds, “then they understood: they were to be on their guard, not against baker's leaven, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The parable is a brief narrative whose plot invites the hearer to see through it another situation or reality. Because the point is not on the surface, understanding the parable demands insight; its point can be missed. Some of Jesus' parables assist the understanding by beginning as a simile: “the kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which.…” (Matt. 13.31 ); others begin abruptly with the narrative itself: “A sower went out to sow” (Matt. 13.3 ). Either way, the story points beyond itself.

It is customary to distinguish parables from allegories, though a mashal can also be an allegory. In an allegory, each item in the story stands for something else, so that one can “decode” the story into its true religious or theological meaning. For example, in the noncanonical Book of Enoch, the story of Israel is told as the history of sheep who endure all sorts of bad experiences from wolves, bears, etc. The reader quickly translates the story by equating Israel with the sheep and the series of enemies with the marauding animals. It is generally believed that Jesus himself used parables but not allegories, but that the parables were later allegorized by the church. Thus, the parable of the abundant harvest (Mk. 4.3–8 ) was allegorized into the story of various kinds of soils (Mk. 4.14–20 ). This is a clear case where sensitivity to literary forms enables the reader to distinguish layers of tradition.

Earlier study insisted that the parable has but one point, a general truth, and subsequent study sought to relate each parable to a specific situation in Jesus' ministry in order to interpret it properly. Current interpretation, however, emphasizes the parable's use of language and its fiction-like capacity to convey a particular “world.” The parable, in other words, is not a colorful way of making a point that can be expressed better as a principle or maxim; that would make the parable expendable once the idea is formulated. Rather, the point of the parable is in the story itself because its form and content cannot be separated. The parable's meaning, therefore, depends on the interaction between the story and the settings in which it is told, as can be seen in the Gospels themselves.

There are sermons in the Bible, but we must not confuse the New Testament “sermon” with what comes to mind when we use the term today. Rather, the biblical sermon generally was an extended religious discourse. Also, largely because the preaching of both Jesus and the earliest church was anchored in synagogue preaching, which was as much instruction as it was proclamation, it is difficult to distinguish New Testament preaching from teaching. That synagogue preaching in turn doubtless was rooted in Old Testament instructional preaching, as best represented by the addresses exhorting obedience in Deuteronomy and the prose speeches in the Book of Jeremiah. In any case, even though Christianity spread by preaching, and even though Jesus is reported to have preached in the synagogue, the New Testament contains no transcripts of any sermon. It does, however, include a number of discourses which have been called “sermons.” On the one hand, the sermons of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount, are not real discourses but collections of sayings, clustered around certain themes. On the other hand, the speeches in Acts are not real sermons either but discourses composed by the author and placed at key points in the narrative in accord with the Hellenistic practice of having key figures say what the writer believed was important to have said at that point. This does not rule out the likelihood that the author used old traditions in composing these speeches. Interestingly, the New Testament possibly contains parts of sermons in the epistles; for example, it has sometimes been suggested that 1 Peter is basically a baptismal sermon, or a part of one, which has been given the appearance of a letter. Even without transcripts of preached sermons, some epistles convey certain aspects of early Christian preaching because their authors relied on their rhetorical skills as they dictated; besides, they knew that the letters would be read aloud in the congregation. Current scholarship's interest in rhetorical structures in the letters therefore complements the interest in epistolary conventions.

PRAYERS, HYMNS, AND RITUALS. Many biblical passages are prayers—words addressed to God. However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a prayer from a hymn because frequently both appear as poetry and are addressed to God. Hymns were presumably sung or chanted, probably by choirs, whereas prayers were spoken. While the Old Testament Psalms enshrine the hymns of the temple at various stages of its life, there is no comparable Christian collection in the New Testament.

The rich cultic life of ancient Israel gave rise to a great many different types of song and prayer, preserved for the most part in the Book of Psalms (see above, “Poetic books”). These types usually reflect use in various liturgies, though the festival occasions themselves are not named. Approximately one third of the psalms are songs of individual complaints (frequently called “Laments”), in which the sufferer petitions God for relief and deliverance. On the basis of the structure of such songs—in particular, changes in speaker—and allusions to worship, it has been suggested recently that the individual complaints were used in prayer services for persons in distress. Similar are songs of communal complaint (see Introduction to the Psalms ). Closely related to these types are the songs of individual and communal thanksgiving, which were employed in celebrations of deliverance from particular difficulties. We also recognize a great many hymns of praise, which were associated primarily with the regularly scheduled services of worship. The hymns characteristically call to praise, expound God's acts or nature as reasons for praise, and conclude with the renewed summons to praise (see Psalm 113 ). The so-called “Enthronement Psalms” (e.g., Psalms 29–47, 93, 95–99 ) may have been developed for a New Year's festival when God's kingship was celebrated; these songs are characterized by the acclamation, “The LORD reigns!” There are also “Royal Psalms” which celebrate the king as the regent of God (e.g., Psalms 2, 20, 21, 45 ).

The variety of hymns and prayerlike poetry collected in the psalter is found in many other places in the Old Testament as well. For example, in Exodus ch. 15 we have two celebrations of the deliverance at the sea, a very old couplet in v. 21 (the Song of Miriam), and a more elaborate younger one in vv. 1–18 . Second Samuel 1.19–27 is the lament of David over the death of Saul and Jonathan, while 2 Samuel ch. 22 (virtually identical with Psalm 18 ) contains a victory song.

In the New Testament, hymnic materials are of three kinds: the messianic hymns, the christological hymns, and hymns of the eschatological victory. In Luke chs. 1 and 2 the evangelist used messianic hymns inherited from certain Jewish circles to express the hope for the coming redemption. There are three passages which appear to be christological hymns. Embedded in the prologue of John ( 1.1–18 ) is an earlier hymn to the Word, the Creator; Phil. 2.5–11 celebrates the humiliation of the preexistent Christ and his subsequent exaltation; Col. 1.15–20 celebrates the relation of the preexistent Christ to the cosmos. Fragments of hymns (or possibly confessional pieces) appear also in Eph. 5.14 and 1 Tim. 3.16 , for example. At key points in the Book of Revelation, the reader is apprised of hymns of deliverance being sung in heaven; these are usually considered to reflect the hymnody of the churches of Asia Minor.

In addition to poetic pieces used in ritual and liturgy, the Bible also contains narratives which were used in worship before they were included in the biblical text. By means of these narrative materials, the community recited fundamental events of its history and thereby celebrated its relation to God. Many scholars have seen in Joshua ch. 24 and other Old Testament texts the outlines of a covenant renewal ceremony by which the Israelite tribes recalled the Exodus and pledged their common fealty to God. These texts are for the most part narratives, but they mention either directly or indirectly the liturgical acts involved. Many of the steps in the liturgy of covenant renewal closely paralleled the points in ancient Near Eastern treaties.

In the New Testament, the accounts of the Lord's Supper (Matt. 26.17–29; Mk. 14.12–24; Lk. 22.7–38; 1 Cor. 11.23–25 ) differ from one another because they reflect the actual usages of the churches; but they all center in the words of Jesus concerning the bread and the wine. None of these accounts is as liturgically complete as the account of the first Passover in Exodus ch. 12 . Although the Book of Esther is traditionally associated with the Festival of Purim, the story itself does not refer explicitly to the festival. The books of Maccabees report the events that led up to the rededication of the temple, celebrated as Hanukkah, but there are no clear Hanukkah observance materials in the Bible, just as there are no observances linked with Pentecost. Centuries later, Christians associated both the stories of Jesus' wine miracle at Cana and the coming of the Magi with January 6 (Epiphany), but, of course, this belongs to the history of the interpretation of the Bible. These stories did not originate in connection with Epiphany.

This introduction to the literary forms of the Bible has, of necessity, been more illustrative than exhaustive. Many important modes of literary and oral expression have not been mentioned. But this basically literary approach, in addition to providing a description of some of the types of biblical literature, serves the serious reader of the Bible in several ways. In the first place, it opens up the historical depth of the biblical material. The Bible is a historical book not merely because it is preoccupied with history, but because its contents also have a history. This literary history of the materials has been recovered in large part because scholars have analyzed the individual literary genres and related these to the life of the communities in which they were used. In many cases we are able to reconstruct the history of the transmission of sayings and stories up to the way the text now reads. What emerges from such careful exploratory work is a keen appreciation of the fact that the Bible is the literary deposit of living tradition which reflects the beliefs and practices of real Israelite, Jewish, and Christian communities. So instead of reading the text in a “flat” way, simply for plot or for bare content, we can now recognize the texture of the matter, perceive its layers, and infer how the material functioned in various stages. Second, the concern with genres of literary and oral expression enables the reader to relate the stages of a text to the life of the communities which originated, used, and preserved it. Often particular genres can be located within certain social contexts, such as the worship in the temple, the practice of law, or the missionary activity of the early church. In the process we see that behind each text stand not primarily creative writers—though there were such—but communities of faith, for which certain genres and particular texts served very important purposes. Finally, this kind of study can facilitate fruitful dialogues with the texts themselves. Posing these literary questions—What kind of text is it? Where did it come from? How was it used?—enables the texts to speak to us, and not simply to reflect our own expectations of them. By looking at the Bible in this way our appreciation and understanding of it should be both broadened and deepened.

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