To interpret a text well, you must first locate it on the grand map of literature. Otherwise, your interpretation will be left wandering in the wilderness. Unfortunately, determining genre is more art than science: Is Moby-Dick an adventure story, an epic allegory, a Romantic tragedy, a farce—or all that and more? Worse, every culture and era has its own peculiar set of genres, and the boundaries are fuzzy. One person’s “petition psalm” is another’s “intercessory prayer” is another’s “royal complaint.” Is it all just a matter of opinion?
It’s tempting to think of the Old Testament as a book of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” but the text is mostly narrative. God chose to package His message not as dry advice for daily living, but as a vivid story filled with emotion and drama. Even the Law itself is embedded within the story of the exodus from Egypt. As a result, the regulations are enriched with context, consequence and meaning.
When reading narrative, it is important to keep track of the participants. The biblical narrator’s words represent the unique authority of the all-knowing and infallible author, but when characters speak, they represent only themselves. Consider Saul: Did he kill himself (1 Sam 31:4), or was he slain by a young Amalekite (2 Sam 1:1–10)? The first claim is made by an impartial and truthful narrator; the second, by a self-interested opportunist.
Every narrative has a purpose. The episodes in Judges underscore a central point: Why Israel should have a king (Judg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Never forget to ask: Why tell this story?
Exodus 25–30 details a procedure for building the tabernacle and its furniture. Later, this procedure is put into action by Moses and the men of Israel (Exod 35:4–40:33). There are subtle differences between the “how to” text of chapters 25–30, which is procedural, and the “they did” text of chapters 35–40, which is narrative.
Much of the Law is also procedural: Leviticus 6:19–23 is essentially a recipe for flatbread; Leviticus 13:47–58 is a procedure for eradicating mold. In procedural texts, the people who perform the steps are hardly relevant—it is the steps themselves that matter.
“Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Prov 9:9 NIV). There are actors here (“a mocker” and “a wise man”), but no specific characters. There are activities, but no particular events. Proverbs and much of the Law are behavioral texts. They focus on general principles for right living. The situations and events are intentionally generic so they can be applied to anyone, anytime.
Psalm 150 contains no events. It is a static tableau exposing a single idea: praise. The book of Job begins and ends with short narrative sequences that bookend a lengthy (and at times tedious) expository debate about God’s character and attributes. Ecclesiastes is an exploratory essay about big ideas (“All is vanity!”; Eccl 1:2 ESV) and the examples that illustrate them (“There was a little city …”; Eccl 9:13–16 ESV).
Expository texts often deal with abstractions, ideals and hypotheticals. Does the “righteous man” of Proverbs truly exist? He should, but we know he doesn’t (Rom 3:23). When reading, it is especially important to keep isolated statements in context. The psalmist may accuse God for his troubles in one breath, and in the next return to his faith that Yahweh will right all wrongs. Job’s friends put forth many rational arguments, but in the end, God is angry with them for defaming His character (Job 42:7 ESV). Sometimes the preacher in Ecclesiastes means exactly what he says, but other times he plays devil’s advocate.
The fine distinctions between one biblical genre and another may be difficult to establish, but it never hurts to start with a basic question: Is what I’m reading character-driven or plot-driven?
Learn more about the Old Testament as literature at Logos.com/OTNarrative