In my previous post, we talked about why you should never isolate one Bible verse. Now we turn to our next important principle of Bible interpretation:
Interpret the book according to its genre.
A Library of Genres
The Bible is not really a book, but a library of books written over many centuries. Within this library, there are several different genres. Here are the primary biblical genres with a few examples of each:
- Narrative: Genesis, Ruth
- Law: Exodus, Leviticus
- Wisdom: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes
- Poetry: Psalms, Song of Songs
- Epistles/Letters: Romans, Hebrews
- Apocalyptic Literature: Ezekiel, Revelation
- Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
You cannot correctly interpret the Bible without taking into account the genre of the book or passage that you are studying. Practically speaking, you cannot interpret poetry like a Gospel!
Many skeptics trip over certain genres more than others, but here are some principles for each genre that will help weed out bad objections to the text.
Narrative: These are accounts that record actions and events in history, but this doesn’t mean that the author is endorsing these actions or events.
Law: Old Testament laws were given to a specific people group for a specific purpose. The law was needed during the unique situation of a theocracy where God Himself was Israel’s ruler.
Wisdom: Wisdom literature contains wise advice and principles that are generally true but are not meant to be taken as infallible promises for all situations.
Poetry: Like modern poetry, ancient poetry is not meant to be taken literally and contains various figures of speech.
Epistles/Letters: Each letter was written to a specific people group to address unique circumstances that this people group was experiencing.
Apocalyptic Literature: These works were written using symbols that the original audience would have more easily understood than we do today.
Gospel: The Gospels are not like modern biographies and do not detail the entire life of Jesus. They may not be in exact chronological order.
Examples of Misinterpreting Genres
Let’s look at three misinterpretations by skeptics where the genre was not taken into account.
In this article a skeptic quotes Genesis 19:8, where Lot offers his daughters to a group of men who are seeking to rape the two angels that are in Lot’s house. The skeptics’ response to the Genesis account is this:
“As a father of three daughters myself, I cannot imagine offering my daughters to get raped so that I could protect the strangers under my roof…Rather than trying to explain away Lot’s behavior according to ‘hospitality laws’ we must condemn his behavior as horribly barbaric.”
Yes, agreed! We should all condemn Lot’s actions! Nowhere in the text is this action endorsed by the author, or God, or anyone else. In fact, the angels blind the rioters in order to keep this very thing from happening! This narrative is simply recording what took place.
In this article an atheist quotes Proverbs 12:2: “A good man obtaineth favour of the LORD.” They then proceed to quote from the story of Job, who was a righteous man and yet suffered horrible tragedy. Is this a contradiction?
No, because a proverb doesn’t describe how things always occur! Proverbs are wise principles that are generally true in life. Additionally, favor from God doesn’t necessarily mean material blessing and happiness, but that’s another story!
This same atheist posits the next two verses as contradicting each other:
“Thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).
“Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).
The reason why the author thinks that these two verses contradict each other is because he wrongly assumes that the law given in Exodus 21 was meant for all people at all times. The author also makes no attempt at looking into the context of what Jesus was teaching in Matthew’s account. Both passages are ripped out of context and placed side by side to make it appear like a contradiction.
The next time you read a passage in the Bible, ask yourself about the genre of the book. Feel free to raise objections against a text in the Bible, but only after you have done your homework by studying its genre and context!