Reading the Bible: The Importance of Genre

The previous two posts in this series argued that one of the reasons we have trouble understanding the Bible is because we do not read it in the ordinary way that books are to be read. We assume that because the Bible is the Word of God (which it most definitely is), and because it is therefore inspired and inerrant, that it must consequently “break the rules” of ordinary human communication. I argued, by contrast, that the miracle of the Bible is that it speaks to us about extra-ordinary things (and with extra-ordinary accuracy) in a nevertheless ordinary way. We concluded, then, that one should read any biblical book, be it a letter or a narrative or a history or a compendium of wisdom or a doctrinal treatise, in the same way that you would read any other book of that type. Read any biblical discourse as if it were a particularly exemplary instance of other similar kinds of discourse, even though the ultimate author of this discourse is the One True God.

Which brings us to the present topic, because obviously the next question that arises is “what kind of discourse am I actually reading?” Let’s say you’re reading the “epistle” to the Hebrews and, following the advice above, you want to read it in the ordinary way similar discourses are read. Well, what is an epistle and how are epistles normally read? Do epistles have the same function 2000 years ago that they do today? And is Hebrews even an epistle? The answers to those kinds of questions are very important to our present thesis; one can’t read Hebrews (or any other book) in an “ordinary” way if one doesn’t really know the kind of thing that Hebrews is.

Which is why we have to talk about genre.

What is genre?

What is genre? How might we define the term? One linguist describes it as “discourse type.” That is to say, genre is a description of the kind of “communicative event” that we are currently trying to interpret. Let’s say someone is speaking to you. What are they trying to tell you? Are they telling you a story? Are they giving you instructions? Are they asking you to do something? Maybe they are stating an opinion. Perhaps they are relating something that happened to them today so that you might offer them sympathy or council. Each of these represents a different type of discourse and determining the type of discourse that your currently hearing will, in turn, determine how you interpret it and react to it.

Scientists do the same with animals. Both cats and dogs have four legs—in that respect they are similar—but they differ in so far as dogs are awesome and cats are not, and that dissimilarity means they are classified differently. Similarity and dissimilarity is the key to identifying “type,” and genre is “discourse type.” Genre is classification; you are looking at a discourse and describing how it is similar to some discourses and dissimilar to others.

You have likely heard it said that interpretation requires context. Genre is “literary context.” Genre defines how a certain literary event fits within culturally adjacent literary events. To ask about a work’s “genre” is to ask “how is this work similar to other works, and how does that allow me to better interpret what it is trying to accomplish?” Furthermore, determining discourse type, or literary context, is key to interpreting what you are reading. Imagine you get it wrong. Imagine, for example, that you confuse fiction with non-fiction, or satire with genuine news, or the political stump speech with actual policy, or South Park with a child’s cartoon show. You’re likely in for some interpretive troubles. If you want to interpret any of these things correctly, you need to know how the genre works.

How do I determine genre?

If all this sounds a bit too theoretical, here’s the good news: for the most part you identify the genre of a book intuitively and without issue. Most of us can’t help but be immersed in our surrounding culture, and as such we are constantly exposed to diverse types of “literary events,” each of which represent a different subset of literary genres. We thus learn about genre the same way we learn our native language: through constant exposure in natural settings. That’s why you don’t need to be told about the “rules” operative in fiction, or newspaper articles, or the op-ed, or sci-fi, or the latest rom-com.

Ordinarily everything “just works,” and the reason everything just works is because the author and the audience share a wealth of assumptions about the type of discourse they are reading or watching or listening to. Let’s say you’re planning an evening of watching Netflix and your suggestion list features a category described as “Gripping and Dark British Detective TV Drama.” “That’s highly specific,” you think, but actually you intuitively know exactly what you are in for. The overarching story is going to be sad and tragic (drama), and it’s going to take some time to get to the point (TV), but the stakes are high because at least one person has been murdered (Detective) and, furthermore, the clues (clues, not evidence, which is what distinguishes the British mystery from the American) required to unravel said murder are convoluted and therefore require special insight/intelligence/misanthropy (British); what is more, the detective will probably have a disturbing past (dark), and the mystery will take several episodes to resolve (gripping). If you love detective stories, and have therefore immersed yourself in the genre, you know exactly what to expect.

In such cases determining genre is straightforward. Just remember this simple guide: “The beginning of things tells you stuff.”

Pay careful attention to the opening section of any discourse. The first five minutes of a movie, the first chapter or so of a novel, the opening introduction of a sermon, the first paragraph of a newspaper article—all of these “first moments” are specifically designed to orient you to the thing that you are reading or hearing or watching. Remember, authors generally want to be understood, and because they want to be understood they want to set you up to read well. Furthermore, as we said before, genre is ordinarily intuitive, and as such a writer will use the “ordinary” rules to signal to you the kind of thing you are reading. A particularly good writer or story teller may be creative about it, and you may not even see what they are doing, but in those first moments they are “introducing” you to the work they are creating. They are inviting you in, and they use dozens of little words and phrases and images to make sure you start off in the right place.

Consider the first five minutes of the original Star Wars. Space. Emptiness filled with innumerable stars. Then a blast of lasers and an impossibly large starship chasing an improbably small one across the scene. An obviously evil villain. A woman in white. Androids. And suddenly you’re on a desert planet in search of a hero. Within minutes you know exactly what kind of movie you’re watching, even if you can’t put a name to it. This is a “sci-fi space western (with an underdog hero).” If you’re particularly good at this kind of thing, you may even be expecting the hero to be some sort of “chosen one.”

Or consider the “epistle” to the Hebrews. Read over the first chapter. Does it sound like other epistles in the New Testament? Nope. Not even a little bit. No author is mentioned, nor any audience. It lacks the features we have come to expect from ordinary letters. What does it sound like? Perhaps one of the speeches by Peter or Paul in Acts? Or maybe one of the homilies of Jesus in Matthew? So maybe it’s more like a sermon than a letter? Now check out the ending in Heb. 13. Hmmm. Well it finishes like a letter, but overall it still feels more like a sermon, and in fact it actually identifies itself as “a word of exhortation” in Heb. 13:22. So, as one commentator (F. F. Bruce) puts it, Hebrews is a “sermon, with some personal remarks at the end.” The ending complicated matters a bit, but the beginning of the discourse set us on the proper path: Hebrews is not an epistle; it’s a sermon.

How Genre Affects Reading

Identifying genre will have an incredible affect on your reading of Scripture. It’s as important to reading the Bible as tuning an instrument is to playing music. Understanding the genre of a work helps you read in harmony with what is written. It “attunes” you to its structure, purpose, and language. Genre is literary attunement.

Let’s keep going with Hebrews as our example. It matters that it’s not a letter. True letters like Philemon or Galatians are written to very specific people for a very specific reason. You write a letter to say thanks or express condolences or ask a favor or give instruction. If Hebrews isn’t a letter then it shouldn’t be read like Philemon or Galatians (in which the historical moment is key to interpretation), or like a doctrinal treatise (for which the didactic elements are most important), but rather like the sermons in Acts or the homilies of Jesus. How do we read sermons? What makes them different than traditional letters? Well, there may be some degree of historical specificity to a sermon, but they tend to be more “generalized” than letters. They also tend to be organized around exhortation rather than argumentation. Sermons contain argumentation, to be sure, but the point and purpose of a homily is, in the end, the imperative: “believe” or “behave” or, in the case of Hebrews, “hold fast” (Heb. 10:23).

Noticing that can help you solve a lot of problems when it comes to interpreting a book like Hebrews. It’s common in Hebrews to try and reconstruct the situation within which the author was writing. Was he addressing Jews who were tempted to return to temple worship? Maybe, but if so the author doesn’t describe the situation in the way we have come to expect from letters (consider, for example, Galatians or the Corinthian Correspondence). Such a historical reconstruction is not as important for understanding a sermon like Hebrews as it is a polemical letter like Galatians. Why? Because sermons are more general and therefore less “situationally immediate” than letters. Regardless of the specific temptation, the point is hold fast.

Where to Go from Here

“The beginning of things tells you stuff” rule will serve you well in many circumstances, but it’s not a magic bullet. Though we ordinarily identify genre intuitively, mistakes do occur, even in our own culture. We start reading a standard newspaper article only to realize we are actually in an op-ed or piece of “fake news.” Hopefully the process of reading, combined with our own cultural awareness, corrects the mistake before we find ourselves embarrassed, but sometimes we just simply “didn’t get it.”

These mistakes are compounded when we interpret literary works far removed from our own cultural context. Extra thought and analysis are required in these cases to make sure we don’t get on the wrong train. The Bible is an ancient book, and God speaks through it “in many ways” (Heb. 1:1). As a result, it’s not always easy to determine genre. Or we may have correctly classified the genre of a book—the Psalms as Hebrew poetry, for example—but nevertheless have only a limited understanding of how that genre worked at the time—Hebrew poetry does not behave in the same way modern English poetry behaves.

So there is more work to be done. A good study bible or special introduction or commentary can go a long way to helping you bridge the gap, but the best way forward is to immerse yourself in the “many times and many ways” that God has spoken to us.


Tommy Keene is the Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Tommy Keene