7 What Kind of Material am I Reading?

Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Any time you read anything it is important to be aware of what type of thing you are reading. You read a news report of a crime differently than you do a mystery story. Both are about crimes, but one is a real crime and one is fictional. Your emotional reaction will be different reading them. Your expectations will be different. You read the mystery story to find out who did it in the end; you read a news report hoping they catch whoever did it. A news report that includes the catching of the criminal is satisfying (unless it turns out the criminal is a friend of yours), but you know that this doesn’t always happen, so if the report ends with the police still looking into the crime, you accept it.

If you read or watched a whole mystery story and then at the end they don’t tell you who did it, it would make you mad, because the rules of the genre of mystery story include finding out who did it. Publishers know that misunderstandings of genre can be disturbing, which is why if a novel contains non-realistic elements such as magic or super science, they find a way to tell the reader that before he starts to read.

If you are reading what you think is a realistic novel about a young woman aging out of an orphanage in Kenya, you expect to watch her grow in her knowledge of herself and her world. You want to see her mature, build connections, find contentment and begin to lead a fulfilling life. You would not expect that half-way through she would find a wrecked alien space ship and use its technology to defeat a group of vampires who are secretly ruling the world. If she did, many readers would throw the book away in disgust (though some of us might think that the story had taken a very interesting turn).

The different kinds of written and artistic materials are called genres. We discern genre all the time without thinking about it. Let’s say someone on television claims that a new type of car is the safest, most comfortable and most fuel-efficient ever made. To really understand him you need to know if he is a researcher reporting scientific findings, a test driver giving an opinion, or an actor in a commercial. If you were watching thinking he was reporting the results of research and then you find out it’s a paid advertisement, you would probably be irritated. You’d also have to change how you understand everything that you just heard. This is entirely because of the differences in the expectations we have for the genre of advertisement as opposed to news report. Sometimes a person will say something that sounds ignorant or stupid, then claim that it was a joke. They are trying to move what they said into a different genre to escape embarrassment because it’s acceptable to sound ignorant in a joke, but not in normal conversation.

Being aware of the genre you are reading will have a significant effect on how you interpret it. Misunderstanding the genre can be disastrous. In the 1930s a radio station did a dramatic narration of the novel The War of the Worlds, in which Martians invade the earth, but instead of telling the story from one man’s perspective, as the book does, they presented it as a live newscast. Before the broadcast, the station explained that what follows was fiction, but not everyone heard the beginning. People who tuned in after the program had begun thought that they were listening to a real newscast of a real invasion. Thousands of people fled in a mass panic. The problem was entirely a misunderstanding of genre.

The same thing happens in reading the Bible. We read that Samson burned the grain fields of the Philistines because Samson’s father-in-law, who was a Philistine, had given Samson’s wife to another man. Some people might think that this shows that it is sometimes good to take revenge, or that whole communities should bear the punishment for the sins of a few of its members, but this is a mistake of genre. The story of Samson is a narrative, that is, it describes what Samson did. It isn’t a law telling us what to do. It doesn’t even imply that God approved of the action. Since God commands us not to take revenge (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 32:35), we can know that Samson did the wrong thing. Learning to understand genre will help you avoid this kind of mistake and notice it when you hear it from others.

These lessons will explain the foundational genre of the Old Testament, which is the genre of narrative, or story. The reason this is important is because misunderstanding genres is possibly the most common source of misinterpretation of the Old Testament. Understanding the various types of writing is the most important step to being a competent reader, and so is pretty important. After you have finished this course, you can read the additional materials I will post on other, harder, genres.

At the highest level you can break the Old Testament into two genres: prose and poetry. Prose is what we think of as normal communication. We usually speak to each other in prose. Prose is composed of sentences and paragraphs. It’s mostly literal and is used to impart information. Instructions and stories are both prose.

Poetry is a special form of speech that is in an artistically arranged pattern so that it has a rhythm of some kind, often a pattern of rhyming words, but it could also be a repeated sound in the middle or beginnings of words, or a pattern in the number of syllables or even in the meaning of the phrases. Poetry is usually intended to stir an emotional response more than prose does. Poetry is composed of lines, which may not be complete sentences, and may just consist of a figure of speech.

Prose and poetry can each be divided into further genres. The most common and important prose genres of the Old Testament are narrative, law code and didactic (or teaching). The most important genres of poetry are wisdom, prophecy, apocalypse and psalms, a type of poetry including both songs and prayers.

You should be aware that not all genres are equally easy to understand. Some are definitely easier to master than others. Fortunately, the one that is easiest to master is also the one with the most foundational information and is the one you should start with. Since the goal of these lessons is to get you started reading the Old Testament, we will look at how to understand the stories (called “narrative”) so that you can read them with some confidence. Being familiar with the content of the stories allows you to understand the world in which the other materials were written. You really need to be familiar with the narratives of the Old Testament before you try to understand prophecy.

The books from Genesis through Esther are mostly narratives, though the first few books also contain law codes and genealogies and they all have some poetry. Parts of other books are narratives as well, such as Jonah, Job, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

You will learn to understand poetry by reading the Psalms. These are usually not too hard to understand and many of them you will find easy to relate to. They are written from and about the whole range of human emotion and experience. When you read the Psalms you will certainly find some that reflect your current thoughts and feelings. Because of this, some of them are as easy for a Christian to understand as the narrative stories. Their humanness makes them accessible and this is probably why many Bibles are printed as just the New Testament and Psalms, because the Psalms are the only part of the Old Testament many people read. They aren’t the place to start if you want to read the rest of the Old Testament though, not the way the stories are. When you get to them, they will help you develop an instinct for how to read Hebrew poetry. Since the prophets wrote mostly in poetry, this is a vital step to understanding them.

Start with the Stories

When you start reading the Bible from Genesis, the first book, it soon becomes clear that what you are reading are stories. It is important to actually notice this since about half of the Old Testament consists of stories. God did not have to begin with stories, but he did. The Old Testament begins with books that tell the story of God’s relationship with the human race so that we human readers can understand Him. Then there are books of wisdom and prophecy that talk more directly about what His plans and desires are.

Notice that the New Testament follows the same pattern: there are the gospels and Acts, which tell a story, then the epistles and Revelation. This is no accident. There is a reason that stories come first. In both cases, these stories are vital to understanding the books that follow. Many of us would have begun with teaching and some basic facts, then used stories to illustrate the teaching. But we find that stories take first place in the Bible and there are good reasons for this which might challenge some of our assumptions.

Many of us assume that God should prefer to teach in the same way that teachers in modern schools do. But God teaches us in story form much more than in a direct teaching format because it is a better method for teaching truths that have complex application. In this case, the application is how to live our lives. Stories are not as good as direct statements if you are explaining something simple such as how to use some piece of equipment, how to cook a particular food or how to get to someone’s house. Since mastering life is harder than mastering a computer, another way is needed.

Stories are also better than direct statements at getting to know a person. Here’s a story. When David, who later became king, came to bring supplies to his brothers who were in the army, he saw and heard the giant Goliath challenging the armies of Israel and asked about what reward would go to the man who won the challenge. This big talk from an inexperienced little brother made his oldest brother angry. He said,

David’s oldest brother Eliab listened as he spoke to the men, and became angry with him. “Why did you come down here?” he asked. “Who did you leave those few sheep with in the wilderness? I know your arrogance and your evil heart—you came down to see the battle!” “What have I done now?” protested David. “It was just a question.” (1 Sam. 17:28-29 HCSB).

Who hasn’t heard an older and younger brother have just this kind of interaction? You see the whole relationship in a few sentences. If I try to summarize their relationship directly, how should I do it? Eliab resented David? He didn’t like David? David was intimidated by Eliab? David avoided conflict, but his brother didn’t? You see that none of these really capture what is communicated in the two verses above. None of them even feel completely correct. Direct statements can rarely capture the complexities of personality the way a story can.

There is more, though. As we reflect on these verses we see that Eliab didn’t have a pure heart and he assumed David didn’t either. Eliab’s assumptions about David’s motives gives us an insight into his own motivations. We see, too, that Eliab didn’t see the issue as David did – that what was at stake is the honor of Israel’s God. Not only did he not believe in David, he didn’t believe in God’s ability to deliver them from this giant. Do you see how all this was contained in just two verses? It actually takes more time to directly state this content than to tell the story, and even what I’ve said here does not exhaust what is contained in those verses.

Stories can also drive home a point that goes against our assumptions when we think we understand something, but really don’t. In Genesis 28, Jacob was sent away by his parents to find a wife. On the way, God appeared to him and repeats to him the promises made to his grandfather Abraham. God specifically promised to protect Jacob and never abandon him. When he woke up Jacob was afraid and we read,

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” (Gen. 28:20-22 NIV)

Do you see a problem with Jacob’s attitude? He said “If God will be with me…and will give me food to eat…so that I return safely…then the Lord will be my God…” How much does he trust God? What is he looking for from God? Does he think that God is worthy of worship even if He doesn’t give Jacob what Jacob wants? No. We see a self-centered relationship with God. Jacob thinks that if he wants something, he has to get it for himself. Jacob decides what is good for himself and sets his own goals. For Jacob, God is a potential partner in this scheme. If God backs him up, then he will give God a share of what he gets. Jacob suffers a great deal in life as a result of this attitude.

Jacob’s story is a journey of him letting go of control, trusting God and genuinely worshiping God. The Bible could have just told us this about Jacob in a few sentences, but this would not have the same power to challenge us about our own attitudes toward God. When you read Jacob’s vow, you might hear the echo of some of your own prayers and be reminded of some of the “deals” you’ve made with God.

The Old Testament is not a book that lends itself to simple truths and easy answers. You have to be willing to grapple with truths that point in different directions. You will see that obeying God does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Being financially blessed is sometimes associated with faithfully following God (Abraham), but often isn’t. In 1 Samuel 25 the arrogant and self-centered Nabal is wealthy, while David is an outlaw on the run.

Knowing God is not an easy thing. It involves ups and downs. The choices we make as we go through our life with God are vitally important. The New Testament writers understood this, but rarely wrote of it directly. They didn’t need to because their Bible was already full of this message.

This has hopefully introduced you to the idea of the genres of the Old Testament. We should read each of these types of Scripture with somewhat different expectations. Of these genres, narrative is a good one to begin to with and it’s the one you will start with if you just begin reading the Bible in Genesis. The next two lessons will be specifically about the narrative genre and give you some ideas about what to look for as you read and how to better understand the Scriptures Jesus read.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Questions for Discussion
  1. What are other examples of genre?

  2. What are some mistakes we can make when we misunderstand genre? Have you ever been disappointed because the genre of something you watched or read was not what you expected?

  3. The Psalms can be seen as lessons in how to relate to God. What are your experiences with the Psalms?

  4. What particularly struck you about the superiority of stories to more direct teaching? Can you think of an example of when a story would be more helpful than direct instruction?

  5. Have you or someone you know made deals with God like Jacob did ? What does this tell you about what kind of relationship that person had God or how they think of God?

  6. Does the idea of having unanswered questions make you uncomfortable? Why do you think this is? How important is it to have all our questions answered?

Name Famous stories and people
Foundations Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
Family Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Fulfillment and Failure Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth

Kings Saul, David, Solomon
Kingdoms Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Kicked Out Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
Came Back Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Lesson Six

Lesson Eight