Studying the Bible for Yourself: Genre and Context

The Bible is not about us. Too often we approach the Bible looking for how it can make our lives better or what it says that is meaningful for our needs. But the Bible was written to give God’s story – His plan of redemption through His Son Jesus Christ. The Bible is all about God and particularly Jesus. We need to read it in light of this truth, to see how Jesus is revealed throughout the Old and New Testaments.

When studying the Bible, we need to remember that this was written over a period of thousands of years to various groups of people. There are several aspects we need to keep in mind. One of these is the type of literary genre. We don’t read a fiction book the same way we read a non-fiction book or a poem or a newspaper. Similarly, we need to be aware of what genre we are reading when we read the Bible.
Depending on what you read or who you refer to, there are different classifications or lists as far as the different types of literary genres. The main ones are: historical narrative (for example 1 Samuel, 1 Kings), poetry (such as Psalms), prophecy (like Jeremiah), gospel (Matthew through John), epistles or letters (such as Romans) and apocalyptic (Revelation). Some also break out the Law as a genre that is given in places like Leviticus and Wisdom is considered a genre – such as Proverbs.
What can also cause confusion is that each book of the Bible isn’t necessarily all one specific genre. Genesis is mostly historical narrative, but also has poetry. Isaiah is mostly prophecy, but also has historical narrative. So understanding genre can sometimes be difficult.
Definition of Genre: “A category of literature which is to be read and interpreted according to distinct and specific rules that are assumed upon the writing.” For more information about genres and understanding the different types, the Secret Church How to Study the Bible part 4 video (and accompanying study guide available in pdf) is an excellent explanation and resource.

Next we need to consider the context. When most people think of context, they think of the surrounding verses. While this is true, there is a lot more to realizing the context. We need to know the cultural and historical context – who is the original audience? Who is the writer and why is he writing this? What is the cultural background (for example, Malachi is written after the Jews have returned from captivity and are back in their homeland but still not under their own rule)? The cultural and historical background of the audience of Leviticus is quite different from the cultural and historical background of Jeremiah. Even more so is the cultural and historical background of the audience of Ephesians. And all these are far removed from our own cultural and historical background. This is where a Bible handbook on the customs and culture of Bible times comes in handy – to see what is happening at the time a particular book of the Bible is written. What were the people who originally received this book going through?
Context is also the surrounding verses. The current chapter and verse divisions that we have in our Bibles are not part of the original manuscripts of the Bible. They were added later. And sometimes the breaks are not in the best places. So when reading a passage we need to consider what is around it – not just the immediate verses, but the larger passage and even the whole book that it is part of. And beyond that the scope of the whole Bible. Here we compare Scripture with Scripture. If the meaning of a passage seems to say something that contradicts another passage, then we are not understanding one of the passages correctly. Another aspect of context is grammatical – looking at verb tenses. How did the author present his point? Was he using past, present or future tense?
All of these factors play a part in what a passage is saying – how would the original audience have understood this in light of their culture and current circumstances? The text cannot mean what it never meant. When we come to our Bibles, we bring our own context to it, our own presuppositions and worldview. We need to learn to filter that out and look at it from the standpoint of when it was written, to whom it was written, the purpose of the author (the original intent), and other contextual factors mentioned above. The more we study and learn, the more we can understand. Bible study is a discipline and needs to be practiced in order to continually grow in our understanding.

Next in our series, we will take a look at the first step in the inductive study method: Observation.

*Source material for this blog series came from a variety of sources.
Living by the Book by Howard and William Hendricks
Women of the Word by Jen Wilkins
Lord, Teach Me to Study the Bible in 28 Days by Kay Arthur
Credo House Bible Boot Camp video series (link is broken, no longer posted)
Secret Church: How to Study the Bible series
How to Read the Bible by A.J. Conyers (out of print, but seemingly available used)

Previous posts in this series:
Studying the Bible for Yourself: Introduction

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