What Is Literary Genre?
Of every passage of Scripture, we must first notice the form it takes (i.e., how does it mean?) before we look at its content (i.e., whatdid it mean?). The word genre is a French word meaning “form” or “kind.” When applied to biblical interpretation, the expression literary genre simply refers to the different categories or types of literature found in the Bible. In the Old Testament you will encounter narrative, law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. The New Testament forms include gospel, history, letter, and apocalyptic literature. Both Old and New Testaments feature a number of subgenres (e.g., parables, riddles, sermons). We will discuss all the major literary genres in the last part of Grasping God’s Word. For now, we will settle for why we need to recognize the literary genre to read a passage “in context.”
The metaphor that many linguists use to describe literary genre is that of a game. You can think of each genre as a different kind of game complete with its own set of rules. This insightful analogy shows how we as readers have to play by the rules when it comes to recognizing literary genre.
Think for a moment of a European soccer fan attending his first (American) football and basketball games. In football the offensive and defensive players can use their hands to push their opponents. In basketball and soccer they cannot. In basketball players cannot kick the ball, but they can hold it with their hands. In soccer the reverse is true. In football everyone can hold the ball with his hands but only one person can kick it. In soccer everyone can kick the ball but only one person can hold it. Unless we understand the rules under which the game is played, what is taking place is bound to be confusing.
In a similar way, there are different “game” rules involved in the interpretation of the different kinds of biblical literature. The author has “played his game,” that is, has sought to convey his meaning, under the rules covering the particular literary form he has used. Unless we know those rules, we will almost certainly misinterpret his meaning.
For communication to occur, the reader must be on the same page as the author in terms of genre. When the stranger said “go for it,” you could have responded with questions to clarify the meaning. But how can we clarify the meaning of the ancient authors when they are not around to field our questions? The answer is literary genre. As Vanhoozer puts it, “What writing pulls asunder—author, context, text, reader—genre joins together.” Footnotes (at end of page): Even though the author and reader cannot have a face-to-face conversation, they meet in the text where they are able to communicate because they subscribe to a common set of rules—the rules of the particular genre.
In this way, literary genre acts as a kind of covenant of communication, a fixed agreement between author and reader about how to communicate. In order for us to “keep the covenant,” we must let the author’s choice of genre determine the rules we use to understand his words. To disregard literary genre in the Bible is to violate our covenant with the biblical author and with the Holy Spirit who inspired his message.
If you stop and think about it, you are constantly encountering different genres in the course of ordinary life. In a single day you might read a newspaper, look up a number in a telephone directory, order from a menu, reflect on a poem, enjoy a love letter, wade through instructions on how to get to a friend’s house, or meditate on a devotional book. When you meet these different genres, you know (whether you are conscious of it or not) that you need to play by certain rules of communication, the rules established by the genre itself. If you fail to play by its rules, you run the risk of misreading.
You run dangerous risks if you confuse a telephone directory with a love letter or mistake a menu for directions to a friend’s house. Obviously we don’t read menus the same way that we read love letters or newspapers the same way that we read devotional books. We know this because the various genres evoke certain interpretive expectations on the part of the reader. The genre game determines the rules for interpretation. Just as we know that the kind of game determines the rules we play by, so we know that each literary genre in the Bible comes with its own set of built-in rules for interpretation. When readers pay attention to those rules, they have a much greater chance of reading the passage as it was intended. Genres shape our expectations about how to approach a particular text. The form or genre of the text really is connected to the content of the text and, for this reason, we should take literary genre seriously. The very meaning of the Bible is at stake!