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Genre: Narrative October 7, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in Genre.
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Last week we took a brief look at figurative language and I mentioned the idea of genre. I want to go through a few different genres in the Bible, explaining them and showing their unique characteristics. Once you understand the genre of the passage you are reading it will help you understand it better. As I said before, there are many different genres and sub-genres in the Bible. Whenever we come to a different genre in the Bible it requires changes in how we read the text. In the same way that you can’t read a poem the same way you read a biography, or a novel the same way as a dictionary, you can’t read Psalms the same way you read Judges. They are different genres and need to be read and interpreted in light of their unique characteristics. Each book of the Bible fits generally into one major genre, although even in the individual books there can be some small sections in a different genre. Exodus is mostly narrative, but chapter 15 is a song and fits more into the poetic genre. Over the next few weeks I want to go through: narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle, discourse and finally ethical instruction. Once we understand these major genres then we can talk about the smaller sub-genres like parables and allegories.

The first genre we come across in the Bible is narrative. Narrative is basically just the narration of events. It is an attempt to record what is happening and is telling a story. All the books from Genesis to Esther for the most part fit into this category. I would also put the book of Jonah, the Gospels and Acts into this category. There are also examples of narrative in other books like Job or Daniel that also have other genres.

The most important thing to know about this category is that it is literal. What is written is what is meant. There is no hidden meaning or figurative meaning. It is simply stating the events as they happened. There actually was a flood. The Israelites really did cross the Red Sea on dry land. Jonah was literally swallowed by a big fish. These things are not symbolic statements to teach us things, they actually happened.

Although the Bible is true and historically accurate, it is not a history book. These narrative texts are not trying to explain the history of the world at that time. They aren’t even necessarily trying to recount the history of the Israelites. There is a story unfolding throughout the Bible and the narratives show us the plot and the main characters of this story. As we read through the narratives we need to think “big picture”. Look at who the story is following. Some characters get a lot more time and their story is explained in more detail then others. When the story slows down and focuses in on a specific individual or situation or individual it is for a reason. It may not be a good reason, but there is always a reason for emphasizing certain people over others. Take Genesis 5 for example. In Genesis 1-4 we have the story of creation and the fall and Cain and Abel. Chapter 6 begins a large section on Noah and the flood. When we look at chapter 5 though, we see a whole line of people who get barely mentioned. All we know about Seth, the third child born in the entire world is how old he was when he gave birth to Enosh and how old he was when he died. Seth was 912 years old when he died. He must have done something in this time. Whatever he did or what he was like we have no record of. His main importance is that he was the third born of Adam and Eve and he continues the line from Adam to Noah. In fact all the generations from Seth to Lamech are there just so we can trace the lineage from Adam to Noah. There is a slight parenthetical with Enoch, but for the most part these people were born had kids and then died.

As we are reading through these narrative texts we need see how each of the characters adds to the story. Then when we come to characters whose lives and situations are described more fully, we can ask what is so special about them and why they are given more attention. Isaac’s two sons are Jacob and Esau. They are twins and Esau is actually born first. As the first born he has more rights and inheritance than his brother. Why then, does the story follow Jacob? And when we look at Jacob’s sons we see the story following Joseph, the youngest of the bunch. What makes his life more important to the overarching story?

As you read through the story of the narratives try and understand what is happening. A good place to start is with the five “w” questions: who, what, where, when, and why.

Who are the main characters? (How are the characters defined/described in the text?)

Who are the secondary characters, and how are they involved?

What is going on in the story?

Where are they at and where are they going?

When is this taking place?

When did they start/finish?

Why is this event recorded?

Why are certain things happening the way they are?

These are some general things to keep in mind as you read through the narratives. This is just a starting point. There are many more questions you can and should ask as you are reading. We will get more into that when we get into the details of studying out a passage. If you are just reading there is no need to answer all these questions. But, as you come across answers to these questions in your reading, make a note of them. If you come to a passage that you don’t understand or want to understand better you can go through these questions in more detail and write down your findings.

Finally, as you read through the narratives think “contextually”. The stories and events that are described are all interrelated. Don’t read the texts in isolation. Going back to Genesis, as you read through you will find a lot of smaller stories that make up the big bigger story Genesis is telling. Look at how these stories are related. Look at the promises spoken to Abraham and watch how God begins to bring these promises to fruition throughout the rest of the book.

Just to recap, when reading narratives we need to:

1)      Think literally – don’t look for metaphorical meanings

2)      Read it as story – look for the plot

3)      Look for the main characters – why are they important

4)      Take special note of events where there are lots of details

5)      Read contextually – put the pieces together

6)      Ask questions

Reflection

The story of the Bible involves God’s interaction with His creation. He is the main character of the Bible in general. Even if it is not specifically stated, He is working behind the scenes to bring about His will. As we read through the narrative genre we can see how He acts and get an idea of what His character and desires. Pick a character in the Bible and see how God directs and guides that person. What should be our proper response to God’s leading?

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Comments»

1. Seth Ehorn - October 12, 2009

Please do the apocalyptic genre next! I think we could all use a little help on that one.

TJ Friend - October 12, 2009

I was actually thinking about skipping that one. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in it. But, seeing as how you specifically requested it, I will in fact do a post on apocalyptic genre. I have a few other ones to do first, but rest assured I will get to it.

2. Seth Ehorn - October 12, 2009

Seeing as it is so strange, a succinct post might be nice for your readers (including me!). Perhaps consider not just “the Apocalypse” (i.e., Revelation), but also the apocalyptic sub-genres of the Bible (i.e., Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ death in Matthew’s gospel, etc…). This are well known, well read passages which are ripe for understanding with the apocalyptic genre.

Blessings.


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