In the Toolshed: How to Read Bible Genres

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on

Can you imagine going to a Vampire Horror Romance film and mistaking it for a documentary? Of course not! You’d have to have been living in a cave for a good portion of your life, or perhaps be a traveler from another time and culture to make such a mistake. When we go to see a movie we automatically engage in genre recognition. It tells us how the film means. How to derive significance and meaning from it. What, if anything, to do after you’ve seen it. We are, most of us, experts at genre identification because we are part of the culture. We’ve seen movies (some of us, LOTS of movies) and engage in this type of recognition without even thinking about it.

But, when it comes to the Bible, we are very much like those time travelers from another culture. We pick it up and are confused by what we read. We’re not quite sure how the particular story is supposed to mean. What is the meaning or significance we are meant to see in it? And if we’re not confused we’re often falsely confident that we know what’s happening, substituting genres we understand for what the Bible actually says.

Luckily there are men and women who dedicate their lives to understanding the particular genres of the Bible. They do a lot of historical and cultural background work. They compare biblical literature with other literature close in time and place. And they help us with this awkward and tricky work of genre recognition that we’re so used to doing automatically. The following is taken from a Kaleo Blitz session we put on a couple years ago. I encourage you to bookmark this, especially if you’re reading through BI3Y, and to come back to it as needed

Bible Genres - Old Testament

Genesis 1-11

*Unlike anything else in the Bible

*Some of it is MYTH-like: “Story that explains phenomena and experience, an ideology that explains the cosmos.” (NOT “myth” in the sense of fanciful or untrue)

*Addresses those metaphysical concerns that cannot be known by scientific discovery.

*More Artistic & Figurative than Scientific & Literalistic (Painted as an artist might envision them)

*Suprahistorical - Things that apply to these characters also happen and apply to us

        • ie. our own rebellion, fallenness & need for God’s grace

      • Has a focus on “Functional” origins (human and divine roles within creation) and NOT “material” origins (How the universe was actually made by God)

  • SO ASK: Who is God? What does God care about? What does it mean to be human? What were we made for? Why and in what ways am I and the world broken? And How do we experience God’s Grace?

Old Testament Narrative (Story)

*Close to what we identify as straightforward history

*But had different standards for what made for good historiography (history writing)

*chronology is less important

*gaps are not only tolerated but made for good storytelling

*ideological impulse assumed (in this way they are more consistent than much of our modern perceptions of good history writing which often assumes a bias free approach to writing is possible)

*But also good literature

*artistic impulse

*tells a good story because this is a part of what it means to be human

*But also good theology

*God’s Work in and through history

*SO ASK: How did God bring about His promise (COVENANT) to Rescue & Bless the World? What can we learn from Israel about our role in this?

Old Testament Law

*Stipulations for Israel to live by as a nation

*A binding contract between God and Israel

*Not OUR Testament/Covenant

*Rules have now changed for a New Covenant because of Christ

*Israelite Civil Laws & Israelite Ritual laws do not apply to Christians

*Much of the Old ethical law is restated in the New

*All Old Testament law is still God’s Word to us: Wants us to know about them - part of the unfolding story and it reveals God’s character

*SO ASK: What did God command of Isreal? How does this reveal God’s love, justice and high standards? How does it also reveal God’s mercy?


*Tends toward poetic style

*Focuses on themes of wise/foolish living - The “Two Ways”

*Often designed to be more memorable than theoretically accurate 

*SO ASK: What is the wise way to live before God and one another in this world?


*Focused on Praise and Prayer

*Many sub-genres (different types of Psalms)

*Wisdom, praise, lament, thanksgiving, royal, historical, imprecatory and more

*Much of our liturgy is formed from the Psalms - Israel’s hymnbook

*Poetic and therefore sometimes more ambiguous. Emphasis on beauty

*SO ASK: How are we to communicate with God through prayer and praise and lament etc.?


*Covenant Enforcement Mediators

*Prophet’s message was not their own but God’s

*Prophet’s were God’s direct representatives

*The Prophet’s message was not original

*Telescoping nature - often both an immediate AND more remote/future fulfillment in view

*Often a poetic style

*SO ASK: How did God enforce the Promise - Covenant in Israel? What is God’s Word to us today?

Bible Genres - New Testament


*Similar to Old Testament narrative

*Centred on life, death & resurrection of Jesus

*Focus on how Jesus answers the challenges of Gen 1-11

*Focus on how Jesus fulfills God’s Covenant Promise from the rest of the Old Testament

*Jesus: Answer to the curse, Covenant, Wisdom, Praise, Prophets

*Fulfillment of Old Testament and Israel

*Reveals God

*SO ASK: Who is God in light of Jesus? Who am I in light of Jesus?


*A history of the early church

*See the church spread from Jerusalem to the whole known world

*Not about characters (Peter, Paul) or church organization so much as this movement of God’s Spirit in the church and its spread.

*Acts as a model, not of specifics but of overall behaviour - seeing God’s delight & sovereignty in expanding the church.

SO ASK: What are some patterns in the early church that help direct us as a church? Warning: distinguishing between descriptive (what happened then?)  & prescriptive (what should happen today?). What does the story of the early church reveal about God’s involvement with his people? With outsiders?

Epistles (New Testament Letters)

*Letters -sometimes to communities, sometimes to individuals

*Like listening in on one side of a phone conversation - so understanding can be difficult

*Context is super important because of this (Intros or commentaries are helpful here - Or your BI3Y blog!)

*Whole letter is important

*Challenges: Different situations, Cultural relativity

*Core versus peripheral issues in the Bible

*New Testament uniform v. non-uniform teaching (food offered to idols sometimes prohibited other times not)

*Commands for the sake of mission at that time

SO ASK: What situations is the writer addressing? How might they comment on our situation now? 

Apocalyptic (Revelation & Other Portions of Books)

*Apocalypse - unveiling/uncovering - reveals what’s truly happening - a lot of focus on right now - how to read history

*An important and creative way of retelling the gospel  during a time of desperate need


*Literary (Story driven)

*Often Full of visions and dreams - cryptic

*Fantastic - heavily image driven

*Often “yet to be” meant very soon at hand in relation to the author’s time

*But apocalyptic also so often points to the very end - when God sums everything up

*These 2 held together in Apocalyptic: History has a sort of spiral to it (remember telescoping)

*SO ASK: What is the picture that is being painted here? How does it fit within the story of the Gospel I already know from the rest of Scripture? How does this teach me how to read history now? And how to see Christ’s judgment, deliverance and mercy in action right now?

Recommended Resources for Genre ID:

  • How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth. Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart

  • How to Read the Bible Book by Book. Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart

  • The Bible Project on YOUTUBE