How should we read the Old Testament? Considering Genres.

Reading the Bible and reflecting on its message for us, is a fundamental activity for people of faith. Understanding the Biblical message and its application in our lives is the purpose of private meditation or devotion times, group studies, and preaching in worship. So thinking about how we undertake that process of interpretation is good to do, from time to time.

One of the issues that is raised, when we think about interpretation, relates to what we understand the biblical texts are. We need to appreciate the nature of the text we are reading; let it speak in its own right; let the kind of text that it is guide the way we go about reading it.

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we identified a number of different literary genres that are found within the Old Testament: narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. We also noted that we think about the nature of these texts, that will shape and inform the way that we interpret and apply them.

(1) When we read passages that comprise lists of Laws, we probably begin to think about how these laws were relevant to the ancient society, where people had different customs and practices. Are they still relevant today? Do we still keep slaves or stone sinners or slaughter animals for sacrifice? Such matters have shifted over time, so we automatically start to sift and sort amongst the laws.

Some laws, we will want to keep, because they seem to apply across time and space, or because they contain fundamental principles (“love your neighbour as yourself”, for instance). Other laws, we will classify as no longer relevant. Some will sit in between and we need to think further about them. We happily engage in this process of sorting and sifting when we read Laws in the books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy).

(2) Other parts of the Pentateuch contain extended Narratives, telling stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs (in Genesis) and of the origins of Israel as the people left Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and entered into the land of Canaan (Exodus and Numbers, Joshua and Judges, and Ruth). Then follows a series of narrative books telling of the kings and the prophets (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) and then, later, of the return to the land (Ezra and Nehemiah).

These Narratives have the appearance of historical accounts—they are organised chronologically, the have a series of key characters, and they focus on developments, challenges, and changes in society. Indeed, we label the main stream of these books with the term The Deuteronomic History, laying claim to their character as history.

Nevertheless, careful study of these books indicates that this is not always history as we know it in the contemporary world. We have other expectations and patterns in our modern histories. And we certainly should not consider these to be “objective history”; they are not, as the biases and prejudices of the authors are evident. (And, besides, is there actually any such thing as “objective history”? Are not all accounts told from a particular perspective with a specific agenda in kind?) These narratives are history-like, but not exactly history per se.

So as we read these history-like texts, we can have a number of questions in mind, that help us to enter into the story, understand the dynamics at work, and identify with or against the various key characters. As we do this, we may well develop an understanding of how God is portrayed as being active in the story as we have it.

(3) In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like Myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. The passages that we saw as fitting into this category are the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith. Seeing certain narrative texts as myths may well open up new insights when we allow the text to engage us in a quite different way.

(4) When we come to Poetry, we bring with us an assumption that we will be reading words that have been carefully chosen, artistically arranged, and designed to create specific feelings in us as readers. We don’t come expecting the poetry to apply directly in the way that some of the Laws apply. Nor do we expect that poetry needs to be read as objective factual accounts of things that happened. Rather, we accept that the creativity of the author is designed to inspire our own imaginations.

So we bring a different method of interpretation to this kind of literature. We appreciate the structure of the songs in the book of Psalms, or of the oracles of various Prophets, enjoying the skill of the wordplays and imagery employed for their own sake, as well as for what insights they offer into the human condition and how we relate to God. The love poetry of the Song of Songs and the wistful poems of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes

(5) Wisdom sayings such as we find in Proverbs are different again, and we read them with a different set of expectations in mind, asking a different set of questions, with another bunch of conclusions emerging from our consideration of them. By their nature, proverbs are quoted without any specific context—they look just like “general sayings”—and are strung together to form longer sections of text which actually have no sense of plot, character, development, and so on.

We can perhaps happily extract individual proverbs from their biblical context and talk about how they apply to us today, with apparent relative ease. Perhaps there is a place for this, although gaining understanding of the social and historical contexts in which the proverbs were created and passed on, can offer different insights and deeper understandings 9f what is being said in such texts.

(6) Prophetic words are found largely in the books named after individual prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve grouped together as “minor prophets” (Amos, Joel, Hosea, Jonah, etc …). Some prophetic words are embedded in the history-like narratives noted above; this relates to figures such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha.

The classic way to approach prophetic texts has been to scout these books looking for “words that have been fulfilled by Jesus”. That is a very narrow way to approach such texts. For one thing, it actually discounts many of the verses in each of these books. For another, it discounts the political, cultural, social and religious contexts in which the prophetic oracles were delivered.

Prophecy, in its fundamental character, is not fore-telling, oriented to the future. Rather, it is more naturally understood as forth-telling, proclaiming a word of the Lord into the current circumstances of the prophet. So understanding the original context assumes a greater significance in the way we approach prophetic writings. Likewise, exploring both the impact of the poetic language and the reasons for the literary ordering and shaping of the oracles merit careful attention.

(7) In some of the books of the prophets, we find sections that are characterised as Apocalyptic (Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel). These are passages which paint a picture of a time and a place that is differs from the time and place of the author. They are texts which claim to reveal how God is going to act in the future, to judge the wickedness that exists and bring about the kingdom of justice and peace on the earth.

The word Apocalyptic is a transliteration of a Greek word that means “unveil” or “revealing”. An Apocalypse is usually presented as a message that has come through a dream or a vision, in which a messenger from God speaks about what is yet to come. It most often contains vivid, dramatic scenes that we cannot interpret as literal scenes; Apocalyptic is thoroughly symbolic.

Apocalyptic literature was written in situations where the people of Israel felt oppressed, dominated by a foreign power, forced into compromises in their religious and cultural practices. The vision or dream portrayed life in a positive, hopeful manner. It was offered as an encouragement to people of faith to hold fast to their faith and look to the promised future, when God would act in their favour.

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In each of these genres, the questions we have in mind, the presuppositions we bring, the reading tools that we have honed and developed, will inform amd guide how we interpret each form of literature. There is no general, overarching, blanket set of rules. Each text needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-can-we-preach-on-passages-in-the-bible-that-are-myths/

and see earlier posts at

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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