Wednesday, September 2, 2020

OT-3 Poetry, Legalese and History Lessons

The Big Idea: Literary styles of the Old Testament writers is useful to understand they are saying.

So what are you in the mood for tonight?

On movie night at our house my husband will ask, so what kind of movie interests you tonight? On Netflix or movies at the library there are categories to choose from. Action/Adventure, Comedy, Romance, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Docu-Drama… It depends on what you are looking for. These are called Movie Genres, which are categories of stylistic categories of theme and presentation. 

The Bible likewise has a number of writing genres. Categorizing the Scriptures goes way back to the Old Testament (OT) times. They were categorized as the Teachings (Torah - Law of Moses), the Prophets (Former Prophets and Latter Prophets), and the Writings (Psalms and Wisdom Literature). Jesus referred to these categories too (Luke 24:44).  It helps us to understand what we are reading better if we understand the intention and style of the book. So let's look at the typical literary styles of the Old Testament.


The Bible is like a huge library. There are 66 books in two separate parts. The Old Testament, the books about the calling and forming of the Hebrew people before the time of Christ, and the New Testament, with books about Christ and the early church. All the books have one central theme. God who created mankind loves each one of us and wants a dynamic ongoing relationship with us. We are His creatures and He has great love for us. He wants to be part of our life. But He won't force us to love Him.

Each book of the Bible has to do with this theme. Just like a library, there are different types of literature. There are stories. There are poems. There are legal sounding laws. There are prophecies and declarations. These different categories of writing present God's ideas in a variety of manners. People are different. I'm sure you've noticed that. Even within one culture, even within one family, people have different personalities. And the variety of ways that God communicates resonates more with different people. Additionally, the stories and the sub themes weave together to give us the bigger picture of God's message to us. God likes it that we can know Him and His love. He also likes it that we need to continually seek Him and learn more about the mysteries of who He is. Loving God is never boring.

One of my favorite online Bible resources is The Bible Project. They have wonderful videos that explain the Bible. Here is their introduction to the styles of books in the Bible. It is helpful to watch this 5 minute video first. 

As the Bible Project explained, 43% of the Bible is Narrative, stories, characters introduced, history, and so on. Poetry makes up a whopping 33%. But if you don't like poetry, like "Mary had a little lamb," Don't write it off.  Bible poetry is ancient literature filled with imagery, metaphors and analogies about life, not cute little rhymes. And 24% of the Bible is discourse. A discussion type of conversation about life. Useful information.

Old Testament Genres are often put into these categories. It is common for a couple of styles tend to blend together in a book, but most books are predominately one type. Also you will find some teachers who change a few of the category names but it follows the same principles. The categories are:

  • Law
  • History
  • Poetry
  • Wisdom
  • Prophecy
  • Apocalypse



These sections of the Bible read a little more wooden than others sometimes. They sound like legal binding contracts, or how-to instruction manuals. Background studies of the nations in the world at that time, had contracts and guidelines similar in form to Biblical passages. The format was familiar to its time, though foreign to us. This includes things like the various covenants God made with man, the Ten Commandments, and guiding rules for the people. This falls into the discourse category. They generally cover:

  • Moral laws on how to live
  • Ceremonial laws on tabernacle and sacrificial worship
  • Civil law that governed and protected the people of God

The first five books of the Bible are considered books of the Law.  They are interspersed with some history, poetry, and even prophecy.


History writings are narrative in nature. They tell us what happened. They include various components such as background, location, political conditions, even weather conditions and crop factors that influence normal human life.  We see character development of key Biblical figures. We observe conversations and life choices. Sometimes there is a very evident spiritual lesson. Other times it gives background and flesh to the whole of the Biblical journey of God's people. These are the books from Joshua to Nehemiah.



Often these two categories are combined when grouping books of the Bible. Poetry is all the Psalms, and sections of other books. Wisdom literature and the Prophets intersperse poetry. 

Poetry from ancient Middle Eastern Literature is a whole different meter and flow than the way we read poetry. The Bible Project devotes several informative videos to explaining poetry of this period. What we do know is poetry expresses the gamut of human emotions and the human experience. They can be teaching aids. Imagery and metaphors play a part in this genre.

Wisdom literature, which often uses poetry, is a collection of wise sayings and advice to shape the quality of life and moral values of its readers. These are true principles with guidelines for life such as how to live and how not to behave.  They are not as direct in terms of doctrine and the promises of God.

The books of Wisdom are considered to be Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes.



Many see prophecy as a prediction of the future.  More accurately a human being speaks on God's behalf what He wants people to know. Often in the context God states He sees what they are doing and tells what will happen if they obey or disobey. A blessing or curse forward may be conditional. Often it forshadows into the future but the future is not the only aspect of it.

There are four major prophetic books and 12 minor prophetic books in the Old Testament. The only difference is the volume, not how great the prophet was. These prophets emerged when the Hebrew people seriously strayed from God. God wanted the prophets to make clear His covenant love for His people; the consequences of straying and the blessing to return. God assured the people no matter how angry they made Him and no matter how far they strayed, He would be faithful, and there would be faithful people (a remnant) who would emerge. The promise of the coming Kingdom of the Messiah abounds.

Biblical prophecy is often telescopic. When one looks through a telescope or a zoom camera lens they can pull into focus several points along a spectrum. Prophecy has a current application to the people and a future application as well. It may fulfill an aspect at a future time and may apply much futher down the road too. I call this the telescopic layers of prophecy. This would probably be a good blog subject someday. 



Apocalyptic literature is similar to Prophetic books in that prophets speak God's urgent message to the people of both warnings and comfort. It is about the Last Days. Daniel is the primary apocalyptic book in the Old Testament, though it occurs in some of the other Prophetic books too. It is important to not take any one piece of Apocalyptic literature as a stand-alone text. Part of its beauty is the message intertwining and verifying future events with other passages in the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament. It has a lot of metaphorical, symbolic language.



When you read the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, you might find some books seem a little obscure or difficult to read. It helps to ask yourself, what type of literature might this be? You might find the answer in a study Bible in the introduction of the book. It will help you to place why the book may have been written. It will also steer your focus. Is it background to God's codes of conduct, worship guidelines, or life illustrations of key characters on what not to do? How does it fit with the rest of the Bible and other books that are similar to it or in the same time period? Why might God have included this in our Bible?

I am drawn to quiet classical or soft jazz music. I like to read classic mystery novels and classic devotional literature. In a similar fashion I have my favorite books of the Bible. I love the Psalms and could read them every day. However it is important for me, and for all of us, to not just stay in the same books of the Bible all the time.



In college I was a nursing major. But the university required courses from several areas of study. My
Nursing program included what, at first glance, I thought were some rather odd courses. Statistics. I really hate math classes, but its importance was toward understanding nursing research. Communication Theory helped nurses integrate our ability to connect with patients, coordinate with patient teams and to organize and lead support groups.  There were subjects I would not have chosen for my dream class list, but they made me a well-rounded nurse and a better human being.

To apply this analogy, we may gravitate to our favorite go-to books of the Bible. We may choose the same type of Sunday School class or read/listen often to favorite authors or preachers on a favored subject. But to have a well rounded understanding of the Bible and a Christian walk, have some familiarity with the Bible as a whole. Read different genres and ask God what He has for you. Become a well rounded Christian, rather than one fixated only on their favorite subjects. This is how we will grow to maturity in Christ.

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. 

Hebrews 6:1 NLT

Up Next: Old Testament: Tips for Studying the Old Testament

Previous Post: Old Testament: The Boring Parts by Design?


For Reflection:

1. What are your favorite books of the Bible. Why?

2. What type of Scripture might you challenge yourself to read or study for something different? Be willing to ask God to teach you something special.

3. Consider talking this over with a friend and sharing questions and ideas.

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