Knowing the different genres found in the Bible can be helpful in understanding and interpreting them. Nothing ground-breaking here, as we tend to sense instinctively whether to take something literally or figuratively. Just as you wouldn’t read Pride and Prejudice (novel: romantic comedy) the same way you’d read Leaves of Grass (poetry), you don’t read Leviticus 3:16 (And the priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering with a pleasing aroma. All fat is the Lord's.) the same way you would Proverbs 3:16 (Long life is in [wisdom’s] right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour). One passage is clearly prescriptive—do this, don’t do that—and the other is figurative, personifying wisdom as a woman bearing abstract gifts.
Genre was foremost on the minds of those who first compiled the different scrolls of the Scriptures into a fixed order. The Jewish Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, is called TaNaKh in Hebrew, a collection of three types of writings: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). The Christian Old Testament books are arranged slightly differently, but the same basic groupings are preserved. Book by book, here’s a quick overview of the main genres you’ll find.
Moses is another Old Testament figure who foreshadows Jesus Christ, like Joseph. In fact, the parallels are striking. While there are certainly major differences between the two—Jesus lived a sinless life; Moses killed a man; Moses establishes the moral and civil code of a nation; Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world—but in at least seven key ways, Moses’ life hints at the character and mission of the Messiah to come.
When I was twelve years old, we read a short story called The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst in my Grade 7 English class. The dying ibis that lands in a tree in the backyard, my teacher explained, was an example of foreshadowing, the author letting us know in advance about the tragedy to come. I was entranced. To this day when someone mentions foreshadowing, I see a scarlet ibis in my mind.
The Bible is full of foreshadowing as well, but of a special kind. Throughout the Old Testament are figures whose lives predict to greater or lesser degree what the Christ would be like, called types. The first one we encounter is Joseph, around 1850 years B.C., whose life story shows four key aspects of Jesus’ character and mission.
One of the main poetic devices in Biblical poetry is a repetition of two or more ideas, called parallelism. Like most Hebrew poetic devices, this is hyper-translatable, since its beauty does not depend on the sounds of any given language. This is the major characteristic of Hebrew poetry and it parallelisms are used extensively in all the books of Wisdom and Prophets from Job to Malachi.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.