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.
Creation to just before entering the Promised Land
Entering the Promised Land to being exiled by the Assyrians or Babylonians
Returning from or staying in Babylon
Works of poetry and wisdom
The Major Prophets
“The Twelve”: these shorter texts compose one scroll
Here are a few guiding questions to help you make the most of your reading of the various genres across the Old Testament.
And one last observation. Ancient writers believed the more important the message, the more care should be put into making the “container” worthy of the “contents”. That’s why prophets wrote in poetic form, why Genesis 1 feels like a poem, or why Jacob’s and Moses’ final words are expressed as songs. We tend to feel the poetic form detracts from the “truthiness” of the message, but in fact the opposite is true.
Stay tuned for genre in the New Testament: gospels (including parables), epistles, and a special kind of prophecy.