Learn the Rules of the Game

Key on bibleIf you wanted to be a rock star in the 80’s, you had to have lots and lots of hair with serious  body to it (even for the fellas). You also needed to wear copious quantities of make-up.  Guitar solos were not optional.  We might ask, “Why?!?” But the only answer could be, “Because that’s how it was.  That’s the way it was done.”  The genre of 80’s rock included these elements.  We could list a different set of criteria for other genres of music.

Try watching rugby with only an understanding of the rules of American football.  You’ll be confused.  Likewise, try making sense of cricket with only the knowledge of baseball.  Confusion will again ensue.  While there are similarities, these are different games.  And different games play by different rules.  If you don’t know the rules of the game, you’ll enjoy it a lot less.  You also will misunderstand things.  You’ll get it wrong.

This whole metaphor of a game is a good illustration of an important area of biblical interpretation: genre (the plural form is genres).  Robert Stein develops this illustration in his book A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.  Football has rules; so too does basketball (we could name any sport here).  Or we could name board games: you don’t play Clue by the rules of Monopoly.  Each game has different objectives, different rules, different ways of scoring, and so on.  If you really want to appreciate the game (or even understand it) you have to learn its particular rules.

The Bible is a big book that is made up of many smaller books (66 in fact).  These books differ in many ways.  Some were written in Hebrew or Aramaic (the Old Testament); some were written in Greek (the New Testament).  Some were written by a single author in one sitting (Philemon); some were written by multiple authors over hundreds of years (the Psalms).  But there are also many different kinds of books.  Stated another way: the Bible includes many different genres of literature.  Each of these types of literature have their own principles of interpretation.

If you really want to understand what God would say to you in his Word, you need to pay attention to the type of literature you are examining.  Doing so will dramatically increase your ability to understand and appreciate what that text means and is saying (and ultimately how it applies to your life).

For instance, the Bible contains historical narrative, legal material, poetry, prophecy, gospels, and letters.  These are broad categories that include many sub-genres – apocalyptic is a special sub-class of the broader genre of prophecy.  The gospels include multiple sub-genres, such as parables.

You don’t read all genres in the same way.  If you do, the results will be nonsense.  You interpret a parable in keeping with the principles of interpretation for parables; likewise for law codes, genealogies, and so on.  You don’t understand a reference to God as a rock in the Psalms (poetry) in the same way you understand a reference to God as love in 1 John (an epistle), or that God is one as in Deuteronomy.  Why don’t you?  Genre.  You follow the rules of the game.

One important skill in biblical interpretation is to become familiar with each of the genres of biblical literature and learn to interpret in light of the rules of that particular “game.”  These rules aren’t arbitrary – the Bible teaches us how to interpret itself.  Some awareness of these types of genres within the broader historical context will also prove helpful.

The Stein book mentioned above is one very helpful source for beginning to understand genre, likewise the classic How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart can’t be too strongly endorsed.  We’ll also move through the interpretation of various Biblical genres in this blog in the months to come.