The Bible is a book made for a lifetime of study. Explore how the style of the Bible invites readers into deeper thought and meditation on its words.
Jon: So the Bible is a collection of books written in different literary styles like narrative, poetry, and prose. And most of us are familiar with these kinds of literature.
Tim: Yeah. We all know a narrative when we see one, like The Hunger Games or The Great Gatsby.
Jon: And most people can recognize poetry whether it’s Walt Whitman or the songs of Bob Dylan.
Tim: And every day we’re surrounded by prose in news articles or essays.
Jon: Now all these examples are modern American literature in that they came from this time period and this region of the world.
Tim: But there’s also medieval English literature from another place and time or ancient Greek writings from this place and time.
Jon: So each time period and culture produces its own unique kind of literature.
Tim: And in order to read the Bible well, we need to keep in mind that it comes from this part of the world and was produced in this basic period of time.
Jon: So what’s unique about ancient Jewish literature?
Tim: Well a key feature is that it lacks a lot of the details that modern readers have come to expect in stories and poems.
Jon: And this makes it seem really simple.
Tim: But actually it’s very sophisticated literature. Every detail that is given matters.
Jon: And that’s great, but the lack of detail means the stories are often loaded with ambiguities. I mean, take one of the first stories, Adam and Eve in the garden. Where did this talking snake come from, and why did God allow him there? Why didn’t Adam and Eve die on the spot like God said they would? And who’s this offspring of the woman who will destroy the snake but is bitten by it?
Tim: Yeah––so many puzzles in this story. And some of these are questions that we have and that are not important to what the author is focusing on. But some of these ambiguities are intentional.
Jon: Intentional? Won’t that lead to bad interpretations, people filling in the gaps with their own answers?
Tim: Well that’s a risk the biblical authors took in writing this way. We all tend to impose our own cultural assumptions onto the Bible, but they apparently thought the risk was worth it. These oddities are really invitations into an adventure of reading and discovery.
Jon: What do you mean?
Tim: Well for example, the strange promise about the offspring of the woman crushing and being bitten by the snake. That word “offspring” is a clue to pay attention to genealogies, which, lo and behold, run all through the whole biblical narrative. They trace the lineage of Eve all the way to King David and his offspring. And in the New Testament, Jesus is connected to the offspring of this royal line.
Now, when you read the prophets, Isaiah connected this king to the suffering servant who would die on behalf of his people. And then in the book of Revelation, there’s this symbolic vision, and can you guess? It’s about a woman and her offspring. It’s Jesus and his followers who conquer the dragon by giving up their lives.
Jon: Yeah, so each part of the story there is loaded with ambiguities, but all together it makes sense.
Tim: And this is the literary genius of the Bible. It forces you to keep reading and then interpret each part in light of the others.
Jon: This is feeling complicated. I don’t know if I can do all that.
Tim: Well you’re actually not expected to notice all of this by yourself or all at once. This dense way of writing forces you to slow down and then read carefully, embarking on this interactive discovery process through the whole biblical narrative over a lifetime of reading and re-reading.
Jon: Ah, okay. Meditation literature.
Tim: Yeah. In Psalm 1, we read about the ideal Bible reader. It’s someone who meditates on the Scriptures day and night. In Hebrew, the word “meditate” means literally to mutter or speak quietly. The idea is that every day for the rest of your life you slowly, quietly read the Bible out loud to yourself and then go talk about it with your friends, pondering the puzzles, making connections, and discovering what it all means. And as you let the Bible interpret itself, something remarkable happens. The Bible starts to read you. Because ultimately the writers of the Bible want you to adopt this story as your story.
Jon: So this ancient Jewish writing style, it must create unique types of narrative, and poetry, and discourse.
Tim: Yes, and we’ll explore all those literary styles starting next with biblical narrative.