A lifetime of reading and teaching literature has taught me a lot about how to read the Bible. And reading the Bible has taught me a lot about how to read literature.
Yes, the Bible is God’s inspired Word, and the Holy Spirit teaches and guides us as we read (and that’s a big difference between the Bible and other literature). But the basics of reading skillfully are the same for reading the Bible as for any other work of literature. After all, the Bible is a literary text (even with God as its author).
God chose to reveal Himself to us through language, the medium for all works of literature. We use the same comprehension, analytical, and interpretive skills when we read the Bible as we do any other work of literature. Both the Bible and literature require us to read attentively, focusing, asking questions, and seeking understanding, first on the literal level, then along interpretive layers.
One way to understand both literature and the Bible better is to read with an understanding of literary genres. For example, when we read a novel, we do so knowing that it’s not a true story in the way a biography is, so we approach it differently. Likewise, we don’t read a love letter the same way we read a newspaper article, do we?
The sixty-six books of the Bible are comprised of many different genres: histories, genealogies, aphorisms, poetry, prophecies, epics, letters, and other forms. Within each of these books, we can often find other lesser-known genres such as hero stories, dedications, invective, oracles of judgment, and many more. While the literary forms contained in the Bible can sometimes be obscure, ancient genres that are unfamiliar to most readers today, it is also easy to find beautiful instances of more well-known and beloved literary approaches.
For example, the Book of Esther offers a lovely model of narrative, one that features some of the most compelling components of good storytelling: a unified plotline, dynamic characters, a courtly setting, a sinister plot and a dramatic counterplot, villains and heroes, and an exciting rescue that ends in victory for God’s people.
On the other hand, Job is one of the most difficult books of the Bible to read. A basic understanding of drama can help a reader wrestle with both the structural and the theological complexities of this text. The book consists of long speeches by Job and his friends, but if we envision the drama of the situation—an earnest debate between friends wrestling with one of the most vexing philosophical questions known to humanity (the problem of suffering)—it is easier to comprehend the meaning of the work as a whole. Further, paying attention to the language throughout the book—for example, the way the poetry that comprises most of it is framed at the beginning and end with prose that sets up and concludes the entire narrative—helps the reader better interpret the parts in relation to the whole.
Significant variety within the same genre can be seen as well. The letters of Paul display a range of postures, tones, and themes, depending on the context, audience, and purpose of each letter. In contrast to these, the letter by the writer of Jude is one of the most heated, satirical, and polemical books in the Bible. Recognizing this fiery approach, as well as the fact that this fury is directed at false teachers, offers insight into how seriously God takes this matter. Yet, even in its harshness, the language of Jude is elevated, even at times, to the heights of poetry. With fierceness and eloquence, the writer says of the wolves who prey on God’s sheep:
These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever (Jude 1:12-13, NIV).
Passages such as this demonstrate that it’s not only genres that matter in reading the Bible with attention to its literary qualities—but it’s the language itself that teaches us.
Consider these stunning images from Psalm 8:1-5 (NIV):
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
Using simple but powerful words, these few verses encompass all of creation, as well as the Creator, the beginning and the end of our being, and the power of His might, power that can be seen in His very fingers. Note that in using and repeating the word your, the Psalmist was telling the reader whom he was speaking to and reminding us that all what he describes—the heavens, the moon, the star, even the enemies—belongs to Him.
Such artistry of language—from simple words that convey powerful truth to overarching patterns that direct our interpretation and application—reveals a God who communicates to us carefully and meaningfully through His words. The Bible employs imagery, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, apostrophe, and countless other figures of speech, along with genres, to communicate the power of our God, the reality of His truths, and the applicability of His words to our everyday lives.
Karen Swallow Prior is an award-winning professor of English at Liberty University. She earned her Ph.D. in English at SUNY Buffalo. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Christianity Today, Washington Post, Vox, First Things, Sojourners, Relevant, Think Christian, and other places. She is a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Senior Fellow at Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live on a one-hundred-year-old homestead in central Virginia with sundry horses, dogs, and chickens. And lots of books.