Everything we read is intended to be read in a different way. Instructional manuals give how-to directions, news reports summarize current events, stories invite us into the lives of interesting characters, and jokes are designed to make us laugh. When we start reading something, we are already deciding how to read it. For example, when you hear the words “Once upon a time” you know you are reading a fairy tale which means you’ll have a romantic plot, some supernatural or magical elements, and some kind of moral tale which probably ends with a “happily every after.”
Knowing the kind of writing will help you know how to read it. The the same holds true for the Bible. The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings, intended to be read in different ways. There are stories, poetry, legal code, cryptic symbolism, and advice manuals. These are called genres. This is the most important key in reading through the whole Bible.
For example, the Bible begins with a series of stories (or narratives). From Genesis to Exodus Chapter 20, we have a variety of fascinating stories of flawed human beings and their imperfect interactions with the God of creation. But as Moses goes up on the holy mountain to hear from God, the genre changes from story narrative to legal code. And by the third book of the Bible, Leviticus, we need a paralegal to help us sort it out!
I was talking to a friend who hit this very moment in reading through the Bible. He said, “I was really into this story of Moses hearing from God and then I was reading all these laws! And I just lost interest. What happened?” I said, “Keep reading, just read differently. Moses went up on the mountain to hear how the Israelites were supposed to live for God. Now you’re going to read the laws God told Moses. They are about religion, family, farming, social justice, and real estate. It’s not a story, it’s law. Try to find the logic behind the laws and then it will get back into the story.”
Here are a few pieces of advice about how to read the Bible through its various genres:
1. Notice when the genre changes.
Changes in genre require a shift in thinking. I already mentioned the Exodus 20 change from story/narrative to law. There are more of these changes in the first part of the Bible than in the New Testament. When you get stuck in your reading, it could be that the author has changed genres. Go with the author.
2. Read the genres according to their rules.
History reads differently than poetry. Jesus’ simple teaching stories read differently than the cryptic warnings of the prophets. Like any other kind of literature, knowing some simple “rules” about how to read a genre can help. Here’s a link to some basic ways to read Bible genres.
3. Keep your eye on the Bible’s BIG STORY.
While the Bible has different writing styles and is writing throughout the centuries to different people, it actually has one big thread running through it all. The Bible records the story of a loving God pursuing relationship with wayward human beings. It’s a love story that starts with creation, spanning time and culture, to the making of a new creation, with Jesus the Messiah as the center of God’s redemptive story.
One more thought… reading the Bible from cover to cover is awesome but not the only way to do it, especially because not all the books of the Bible are arranged chronologically. You can read it in segments (ex. Genesis-Deuteronomy, The Minor Prophets, Matthew-John, all of Paul’s Letters), or there are many other Bible reading plans out there to go by.
Whatever approach you take, reading the whole Bible is a wonderful way to learn all that God has said and revealed throughout the centuries. And reading different genres helps us appreciate God’s diverse ways of communicating to all the different kinds of people He has created and loves.