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Methods of Studying the Bible Series Introduction: The Old Testament Genres

The Bible is a unique collection of 66 books written across two covenants known as the Old and New Testaments. It is God's story of His plan to rescue, redeem, and restore what we lost in the fall of humanity that took place in the Garden of Eden. "In God's plan and through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the relationship between God and humanity was restored" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p.3). The restoration that occurred can be experienced personally through the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit that leads to conviction of sin and repentance. Studying the Bible, or God's Word to us, is a multifaceted process that should be done correctly in order to respond correctly to its teachings. Through this series on studying Scripture, we'll cover several methods such as studying the different genres, making an in-depth-approach to biblical passages, and understanding biblical stories within their context.

The Different Genres

Before Biblical passages can be studied by themselves, the bigger context of Scripture that a passage fits within should be analyzed first. Context, context, context should be the Bible student's version of the realtor's location, location, location mantra. Among the methods of studying the Bible is understanding its genres. Both the Old and New Testament have a collection of differing genres that overlap.

The Law

The first five books of the Bible are known as the Torah, or law. Scripture also includes a genre of itself known as the Law. This may seem confusing at first glance as the first five books of the Bible contain what is known as narrative and law. However, as this series continues, distinguishing between the two will become second-nature. We'll cover the genre of the law below and the legal material that God ordained to Israel.

Three things to remember regarding God's law code to Israel:

  1. The legal code was given to Israel by God within the contexts of their story in the Bible

  2. The Laws mentioned in the Torah are tied to the Mosaic, or outward, conditional covenant. This covenant was a "conditional covenant tied to Israel's obedience" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p.183) since Christ hadn't come to earth yet to atone for sins and the Holy Spirit did not indwell believers yet.

  3. The law's principle is to reveal "our guilt before God" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 183).

Each law held within the Torah reveals God's attributes of justice, mercy, holiness, compassion, etc. When this principle is understood, moral absolutes begin to be realized since we are not comparing ourselves to other people, but instead to a blameless Judge who created life, emotion, and all of creation.


Narrative, at its core, is story. Story makes up as much as 40% of the Bible, according to Bible scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This includes books such as Exodus, Genesis, Joshua, Ruth, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, Exra, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Job, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Job, Daniel, Haggai, and Jonah (not in this order).

Each narrative has a framework of beginning, middle, and end. The narrative genre tells a story of a segment in history that includes real biblical characters and their encounters that ultimately point to God. "For example, 1 Samuel 4-6 details how God brought victory over the Philistines through the ark even though the Israelites treated the ark of the covenant as a good luck charm" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 190).

Another important piece to remember is that narrative contains three elements: setting, character, and plot. Setting is usually communicated first and establishes where the story occurs both historically and geographically. Characters are the humans involved in the story and God since the Bible is collectively His Word. Human characters are the people God uses to demonstrate a Biblical truth. Plot consists of the driving action that moves the biblical story from its beginning to its end. Events that take place within the narrative are not chanced, gambled, or randomized. Below are visual examples of the elements setting, character, and plot described by the staff at the Bible Project.

Wisdom and Poetry

The books of the Bible that fit within the wisdom and poetry genres are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. These particular books, except Job, were written during the same timeframe of Israelite history and represent the wisdom of Israel's two greatest kings David and his son, Solomon. Job was written within the timeframe of Genesis (around the time of the patriarchs, and possibly prior to the conquest to overtake Canaan), thus making it the oldest book in the Bible.

Wisdom books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes deal with deep truths. Both books illustrate how to live successfully and are focused on this life on Earth instead of eternity. The form of Proverbs is similar to "wisdom literature of the ancient Near East" (Hindson and Towns). Proverbs are usually short sentences that illustrate wisdom in a consolidated form.

The poetic books of Psalms, Job, and Song of Solomon have different functions even though they are united in the same genre of poetry. The Psalms are songs of prayer and praise. They reflect true worship and include the full spectrum of human emotion as God's presence is entered. Job is structured poetically and narratively. For example, a prologue and epilogue ensues in this book and Job's speeches contain laments, which is a psalm form, and wisdom. Song of Solomon is poetic in nature, dealing with love, romance, sex, and marriage and how these were created by God and were to be enjoyed within marriage.

Prophetic Literature

Grasping the nature of prophetic literature can be done by examining the prophet used in a particular book of the Bible and the history that surrounds him. This is important since all prophetic literature in the Bible includes historical accounts. The goal of a prophet was not to predict the future, but instead "played an important and extensive role in the nation of Israel" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 206).

Prophets were called by God. They were confronted by Him and then commissioned. God used the prophets to ultimately reveal God's character and point Israel and other nations to God. When dealing with prophetic literature such as Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Micah, Zechariah, etc., Israel's covenants need to be understood. These covenants include the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant. Using this as a tool for understanding will identify the prophet's ministry, as well as the why and how God was using him.

Another key tool to understanding prophetic literature is understanding literary features within their writings. Some prophets delivered their message through the vice of a lawsuit where "Israel was the defendant while God takes on the role of prosecuting attorney or judge" (Cartwright, Gutierrez, and Hulshof, p. 209). Symbolism is another tool that is used to illustrate God's purpose and divine plan. Another tool used within prophetic literature is a "woe oracle."These were warning prophesies that used the term "woe" on numerous occasions. Likewise, a "salvation oracle" promises hope relating to a future day of God's blessings. Knowing where each prophetic books resides in Israel's history can help reveal these literary features.

In Closing

The Bible encompasses an immense amount of detail, but peeling back the layers of each unique genre can help aid your study of God's word both as a whole and with individual passages. Understanding the different genres helps unlock not only spiritual growth, but knowledge that also defines other key aspect of the Scripture and God.


Two books that are extremely helpful in studying the books and genres of the Bible are listed below:

  1. Everyday Bible Study: Growing in the Christian Faith by John Cartwright, Ben Gutierrez, and Chris Hulshof

  2. Illustrated Bible Survey: An Introduction by Ed Hindson and Elmer L. Towns

Both books above can be found on the Logos Bible App that can be downloaded on the Apple or Google App Store. Membership fees may apply if the books are not available through a college.

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