Of Rules, Shellfish, and Mad Hebrew Rhymes (Law and Poetry)
We begin our study of biblical genres with two of the most read in the entire Bible: the law and the poets.
Law & Order: Old Testament
If you want to understand the Bible and its genres, the best place to start is the genre that is the most misunderstood: The Law. This is the part of the Bible that discusses things like religious ceremonies, moral imperatives, and how far you can walk on a Sabbath day.
Most biblical scholars agree that the law genre is comprised of at least Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and chapters 20-32 of Exodus. Other scholars also include the rest of Exodus as well as Genesis and Numbers.
Regardless of which way you lean, the law is the written expression of God’s expectation for His chosen people, the nation of Israel. It provided a framework for the Israelites to understand and relate to the Holy God.
There are many things written in the law that modern sensibilities find troubling, and some people actively reject these parts of the Bible without understanding the context. The law covered things like marriage, divorce, property disputes, worship, government, personal hygiene, work, family relationships, diet, and even personal style, getting down into very specific detail.
The reasoning behind so many rules was simple: the Israelites were intended to stand apart from the cultures surrounding them, as a testimony to their unique relationship with God. Failure to follow the rules would result in a failure to represent God and bring Him glory.
As a modern reader of the Bible, keeping the historical context in mind is key to understanding the law. While much of the law is echoed in the New Testament, there are many specific laws that were done away with for the Church. (No eating shellfish being one dismissed rule that every seafood aficionado applauds).
When you read the Law, remember that it’s intent was to keep God’s chosen people in a holy relationship with Him.
Dropping Mad Verses
The second biblical genre we’ll cover in this article is poetry, which many scholars agree to be Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Though the psalms have the most recognizable poetic format, all five of the books are examples of ancient poetry.
So first things first – why doesn’t biblical poetry rhyme?
Ancient poetry differs from its modern counterpart because it concentrates on wisdom gleaned through individual experience. Whereas other biblical genres are often about large groups of people, the books of poetry are focused on the life and struggles of the authors. They emphasize the spiritual life of God’s people.
They also don’t sound like the poems you’re used to. Instead of building poems on rhyme, structure, and meter, Biblical poetry relies on things like parallelism (stating and restating a thought), comparison (similes, metaphors, implied comparisons), and figure of speech (hyperbole, rhetorical questions, anthropomorphism).
The result is a large section of books that share powerful insights on faith, trust, doubt, fear, hopelessness, joy, and the entire gamut of human emotion. We still use images and phrases from these books in our modern speech (bite the dust, by the skin of your teeth, eat-drink-and-be-merry, fly in the ointment, and even the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds).
This powerful language communicates truth and emotion in a way that other genres cannot. It’s one of the reasons that biblical poetry still speaks to the modern era, and is a favorite for anyone looking to draw closer to God through Scripture.
And really, that intimacy—that drawing close—is the point of both the law and poetry. Don’t be afraid to dig in and experience each for yourself. While there’s a lot that can confuse, keeping in mind each genres’ basic purpose and context will help you understand their greatest gift:
These genres help the reader understand how God relates to humanity and how humanity relates to God.