I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone defend the reality of a burning hell with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16. Some consider it one of their most powerful arguments.
The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
But it’s only a parable.
Many believers insist on a literal reading of the Bible with little regard to the intent or the genre of a passage, and the Bible contains many genres such as prose, poetry, letters, fiction, apocalyptic, lament, legend, midrash, parable, homily, and many more.
Today we look at a couple common ones.
Some people read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus for details on what hell is like, but parables are not factual. Parables are brief stories to make a point. In this case the point is at the end of the story.
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers, and Abraham replies:
If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
The point is that if people do not believe God based on what they have heard, then they are not going to believe someone raised from the dead either. The rest of the story is only to build up to the point. The parable makes a point memorable that might otherwise be forgotten.
This is true of all parables. We shouldn’t dig into them for facts but should focus on the point each one illustrates. Some try to analyze parables like an allegory to discover what each element represents, but usually the message is only in the main point.
Another genre often misunderstood is inspirational fiction, which is often confused with historical reporting. A number of popular inspirational stories in the Old Testament are about devoted Israelites who came in contact with world leaders and, with the help of God, had a tremendous impact on them.
Some examples are:
God told Jonah to warn the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, about their upcoming destruction. He resisted at first before complying. But when his warning reached the King of Assyria, the king and the city repented and God spared them.
Jonah felt angry and betrayed, because he wanted the Assyrians destroyed; he said, ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ God taught Jonah a lesson about compassion.
Daniel lived an exemplary Jewish lifestyle as a captive in Babylon. He was presented to King Nebuchadnezzar and interpreted his dream about the future of his kingdom. Later, he was called before King Belshazzar to interpret the writing on the wall and predicted the king would be defeated by Darius the Mede.
Later still, Daniel became a favorite of King Darius, but Darius was tricked into condemning Daniel to the lions for serving his Jewish God. However, to Darius’ great joy Daniel survived. Darius responded: ‘I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.’
Esther was chosen to be the queen of the Persian King Xerxes. Working with her cousin Mordecai she conceived a plan to expose a plot by Haman, the king’s right-hand man, to kill all the Jews. The plan worked; Haman was executed and the Jews were spared.
As a result, ‘Many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.’ and ‘Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful.’
Can you imagine the thrill, inspiration, and satisfaction the conquered Jews experienced from hearing these stories? The stories are very inspirational, but they aren’t history. In Genesis, Joseph interacted with the Pharaoh of Egypt, which is likely another example of an inspirational story.
Recognizing genre is important to understanding what the Bible intends to say in context. Otherwise, we might think something is historical reporting when it is not. Parables and inspirational fiction are just two genres represented in the Bible. Next time we will talk about another genre—Jewish wisdom literature.
Image credit: Rich Man and Lazarus by Bartholomeus van Bassen (circa 1590–1652) via Wikimedia Commons
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Have a great day! ~Tim