Recognizing Literary Genres in the Bible

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.

Rich Man and Lazarus

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.

Parables

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.

Inspirational Fiction

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:

Jonah

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

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

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.

Genre

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
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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21 Responses to Recognizing Literary Genres in the Bible

  1. michaeleeast says:

    The study of genre is important .
    Much of the Bible is poetry and metaphor.
    The story of Lazarus and the rich man is very ancient .
    I believe it was told in ancient Egypt.
    The use of the name Lazarus may involve midrash
    as it was Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead.

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  2. sheila0405 says:

    How does one figure out when something is truly historical, and when it is not? For instance, I believe that the story of the Flood, of Jonah, and of Job, are allegorical in nature. These are like the folklore we read to our children, to help them figure out a complex world with simplicity a child can understand.

    Do you believe that the Jews really existed as portrayed in the Bible? Was there really an Abraham, a Moses, a Joseph, and a King David? What helps you to figure it all correctly? I generally look to the Jews to help me. If the nation believes there were such literal people, I am inclined to believe it, too. But I don’t know nearly enough about midrash or the Talmud. Still on that journey of exploration.

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    • Sheila,

      Scholarly research provides a lot of guidelines, and I think it is helpful. But I don’t think I can ever understand precisely what is factual in the detail of the Old Testament.

      Research, including archeology, indicates that there was no mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt who wandered in the Sinai Desert for 40 years, and there was no sudden conquest of Canaanite inhabitants by outsiders as described in Joshua.

      I think some of the Abrahamic material is extremely ancient, though it was edited much later with an agenda that probably distorts the picture of Abraham. I don’t think Joseph is historical. There were Kingdoms of Israel and Judea, as information on them is available in non-Jewish records.

      In regard to the New Testament, I believe Jesus existed and we have enough information about him to get a good idea of what he was all about. Paul certainly existed and we have a good representation of his letters.

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  3. Marc says:

    Tim – Although it is important to be aware of the literary genres used in the Scriptures, I think you are a little quick to dismiss some of the revelations. The story about the rich man and Lazarus reveals more than you indicate. It confirms that there is an intermediate state of souls in the spiritual realm (Hades is not the Lake of Fire). It also confirms that repentance can take place after death. The rich man was indeed coming to his senses in the illumination of reality.

    Regarding the stories about Joseph and the Exodus, The Hyksos period in lower Egypt provides for a reasonable understanding about what likely happened. The numbers of the Exodus are clearly not to be understood literally. Given the number of Israelites who entered Egypt and the time elapsed before their departure, they probably numbered less than 30,000 with 5 to 6 thousand fighting men. The movement of this number of people during a time of the expulsion of the Hyksos would likely leave little in archaeological findings. The conquest of Canaan was likely less violent and decisive than the hyperboles of Scripture indicates.

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      • Marc says:

        Sheila – I guess I am inclined to accept the historical accuracy of Biblical accounts unless the weight of evidence indicates that the story is an allegory.

        I believe an actual Adam and Eve could have existed if they were the first humans to have a spiritual component. However, I do not believe that they were the first hominids with human anatomy and physiology.

        I believe that the flood account of Noah could be historically correct in a local area such as the Persian Gulf that was mostly dry ground before the massive ice melts of the last ice age about 8,000 years ago. I do not believe there was a global flood, although shorelines were effected globally leading to the many cultural flood stories.

        Although the stories regarding Job and Jonah might be allegories, I believe the stories regarding Abraham and his family are mostly historically accurate. The OT is primarily the story of the ancestors of the Virgin Mary, who passed on her human heritage to the Incarnation of God; Jesus Christ.

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        • sheila0405 says:

          I’m also inclined to see the Abrahamic narratives as history. But the vast numbers of people who exited Egypt? Perhaps hyperbole, since no archaelogical data exists to support the presence of more than a million people wandering around the wilderness for 40 years. I mean, wouldn’t there be some skeletons to be found? And, we’ve seen how far tidal waves can travel. If the earth was having multiple upheavals on the sea floor, there could have been some major floods around, for sure. But a global flood, one which decimated all life on the entire face of the earth at one time? There’s no fossil record of anything like that happening. We’d have dinosaurs, dogs, insects and such within the same layer. I don’t believe that is the case. I see the Bible more as a spiritual book, one that points us to a loving God who seeks us out. Not as a history text, science text, or even a theological text. It is a collection of books that can give us insight into who we are as humans, how we interact with each other, and with God. And, I believe the stories have to be read in context as well as within proper genre.

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    • Hi Marc, I think you are right about the possible realities of the exodus and conquest–the facts were likely greatly exaggerated in the Old Testament. This is the point I tried to make–that we cannot expect the Bible to provide accurate historical detail as claimed by inerrantists.

      Regarding the rich man and Lazarus, I am comfortable with those who find more insight in the story than I do, but I cannot accept that it confirms a burning hell and all the baggage associated with that. As a fundamentalist and an evangelical I found that proving the existence of hell was basically the only use for this parable.

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      • Marc says:

        Hi Tim, You are absolutely correct about the fact that the story of Lazarus and the rich man does not confirm a burning hell. What it does confirm is that there is a particular judgment that takes place at the end of this life when we enter the spiritual realm. The illumination about how God’s sees our lives can be painful, but it is meant to bring us to repentance (sources of light also produce heat). It appears as though the rich man was responding to the therapy by coming to his senses. His repentance and further illumination would lead him to purification and communion with Abraham and the saints.

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  4. lotharson says:

    “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.”

    It is pretty interesting you mention that tale since I am currently dealing a lot with hellfire.
    This story is one of the main arguments for eternal torture.

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/the-dark-side-of-destiny/

    I am going to interview soon Chris Date who is a Conservative Evangelical defending conditional immortality.

    I am listening to a lot of debates and talks from both sides in order to ask him relevant questions.

    Quite coincidentally, someone in my Church mentioned today he feels no longer able to believe in God due to the doctrine of everlasting torment he views as being inevitable.

    I think it is perhaps the MAIN reason while people give up their faith in Jesus.

    In other words it is probably the most harmful baggage we should get rid of.

    Cheers.

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  7. Lothar, I am afraid you are correct that the doctrine of hell is perhaps the main reason people lose faith. Another significant reason is the angry, violent, vindictive God portrayed in the Old Testament. Of course both issues converge into one–a very negative understanding of God.

    I look forward to you interview with Chris Date, as I also believe in conditional immortality.

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