Three Types of Writing in the Bible

In a book titled The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Hebrew scholar Meir Sternberg formulates a very helpful framework for looking at the Bible.  He theorizes that three types of writing converge in the Bible.  They are religious or theological, historical, and literary.  In most biblical passages, we find all three of these.  The Bible is a religious book, and it is a rare passage that does not make an explicit or implicit comment on how to live spiritually and morally in the world, and about the character of God.  Secondly, one of the distinctive features of the Bible is the consistency with which its authors place events in real-life history.  And of course the Bible is literary in its forms.

            The persistent presence of theology and history in the Bible makes it unlike any work of literature that you would ordinarily read in a literature course.  Usually all three types of material appear in passages in the Bible, but ordinarily one of them dominates.  In the overwhelming number of cases, the theology and history are embodied in literary form.

            As an example of the combination of three ingredients in the Bible, feel free to turn to the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon in Judges 3.  Here is how the chapter breaks down:

            Verses 1-6:  historical material

            Verses 7-14:  theological material  (inasmuch as events are conspicuously ascribed to                               God and viewed as his divine judgment against evil)

            Verses 15-30:  literary writing (in the form of a hero story)

            Verse 31:  historical writing                          

As you read the Bible, bear in mind that passages that are primarily literary often have historical and theological material intermingled as well.  Likewise, even in the parts of the Bible that are not specifically literary, the authors may use literary techniques such as figurative language and a narrative thread.