There is nothing like being able to read a literary work in its original language, as it adds such color and dimension to the work being read. The text goes from being viewed in black and white to being seen in full color.
Understanding the literary features of a text has a similar effect. The beauty and artistry of poetry can be appreciated by just reading it. Yet, when you understand the various literary forms being used by the author it comes alive and the meaning becomes clearer.
The same goes when reading the Bible. While the Bible is more than just another book in terms of its content and divine authorship, it is like any other in terms of its literary content. It contains a vast array of literary genres and forms just like those found in any other piece of literature. When we avail ourselves to learning and understanding these genres and forms we have allowed ourselves to get closer to the mind and intent of the writer.
Having already written Ryken’s Bible Handbook and The Literary Study Bible, Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College, has written a new book, Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible, as a companion and sequel to his popular A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms of the Bible. This new book draws from, utilizes, and expands upon the work he has already done in past books to help Christians better understand the meaning and message of the Bible.
The purpose of this book is very simple – to introduce the reader to and explain the various literary genres and forms contained in all 66 books of the Bible. Many books on the Bible and its literary characteristics organize the books or certain passages around the various literary forms thus giving you a catalog of forms with examples of each. Ryken’s book takes the reader through every book of the Bible separately and gives an overview of the literary features contained in each but without example passages.
There are six aspects of the books of the Bible discussed in each chapter:
- Orientation – The beginning of each chapter orients you to the book itself and gives basic info such as the meaning of the books name (Genesis means “beginning”).
- Generalizations – This gives a brief description of the content of the book like how Deuteronomy contains a number of orations/sermons to Israel about obedience to the Law and entering the Promised Land.
- Uniqueness – Where necessary, whenever a book contains unique topics or interpretive issues they are discussed such as the time aspect in the prophets and more specifically in the book of Isaiah.
- Charts – Each chapter has “Book at a Glance” chart which is a basic content outline divided by chapters. For instance, Habakkuk is divided into three sections: (1) 1:1-11 is Habakkuk’s first question and God’s reply, (2) 1:12-2:20 is Habakkuk’s second question and God’s reply, and (3) 3 is Habakkuk’s exalted vision of God.
- Literary Features – This contains separate units on the major literary forms in each book of the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of John contains gospel, narrative, various categories of story (hero, miracle, testimony, etc.), proverb, and prayer.
- Summarization or Literary Form and Religious Vision – This concluding section summarizes the intention of the books religious message as expressed through the literary forms along with literary tips for reading each book and quotes from literary commentators specific to each book. For example, 1 John has a series of tests for how to tell if someone is a Christian. These are not offered in 1 John as a list or a running argument but are scattered through John’s epistle. Therefore, one would not extract John’s argument the same way you would Paul’s.
Literary Introductions is a must have book for any Christian who wants to read and understand the Bible better. For Christians who are new to the Bible, there is a lot that will help get you more oriented to the message of each book and help make more difficult sections easier to understand. For those like me who have been reading the Bible for years, there is still a lot that can be gained from this book. As you read through different chapters and learn new things about how different books work, lights will begin to go on as you put pieces together.