In today’s post I’m going to talk a little bit about the first step you should do in your Bible study, observation. We will take a look at the four main waysyou should be conducting this first step.
The Genre or Literary Form
So we will begin with the forest and gradually move in deeper to get a look at the trees. The genre of the book or passage you are studying is the first thing you should note.
If you see that you’re studying poetry then you should automatically hone in on the figurative language the author is using and what emotions it impresses upon you. If it’s narrative that you’re reading than you should be looking at the characters and events, and taking note of the plot development.
All this is to say is that some literary features overlap but most are genre dependent. So being consciously aware of what you’re reading will give you a heads up on what you should be looking for.
Genres that can be found in scripture include but are not limited to:
There are also sub-genres. So within Narrative you may have: a tragedy, an epic, a romance, heroic, a satire, or a polemic. Within Poetry you may find: war songs, love songs, lament, praise songs, thanksgiving, celebration, wisdom, didactic, and imprecatory psalms. The last one is interesting to note. Imprecatory psalms are the ones where the Jewish people were calling on God to curse their enemies (eg., Psalm 137).
Once you observe the literary form of the piece of scripture you’re reading the next thing to note is the structure.
We could start with the meta-structure of the Bible. Our Bible can be divided in two, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Within the OT there is the Pentateuch (first five books by Moses), the historical books (Joshua – Esther), the poetry or wisdom books (Job – Song of Songs), the major prophets (Isaiah – Daniel), and the minor prophets (Hosea – Malachi).
The order of the OT books is something that the church fathers of the first few centuries put together. For, if you look at the divisions of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), which is our OT, they divide them up a little differently.
For the NT there are the Gospels (Matthew – John), Acts, Paul’s letters (Romans – Philemon), the general epistles (Hebrews – Jude), and Revelation.
Getting oriented to the meta-structure or the canonical order of the Bible will help with understanding each individual book.
Now within each book and depending on the type of literature the next structural level will either involve: stanzas for poetry, or chapters and paragraphs for everything else. Of course all this formatting was added much later. In ancient times they did not use paragraph divisions, punctuation, or even spaces between the words (sheesh!).
I would like to take this time to say that if you have a Bible where every verse begins a new line then you really need to have another one too. It is natural to begin a new line with every verse in poetry or in song lyrics but it can mess with your reading and understanding if the prose is broken up into verse instead of paragraph format.
The reason our Bibles have been formatted with paragraphs is because, like punctuation and word spacing, it makes it easier for us to digest what we are reading. The paragraphs are thought units, so noting where a paragraph begins and ends will help you understand the flow of the story or the logic of Paul’s argument in one of his epistles.
Formatting literature that was written a couple of thousand years ago is as much an art as it is a science. Versions that tend to be more literal will have less paragraph breaks where dynamic translations will have more.
Lastly, for structure, there is the structure of the sentence, the grammar and the syntax. We all know what grammar refers to. It answers the question of who or what is the subject and what is the verb that goes along with the subject (among many other questions). Syntax encompasses this and much more. But let’s just say it is a little too much to get into here at the moment.
We have made it into the woods and we’re now taking a look at the individual trees, the words the make up everything else.
In our observation of the passage we want to study we don’t really want to take a look at every word, just the ones that really stand out. These are easy to identify. Which words do you not understand? Which ones are crucial for understanding what the author is trying to communicate to us, the reader? Which words convey an important concept?
These are the words we want to take note of. However we want to look at them within their own context in order to understand what they mean. It is often the case that we may attach a meaning to a word that the author did not have in mind.
For instance Paul often uses the term “flesh” to refer to something apart from our physical bodies. He sometimes uses it to refer to evil in the world or human pride apart from God. No other writer or speaker in the Bible does this. So we want to be careful not to read Paul’s (sometimes used) meaning of the word “flesh” into another person’s use of the word.
Now we can turn our attention to the aspect of atmosphere. This has to do with the tone or the mode of the passage we are reading. It is fairly easy to observe this in the Psalms. Praise psalms are joyous, lament psalms are sad, imprecatory psalms are angry and so on and so on.
Atmosphere is important to note because you can really pick up on the psychology of the characters or author. For instance, during the Christ’s crucifixion the mood was extremely mournful, even the weather conveyed it. And then when Christ returned there was much confusion and mystery (at least for his followers).
So, genre, structure, words, and atmosphere, these are the aspects that we should be considering as we observe the passage of scripture we seek to interpret. It is important to observe first and then interpret, otherwise we are just reading our own interpretation into the text.
As always, I would be happy to hear your thoughts on this post so let me know what you think by leaving a comment in the comments section.