The Bible is a book. This means it is literature. It is also true, but it is literature nonetheless. Because of this we must take genre into account when interpreting. We ignore it at our peril.
(This is part seven of the ten-part series Church, Bible, and Interpretation - It's Not So Simple.)
The Bible contains various forms of genre: narrative, epistle, song, poetry, prayer, prophecy, law, biography, legal document, parable, apocalyptic, etc. This is one aspect of the Bible that makes it unique. It also makes it a bit challenging to interpret. This does not mean that the scriptures are difficult to understand, but rather that we must remember a few things when reading. One of those is the specific genre. If we do not do this, either accidentally or purposefully, we run the risk of arriving at some faulty conclusions about what the Biblical writers intended.
I do not intend in this post to explain how to interpret different forms of Biblical literature. Entire books have been written on this subject. Rather, this is simply a call to in fact keep genre in mind. When we do this it makes scripture much easier to comprehend. For example, when we read the 10 Commandments we may wonder how we can possibly keep the O.T. Sabbath. If, however, we recall that Exodus 20 is part of the O.T. law, and as such doesn't apply to us, then we can understand it perfectly.
Or what about proverbs that don't seem to come true? For example Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Plenty of parents have raised their children correctly only to see them stray into a life of worldliness. Should this shipwreck their faith in the truth of scripture? By no means. This is because proverbs by definition are sayings that generally describe our existence. Every single proverb does not hold true in every instance. That's what proverbs are. The type of literature is key.
If we are looking for the type of literature that has the most one-to-one application to our lives we ought to focus on the N.T. epistles. Those letters were written to the church. Because of this they are the simplest to understand and apply directly to our lives.
Additionally, remember that crystal clear texts should be used to interpret less clear texts. To do the opposite is to fail. Finally, always keep context in mind. One aspect of this is the type of literature you are reading. Genre is everything.
(To read more about specifically interpreting the Old Testament correctly, click here.)