Professor and Poet Marilyn Hacker once said, “Poetry seems to have been eliminated as a literary genre, and installed instead, as a kind of spiritual aerobic exercise – nobody need read it, but anybody can do it.” She lamented the loss of poetry’s unique place and rigorous standards in popular writing. The implications of her perspective impact our Bible study, because sometimes it can be easy to miss the significance of a text’s genre.
In answer to the question “how do I observe a Bible passage?” or “where do I begin when I sit down to study the Bible?” we’ve discussed numerous items to consider: words, grammar, and structure. Today we come to a fourth item: genre.
Genre is easy to miss because it’s not something that is likely to change substantially from verse to verse. Once you observe a book’s genre, you’re likely to come across only minor deviations from time to time. The important thing is that we remain on the lookout.
Let’s use our study of Luke 2:1-24 as an example.
The main observation to make is straigtforward: the genre of this text, as with most of Luke, is historical narrative. The author reports on events that actually happened (see Luke 1:1-4 for his intentions), but he does so by telling a story. He doesn’t issue a medical report or a media sound byte. He’s done his research, interviewing witnesses and collecting relevant documents, but he presents the facts in the shape of a narrative of the key events that verify the truthfulness of what has been taught about Jesus.
What are the implications of this observation?
- It really happened. Luke 2:1-24 speaks of governors, shepherds, and angels. A baby is born to a virgin. These things are neither fable nor fairy tale. They were researched, verified, and presented as historical fact.
- The story has an agenda. Although factually trustworthy, it would be naive to conclude that the text was written in a coldly objective way. The author still has an agenda. He includes certain details, and excludes others, for a reason. The purpose of the story is to tell a story, not to report on every little thing that might forestall potential questions. How many shepherds were there? Did the angels have wings? Were they floating in the sky? Was Jesus born in a stable or a cave? We don’t know. Such specifics were not part of Luke’s agenda.
One more thing: observe that the genre changes briefly in Luke 2:14, where we get a brief switch to poetry.
We know Luke 2:14 is poetry because:
- the angels were praising God (likely singing)
- the quote consists of two parallel lines (the chief component of Jewish poetry)
Why is this observation significant? Because we ought to change our expectations. “Glory to God in the highest” does not mean that God exists physically at a higher altitude than everyone else. Something more poetic, more figurative, is intended.