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Reading 7: An Overview of Old Testament Literature

Introduction


When we read, we read words that have meanings within the context of a sentence and a sentence that has meaning in the context of other sentences. What we are trying to discover as the reader is the kind of literature that the author has chosen to use to convey his or her message. It is useful at this point to have a translation handy which will clearly show us if we are reading a selection of poetry or some other kind of literature. A newer Bible translation like NIV does a fine job at this point. Remember, chapters and verses are a later addition to the text and often get in our way as readers. Ignore them as you read.
Every wisdom rule that is issued is a way of expressing the wisdom learned through experience. Click To Tweet

Literal or Natural?

Some people say “We must take the Bible literally.” They usually mean take it woodenly. A better way would be to say that Scripture should be taken naturally. This will keep us from perverting the meaning of Scripture and making it mean something it does not say or was not meant to say. Many people feel that the Bible is an unreal book. They read some sections and get the feeling that read like a fairy tale with the conclusion that no enlightened person living in our scientific age could accept these parts of Scripture as true. What has really happened? There is a failure on the reader’s part to recognize the rich variety of literature, both forms and media, which are used to convey the message of the Bible. The remedy is to look at the literature and understand it.

An Overview of Old Testament Literature

There are at least five major kinds of literature in the Old Testament:

Narratives

Narratives are stories. They have characters and plots. They allow us to see how God has acted in the past in relationship with his people. Scripture contains more narratives than any other kind of literature. Approximately forty (40) percent of the Old Testament is narrative. Most narratives are found in Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, Haggai, and Job. Large sections of Exodus, Numbers, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Job are also narrative.

Covenant-Law

The stipulations in the covenant were those the people of God were to keep to show their loyalty to him. God used a form from the ancient world to make a covenant with his children. To understand the form helps one understand the content.

The Lord-Servant treaty (Exodus 20.1-17; Deuteronomy 4.32-30.19) as an ancient treaty was essentially an elaborate oath. There were six parts to an ancient treaty:

  1. The Preamble: This part of the covenant demonstrated that the two parties of the covenant were not equal.
  2. The Historical Prologue: This section confirmed that the relationship between the two parties of the covenant was built on the basis of what the lord had done for the servant.
  3. The Stipulations of the Treaty: This segment shared the essential obligations of the servant concerning their lifestyle relationship to the lord of the covenant as well as the obligations of living everyday life.
  4. The Provision for Disposition of Text and Public Reading: The object of this portion was to give the servant a specific time to remember the stipulations of the covenant.
  5. The List of Divine Witnesses: The covenant was validated by this list of witnesses.
  6. The Blessings and Curses: The last section of the covenant was to verify for the servant that if kept a relationship and followed the stipulations, the servant would receive continued protection and blessings from the lord. However, if the servant decided to break the covenant, he or she would not receive continued protection and instead of a blessing, the lord would send curses on the servant.

This is the form of the Mosaic Covenant. It is commonly agreed that the form of the Lord-Servant Treaty was the basis for the covenant given to Moses. The ancient code that follows the Ten Commandments is often called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 21-23). This section, as well as other parts of the Pentateuch, contain both Casuistic and Apodictic laws. They are general statements and exemplary cases to serve as a guide for those charged with implementing them.

Prophets

The message of God was given by God’s spokesperson for the benefit of their contemporary audiences. The largest number of First Testament books comes under this genre. They are usually identified under two captions: Major and Minor Prophets. These terms only address the size of the book. They do not address the importance of the book. The major function of the prophets was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. They were covenant spokespersons. God had made a covenant with Israel and the prophets were God’s reminders in the generations after Moses that when they kept the covenant, a blessing would result and when they broke the covenant, a punishment would be given.

Here are some statistics about the prophetic books to consider. Approximately two percent of all Old Testament prophecy is foretelling about the coming Messiah. Approximately five percent deals directly with the New Covenant age and less than one percent predicts events yet to occur. 1 The remaining ninety-two percent addresses the problems of the contemporaries of the prophet whom he was addressing.

There are many different forms in which the prophetic occurred. Each form must be interpreted differently. They are judgment speeches, blessing or delivery, woe oracles, symbolic actions, and legal or trial oracles. They are expressed in poetry. Some are set in the form of wisdom thinking, while others are apocalyptic.

The prophets are often abused because of the newspaper approach to reading and quoting them, which is based on an assumption that the prophetic words were not written for the ancient world but only for today. This is a post-1948 phenomenon after Israel became a nation. This approach is subjective. We must learn to think about these books from a different perspective.

Poetry

Poetry, a style of ancient writing which the Hebrews used to express what God was saying, is used throughout the Old and New Testament. C.S. Lewis once said concerning the Psalms, “…the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than the logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.” 2)

Poetry is the interpretive presentation of a human experience shared in an artistic form. It achieves its end by the use of images, symbols, allusions, metaphors, similes, emotive vocabulary, etc. The writers of Hebrew poetry were imaginative, creative people, who regarded the artistry of their writings as important, and lovers of God. Poetry makes use of a literary device called parallelism.

Wisdom

This literature is the discipline of applying truth to one’s life in the light of experience. This genre of literature is the most unfamiliar to believers today. Because we do not understand Wisdom Literature, we often lose the benefits that God intended for us in it. Wisdom can and should be a helpful resource for living as a Christian. The misuse of it usually provides a basis for selfish, materialistic, and short-sighted behavior. There are three Old Testament books which are regarded as Wisdom Literature. They are Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. There are a number of Psalms which fall into this category like Psalm 37 and 73.

Wisdom literature is the discipline of applying truth to one’s life in the light of experience. This makes wisdom personal, not theoretical or abstract. Wisdom is something which exists when a person thinks or acts according to the truth as it has been learned through his or her experience. Wisdom focuses on people and their behavior of applying truth learned through experience. The wisdom of the Old Testament does not touch all of life. It does not address the theological or historical issues which find importance elsewhere in the Old Testament. The skill of using wisdom does not guarantee that wisdom will always be properly used. Solomon is a prime example.

Every wisdom rule that is issued is a way of expressing the wisdom learned through experience. These rules were passed on with the hope that the same experiences would not have to be learned a harder than necessary way by those receiving the instructions. God does not buy into the idea that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks or that you can’t put old heads on young bodies.

Learning more about the kinds of literature will enrich your reading and understanding of Scripture.

Living into the Text!

It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • Why is it better to talk the naturalness of Scripture instead of the literalness of Scripture?
  • How often have you read some of the stories in Scripture and just enjoyed them without trying to figure out the meaning of each word?
  • How does understanding that there is a variety of literary types in Scripture cause you to think about how you read Scripture? Should you really read a narrative the same as you would read a piece of poetry?
BibleInfoResources!

The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs. Another option is Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, which is one of the most useful and practical theological reference books online. With bibliographies for most entries, further reading help and study is very practical.

  • Prophet

EndNotes:

  1. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: Fourth Edition. 2014. 188. 
  2. C. S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms, Reprint Edition. 2017. 3.
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Prophet

Prophet (Heb. nabi, from a root meaning "to bubble forth, as from a fountain," hence "to utter", comp. Ps. 45:1). This Hebrew word is the first and the most generally used for a prophet. In the time of Samuel another word, ro'eh, "seer", began to be used (1 Sam. 9:9). It occurs seven times in reference to Samuel. Afterwards another word, hozeh, "seer" (2 Sam. 24:11), was employed. In 1 Ch. 29:29 all these three words are used: "Samuel the seer (ro'eh), Nathan the prophet (nabi'), Gad the seer" (hozeh). In Josh. 13:22 Balaam is called (Heb.) a kosem "diviner," a word used only of a false prophet.

 

The "prophet" proclaimed the message given to him, as the "seer" beheld the vision of God. (See Num. 12:6, 8.) Thus a prophet was a spokesman for God; he spake in God's name and by his authority (Ex. 7:1). He is the mouth by which God speaks to men (Jer. 1:9; Isa. 51:16), and hence what the prophet says is not of man but of God (2 Pet. 1:20, 21; comp. Heb. 3:7; Acts 4:25; 28:25). Prophets were the immediate organs of God for the communication of his mind and will to men (Deut. 18:18, 19). The whole Word of God may in this general sense be spoken of as prophetic, inasmuch as it was written by men who received the revelation they communicated from God, no matter what its nature might be. The foretelling of future events was not a necessary but only an incidental part of the prophetic office. The great task assigned to the prophets whom God raised up among the people was "to correct moral and religious abuses, to proclaim the great moral and religious truths which are connected with the character of God, and which lie at the foundation of his government."

 

Any one being a spokesman for God to man might thus be called a prophet. Thus Enoch, Abraham, and the patriarchs, as bearers of God's message (Gen. 20:7; Ex. 7:1; Ps. 105:15), as also Moses (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Hos. 12:13), are ranked among the prophets. The seventy elders of Israel (Num. 11:16-29), "when the spirit rested upon them, prophesied;" Asaph and Jeduthun "prophesied with a harp" (1 Chr. 25:3). Miriam and Deborah were prophetesses (Ex. 15:20; Judg. 4:4). The title thus has a general application to all who have messages from God to men.

 

But while the prophetic gift was thus exercised from the beginning, the prophetical order as such began with Samuel. Colleges, "schools of the prophets", were instituted for the training of prophets, who were constituted, a distinct order (1 Sam. 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:3, 15; 4:38), which continued to the close of the Old Testament. Such "schools" were established at Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal, Gibeah, and Jericho. The "sons" or "disciples" of the prophets were young men (2 Kings 5:22; 9:1, 4) who lived together at these different "schools" (4:38-41). These young men were taught not only the rudiments of secular knowledge, but they were brought up to exercise the office of prophet, "to preach pure morality and the heart-felt worship of Jehovah, and to act along and co-ordinately with the priesthood and monarchy in guiding the state aright and checking all attempts at illegality and tyranny."

 

In New Testament times the prophetical office was continued. Our Lord is frequently spoken of as a prophet (Luke 13:33; 24:19). He was and is the great Prophet of the Church. There was also in the Church a distinct order of prophets (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20; 3:5), who made new revelations from God. They differed from the "teacher," whose office it was to impart truths already revealed.

Of the Old Testament prophets there are sixteen, whose prophecies form part of the inspired canon. These are divided into four groups:

 

  1. The prophets of the northern kingdom (Israel), viz., Hosea, Amos, Joel, Jonah.
  2. The prophets of Judah, viz., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah.
  3. The prophets of Captivity, viz., Ezekiel and Daniel.
  4. The prophets of the Restoration, viz., Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

 

Prophet: Easton's Bible Dictionary (Public Domain)

 

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