Session 4 | Understanding First Testament Literature

➡ Average Reading Time: 11 minutes

Understanding First Testament LiteratureLearning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Understand that there is a variety of literature in Scripture
  • Know how to begin deciphering between different genres of literature
  • Know the three parts of the First Testament according to its Jewish breakdown
  • Understand the five major kinds of literature that appear in the First Testament
  • Understand the variety of figures of speech in Scripture
  • Understand the concept of the range of meaning, change of meaning, and characteristic and figurative meaning of words

Session Preview

In this session, we are going to introduce you to the concept of biblical literature. First, we discover that there are different kinds of literature which produce the message of God. Next, we will briefly overview the five major kinds of literature in the First Testament. Then, we will look at the different kinds of figures of speech used in Scripture. Finally, we will look at the concept of words as they communicate ideas, understanding their range of meaning, how they change their meaning and the difference between the characteristic and figurative meanings of words.

Where We Are Going

Exegesis: What the First Hearer Heard
Content: Literary Questions
The First Testament Canon
The Literature of the First Testament
Figures of Speech
Personal Dimension
Complete Thought
Contrast and Understatement
Content Meaning
Range of Meaning
Change of Meaning
Characteristic and Figurative Meaning

Key Words


Exegesis: What The First Hearer Heard

Content: Literary Questions

The Variety of Literature: Words have meanings within the context of a sentence and a sentence has meaning in the context of other sentences. Reading is certainly important at this point. What you 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 you if you 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 your way as a reader. Here’s a tip: ignore them as you read and stop quoting them to support a particular point of view that you hold.

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. Here is the same story told in four different ways by different forms of literature.

| Natural

A great fire raged through the Northeast residential area of Any City today with an estimated loss of six million dollars and four lives, with hundreds of others homeless. A strong south wind hampered the efforts of the struggling firefighters who were battling the fire all night. This morning a multitude of Red Cross workers entered the area to give help to the stricken people.


The crackling voices of the flames spoke a welcome to the winds while houses mourned and the ground grimaced in pain. A remnant of those who remained fought with a lion’s heart to shut the mouths of the blazing flames, but fell to the ground scorched by the whitening blast of the conqueror, while betwixt the chaos stood a crowd of angels, binding the wounds of the fallen.


Remember the garden in the days of its splendor, before the evil days rushed in when the reddened sky loomed overhead, and screams from the houses hit the ears like thunder when the breath of Mother nature joined forces with a fierce enemy. Oh, cursed hour, left in your wake are four pits, each claiming a charred lifeless form, cremated in the prime of life. Mourners walk through the granite stones while red angels open loving arms to embrace the fallen.

| Poetry

Oh torturous memory of searing flames
and cries from the dying,
Go away and let us rest;
What desolation you have rained on us,
And cruel wind, why did you visit us
in this ill-appointed time?
Why did you choose to heap affliction on affliction?
If it were not for the angels of mercy
crossed in red,
We could have all been cast down
into the pits of blackness.
O torturous memory of searing flames
and cries of the dying,
Go away and let us rest.

Many people feel that the Bible is an imaginary or illusionary book. They read some sections and feel it feels to them like reading 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 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.

The First Testament Canon

The authority which was given to the First Testament can be understood when we see the three parts which made up the Jewish Testament.

The Law: This is the first five books of the First Testament. It is traditionally believed to be the work of Moses. It contained the records of creation, the call of Abraham and the nation of Israel, the rescue of Israel from bondage, and the stipulations which they were to live by as God’s chosen people.

The Prophets: The prophets were made up of two distinct groups: The Former Prophets–Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; the Latter Prophets–Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets. These books contained the acts of God and his words of interpretation concerning the rise and fall of his people.

The Writings: The writings were the balance of the First Testament books which we have not mentioned. Books of lyrical poetry and wisdom–Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations; and historical books–Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

By the beginning of the first century, the First (Hebrew) Testament was complete. The Jews confirmed this sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Sometime around 250 B.C., a group of Jews in Alexandria translated what they understood to be the First Testament into Greek. This translation is called the Septuagint. This translation had additional books that were not accepted by later Jewry as authoritative. These books are often called the Apocrypha by Protestants. The Septuagint was widely circulated during the first century, and the authors of the Second Testament writing in Greek would often quote from it instead of the Hebrew text.

These Apocryphal books were accepted and used by the Roman Catholic Church during the first fifteen hundred years to the Reformation. During the Reformation, questions concerning the authority of the Apocrypha once again surfaced. The protestant reformers returned to the Hebrew canon while the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed its allegiance to the Apocrypha as authoritative at the Council of Trent.

The Literature Of The First Testament

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

  1. Narratives: Narratives are stories. They have characters and plots. They allow us to see how God has acted in the past in relationship to his people.
  2. Law: The stipulations which the people of God were to keep to show their loyalty to him as his people. They did not keep the Law to become his people. They kept the Law because they were his people.
  3. Prophets: The message of God given by God’s spokespersons for their contemporary audiences.
  4. Poetry: A style of ancient writing which the Hebrews used to express what God was saying. It is used throughout the First and Second Testaments.
  5. Wisdom: This literature is the discipline of applying truth to one’s life in the light of experience.

Figures Of Speech

Literary devices are words or phrases and sometimes sentences that usually have a cultural significance and mean something quite different than the definition of the words at face value.

Scripture uses many colorful images that are drawn from a multitude of places. There are business images like steward and servant. There are domestic images like a groom and a bride or a father and a child.

The figures of speech which are used by the original authors in their own language come to English in one of three ways. First, the figure of speech is paralleled in the receptor language. It is exact. Second, when the transfer of meaning is not automatic, a dynamic equivalent is used. Third, if no correspondence is available between the original and receptor language, then a corresponding idiom will be used. An example of this is he knew his wife, which is translated; he had sexual relations with his wife.

The following is a list of literary devices that are used in the Bible. Any discerning student of Scripture should be aware of these forms and observe them in his or her reading of the text.


There are two devices that deal with a direct comparison between two items: simile and metaphor.

  • Simile: The comparison of two things employing the words as or like. He is as strong as an ox. (Psalm 1:3; Psalm 5.12; Psalm 17.8; Isa. 1.8; Jer. 23.29; Matt. 23.37, 24.27; Luke 10.3; Acts 2.1ff.; 1 Cor. 3.5, 1 Thess. 3.5)
  • Metaphor: The comparison of two things by direct assertion without using as or like. (Psalm 23.1, 84.11; Jer. 2.13)
    1. Anthropomorphism (àn´thre-pe-môr´fîz´em): The ascribing to God of bodily members and physical movement. (Deut. 5.15; Isa. 59.1
    2. Anthropopathism (àn´thre-pòp´e-thîz´em): The ascribing to God of human emotions, feelings, and responses. (Psalm 95.10; Rev. 15.1))

| Addition

  • Pleonasm (plê´e-nàz´em): The redundant addition of synonyms to emphasize a point. (Gen. 40.23; Luke 22.11; 2 Cor. 5.1)
  • Paronomasia (pàr´e-no-mâ´zhe): This refers to words that are similar in sound and placed side-by-side in the text for emphasis. Often words were chosen, which would catch the original reader’s attention and drive a point home. These are often difficult to see in a translation. (Gen. 1.2; 2 Cor. 9.8)
  • Epizeuxis (epi´zoo´zis): The repeating of a crucial word for emphasis. John often uses this in his statement, truly, truly. It is also used in repeated words like holy, holy, holy. (Isa. 6.3; John 1.51; Rev. 4.8
  • Hyperbole: This figure of speech is an exaggeration for effect. Jesus adopted the rabbinic tool as one of his main teaching methods. Many serious errors are made by not understanding this literary device. As an example, to give one’s cloak if only asked for a tunic (Matt. 5.39-40); does not teach the limits of a servant’s attitude but teaches service. (Deut. 1.28; Psalm 6.6; Matt. 5.30; John 21.25)
  • Hendiadys (hèn-dì´e-dîs): The adding of two or three terms to one another to express the same thing. As an example, fire and brimstone in Genesis 19.24 do not represent two different items but express the seriousness of the judgment (Gen. 1.26; 2.9; 4.4; 19.24; 1 Sam 17.40; Job 10.17; Matt. 3.11; 4.16; John 1.17; Col 2.18).

| Association

  • Metonymy: The use of the name of one thing for that of another, associated with or suggested by it. Today, the White House said. In the First Testament, throne in 1 Chronicles 17.12 equals kingship, key in Isaiah 22.22 is equal to authority. (Luke 24.27; Rom. 3.27-30; Jude 3)
  • Synecdoche (si-nek’-de-ke): The representation in which a part is used for a whole or a whole is used for a part. (Judges 12.7; Isa. 2.4; Joel 3.10; Micah 4.3)

| Personal Dimension

  • Personification: Applying personality traits to things or ideas. (Psalm 35.10, 114; Isa. 55.12b; Matt. 6.34)
  • Apostrophe: The addressing of imaginary objects. (Psalm 114.5)

| Complete Thought

  • Ellipsis: The omission of a word or words necessary to complete the thought. (Gen. 14.19-20; 2 Sam 3.7; 24.1; 1 Chron 6.28; Prov. 22.27; Gal. 3.5; 1 Cor 15.25).
  • Zeugma (zoog’-ma): A figure of speech in which a single word, usually a verb or an adjective, is syntactically related to two or more words, with only one of which it seems logically connected. (Gen. 4.20; Ex. 3.16; Deut. 4.12; 2 Kings 11.12; Luke 24.27; 1 Cor. 3.2; 7.10).
  • Aposiopesis (ap’ e’-si’-e’-sis): The sudden breaking of thought in the middle of a sentence for emphasis. (Ex. 32.31-32; 2 Sam. 5.8; 1 Chron. 4.10; Mark 11.32; Luke 13.9).

| Contrast and Understatement

  • Irony: A method of humorous or sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words used is in direct opposition to their usual sense. (Gen. 3.22; 37.19; 2 Sam 6.20; Isa. 5.19; 1 Cor. 4.8-13).
  • Euphemism: The substitution of a word or phrase that is less direct because the writer believes that the direct form would be distasteful, offensive, or unnecessarily harsh. (Lev. 18.6ff. RSV)
  • Litotes (lit’-e’-tez): An understatement for effect. (Acts 15.2, 27.20)
    Antithesis: This is a direct contrast in which two sets of figures are set in opposition to each other. An illustration is Adam-Christ in Romans 5.12-21 or flesh-law versus the Spirit in Romans 7-8.

| Content Meaning

In order to communicate using a language, you need words. When we communicate ideas to each other, we use words and combine them together into a larger unit of thought. Without the use of words, we would be limited in our ability to express our thoughts with any precision. Words are central to language communication. Therefore, it becomes important to understand the idea of the content as you read and study the Bible. Remember this: the correct interpretation of Scripture is the meaning required by the normal meaning of the words in the context in which they occur.

The meaning of a word is not determined by a resource tool like a dictionary. We only receive a definition there. The meaning of a word comes from the context in which it appears. Therefore, the same Hebrew or Greek word may have a different meaning when found in a different context, because a word has a range of meaning.

Range of Meaning

The same word, spelled identically, can have many totally different meanings. Let’s illustrate using the English word hand.

We have a hand that is a part of our body. A clock has a hand. A card player holds a hand in his hand. Hand is a unit of measurement for horses. We hear phrases like, “all hands on deck.” We may be asked at some point in time to “give someone a hand.” In each of these cases, the word is the same. It is spelled the same, but the meaning is different. The different meanings of the word hand make up the range of meaning. Under normal circumstances, such a range of meanings does not cause misunderstanding or confusion. A native speaker of the language, aided by the context in which the word appears, will pick up on the correct meaning of the word. The ideas which are expressed in the larger context in which the word appears will, for the most part, clarify the intended meaning, of the word in use.

Change of Meaning

The meaning of words does not remain fixed. Therefore, it is important to pursue what the original words in a passage meant at the time they were written in the context they occur. A new meaning occurs because a word begins to be used in a certain way. The KJV is a classic illustration of how English words have changed their meaning since 1611. As an example, the word conversation appears in 2 Cor. 1.12, Gal. 1.13; Eph. 2.3; 4.22; and Phil. 1.27 (KJV). When we use the word conversation, we usually mean two individuals who are talking to each other. However, it meant something totally different in 1611. Today we use words like conduct or way of life to convey the same idea that conversation conveyed in 1611. The KJV translates 1 Thessalonians 4.15: “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not prevent those who have fallen asleep.” The word “prevent” in 1611 meant to go before while today it means to stop or hinder. A sidelight of these instructions demonstrates that what served as a good translation in the seventeenth century no longer communicates what Paul originally meant. Just as English words change meanings, so have the words in the biblical languages.

Characteristic and Figurative Meaning

A word has a characteristic meaning, which is the usual meaning of the word. In addition, the same word can have a figurative meaning. The word dog usually has the characteristic meaning of a four-legged, hairy little animal. However, if you used it in reference to a person, “You dog!” it communicates something quite different. The figurative meaning used this way is usually derogatory. In Scripture, Paul uses the word dog when he writes to the believers at Philippi. He says, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (Phil. 3.2). As a historical note, first-century Jews considered dogs as detestable animals. Jews expressed their dislike for Gentiles by calling them dogs. Paul uses the word dog to throw back at the Jewish troublemakers in Philippi their own contemptuous use of the term. When Matthew and Mark use the term in the story of the Syrophoenician woman, the dog carries its characteristic meaning. As we read and interpret Scripture, we must study words carefully to determine if the word is being used characteristically or figuratively.

A good reading will help you arrive at the meaning the original hearer could have heard when you are aware of context and content.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • What has been your reading habit: wooden or natural?

Here are four questions to help us understand this little exercise in reading different kinds of literature.

  1. Do you believe that each of the writers of these four stories wants the reader to take each story with strict literalness?
  2. If you interpreted each story literally, would there be any distortion of the truth that was not intended by the writer?
  3. Does the form of literature alter the historical fact of the account?
  4. Which one of the four accounts is less true than the others?
  • What do you think God may have had in mind by presenting his word with different kinds of literature?
  • What does this tell you about God?
  • Does the Jewish breakdown and the Christian breakdown tell you anything about how the books of the First Testament should be classified? If so, how?
  • Can you think of five English words that have a range of meanings? Write the different meanings down.
  • Why is it impossible to use a concordance by itself and do a complete word study?
  • What words in your lifetime have changed meanings?
  • Can you think of at least one word that can be used both characteristically and figuratively?

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Read Me First


Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.


I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."


Happy Reading!

Read Me Second


Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.


Happy Reading!

Read Me Third


The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.


Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.


Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)