Stories, Songs, Sermons, and Sagas: A Guide to Different Genres in the Bible
Many people think of the Bible as a book of rules to follow. Others see it as a collection of stories with good and bad character examples to learn from. Still others teach that the Bible is one long letter from God to his people.
Which view is right?
All of the above. Or maybe none of the above.
The truth is that the Bible contains all of these different genres, and as a result, we cannot describe the whole text with just one of them! For example, the book of Exodus includes narrative stories, poetic songs, procedural instructions, and laws -- all in the same book!
Recognizing different genres in the Bible is very important for Bible translation, because each genre requires a different approach in translation. In linguistic terms, different genres are referred to as different discourse types. Each discourse type (narration, description, exposition, and argument are the main categories) uses different discourse features in different languages, so they need to be translated with the appropriate features to make them communicate clearly.
Discourse features are the clues that allow you to figure out whether you're reading a novel, news story, movie script, song lyric, or owner's manual. For example of why discourse features are important in translation, check out this post about translating an African folktale well into English.
Different Genres in the Bible
Narrative genre is telling a story in prose format. Narratives convey information like who, what, where, when, and how, but they also have a beginning, middle, and end. Often narratives contain a problem and how that problem is solved. (For example, a dark force is threatening to destroy the world with a Ring of Power. The narrative of the Lord of the Rings is how that problem is solved.)
Novels, folktales, eye-witness accounts, news reports, and histories are subcategories of the narrative genre.
Examples of narrative passages in the Bible include:
Lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (Genesis)
Exodus of Israel from Egypt (Exodus)
Israel in the Promised Land (Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges)
Lives of King Saul and King David (1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Chronicles, 1&2 Kings)
Lives of Job, Esther, and Ruth
Life of Jesus Christ (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
Parables Told by Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
History of the Early Church (Acts)
Poetry is notoriously difficult to define and to translate, but also one of the most beautiful genres of any language. In poetry, meaning is conveyed not only with words, but also in how those words are arranged, with different effects like rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, and repetition all intentionally included to elicit a certain emotional response from the audience. Every language has some form of poetry which is unique to that language and culture. Translating poetry well therefore takes plenty of research into the target language to determine which poetic devices communicate best to them.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Lord often speaks to his people in poetry. Reciprocally, King David and others pray to God with songs of praise, lament, and petition.
Songs, proverbs, battle marches, processionals, funeral dirges, and even some prophecies are subcategories of poetry in Bible translation.
Examples of poetry in the Bible include:
Creation account (Genesis 1)
Songs of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15)
Hannah's Song (1 Samuel 2)
Levitical Prayer (Nehemiah 9)
Song of Solomon
Proclamations from God to Israel (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah and other minor prophets)
Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon (Luke 1 & 2)
Jesus' Beatitudes (Matthew 5)
Early Christian hymns (1 Timothy 3, 2 Timothy 2, Philippians 2)
Hortatory discourse refers to a passage that is trying to persuade its audience to believe or act a certain way. The apostle Paul is probably the most well known biblical author of hortatory discourse because of his letters to the early churches.
There are examples of arguments in the Old Testament Scriptures too, often as part of larger narrative texts. For example, the book of Job contains several of these arguments back and forth between Job and his friends as they debate the possible reasons for the events of the story.
This genre needs to be translated to carefully reflect a structure of argument - it includes a thesis statement, evidence for and against the thesis, and concluding remarks. Again, each language and culture has different methods of persuading an audience. In translation, these passages should sound like the author is speaking to the audience with a certain goal in mind.
Sermons, teachings about the laws of God, instructions, and advice are subcategories of hortatory discourse.
Examples of hortatory passages in the Bible include:
Job's conversations with his friends (Job)
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)
Peter's Sermons (Acts 2 & 11)
Peter's Defense Before the Jewish Council (Acts 15)
Paul's Letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians,1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Philemon, Jude)
James' Letter (James)
Other Genres: Laws, Procedures, and Prayer
There are many other different genres in the Bible that deserve their own study in the target language before translation begins. One of the most helpful first steps toward Bible translation is for translators to study their own languages for examples of these different types of genres.
Biblical law has some familiar examples in the Ten Commandments and Moses' other teachings to the new nation of Israel. Within these passages, scholars have found subtle differences between the words translated as law, command, and teachings of the Lord.
Procedural discourse contains instructions on how to do something, as you might find in the owner's manual for a particular piece of equipment. In the Bible, there are very detailed instructions on building the Ark, the tabernacle, and the Temple of the Lord.
Prayers and intercessions also present some crossover to other genres as they appear within narratives, poetry, and scattered throughout conversation with God. Many languages have their own unique formulas for the structure of a prayer or petition and these must be followed in translation for the passage to be correctly and naturally understood.
Examples of Laws in the Bible:
Ten Commandments and Laws of Israel (Exodus 20-23, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
Jesus' Teachings About the Law (Matthew 5 & 19, Luke 18)
Examples of Procedures in the Bible:
Building the Ark (Genesis 6)
Circumcision (Genesis 17)
Building the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-31, 35-36)
Examples of Prayers in the Bible:
Hannah's Prayer (1 Samuel 1)
Levitical Prayer (Nehemiah 9)
The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6, Luke 11)
Jesus' Priestly Prayer (John 17)
Because the Bible contains a wide array of genres within its pages, Bible translators need to be familiar with how their target languages express each different type. The current model of Bible translation trains native speakers as translators because they are most familiar with how to make each of these genres sound natural in their own languages. There is more to translation than choosing the right words - communicating accurately, clearly, and naturally requires careful study of each language's unique way of speaking to people's hearts.