Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible

Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible

by Leland Ryken


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In this collection of literary introductions to every book of the Bible, renowned literary scholar Leland Ryken helps readers navigate the genres and literary features found throughout Scripture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433542176
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 10/31/2015
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 1,240,266
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Read an Excerpt



The word genesis means "origin" or "beginning," and this explains why the first book of the Bible bears its title. Genesis is the Bible's book of beginnings on multiple levels. It starts the Bible. It narrates the origin of the world and the human race. It contains the story of the first sin, the first murder, and the first covenant of grace that God extends to the human race. Genesis also spans more time than any other Bible book; in fact, its time frame is more extensive than the rest of the books together. No other book of the Bible contains such an abundance of bedrock, universal human experience as Genesis.

Genesis as a Book

Genesis begins with a perfect world and ends with a coffin, showing that the book has unity and completeness, despite the large number of individual units and details. The original creation and the paradisal garden within it symbolize perfection; the coffin symbolizes the effects of sin in the world. We can infer that the purpose of Genesis is to tell the story of the human race during its first millennia, within a strongly theological framework. The main features of that theological framework are (1) God's creation and governance of the world, (2) the original innocence of the world and the human race, (3) the fall of the human race and the world into sin, (4) the terrible results of human sinfulness, and (5) a countermovement in which God offers redemption and restoration to people. It is obvious from this outline that Genesis is the foundational book of the Bible that sets forth the first principles of knowledge about God, people, and the physical world.

Authorial perspective is an important literary aspect of Genesis. The author is both a historian and a literary author. As a historian, he is preoccupied with historical facts about people, events, and places. As a literary author, he is above all a storyteller who embodies what he wants us to know about life in characters, events, and settings. There is an indirectness about the historical and literary approach to truth in Genesis: instead of listing generalizations about God and commands to follow, the author assembles historical information and arranges it as a collection of stories, leaving readers to extract the right ideas about God and people. We should also note that although God is, of course, the central preoccupation of the author, there is also a clear focus on individuals and families. "Domestic narrative" is an accurate label for Genesis, and in many ways the families are dysfunctional.

The big organizational plan of the book is twofold: primeval history (chaps. 1–11) and patriarchal history (chaps. 12–50). Primeval history reaches back to the mysterious origins of human life on this planet. The world we enter in these chapters is simplified and elemental. We know that the people and events really existed, but we do not picture them as our next-door neighbors; instead, the characters are prototypes (original models). Patriarchal history tells the story of the patriarchs and their families — the fathers in the line that produced the twelve tribes of Israel. The patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph — belong to what we call the "heroic ages" (a label that encompasses primeval history as well), but the patriarchs come alive in our imaginations as people who might be in our own circle of acquaintances. Starting with chapter 12, Genesis traces the history of a single family through four generations. This family history is covenantal, recounting the story of God's contractual promises or blessings bestowed on the patriarchs and the obligations placed upon the patriarchs in response, consisting chiefly of following God's call and obeying his commands.

The book is a balancing act between big patterns and an abundance of specific details. To start with the second of these, Genesis contains a crowded scene of people; in fact, we tend to recall Genesis as a memorable gallery of individual characters. The diversity of genres and the self-contained or episodic nature of numerous brief units further create a kaleidoscope of details, always shifting and never in focus for very long. The quantity of names, dates, and places in Genesis is probably unsurpassed in any subsequent book of the Bible. Anyone who has outlined Genesis can confirm the amazing multiplicity we find there.

But all this complexity is structured on a few simple patterns, and these can unify the book in our minds. The clear division between primeval history and patriarchal history is one principle of symmetry, with the universal history of the first movement balanced by the focus on a single covenant family in the second. The book follows a simple, straightforward chronological arrangement, with the result that at every point, we are aware that a single history is being presented in a sequential and progressive manner.

The plot of Genesis is what literary critics from the time of Aristotle have called an "episodic plot." This means that the book is comprised of a host of self-contained episodes. Unlike what we find in a novel, no human character is present from beginning to end. We usually leave an episode behind once it is over. Probably most of the individual episodes circulated orally until the author of Genesis put them into a single collection. The overall plot conflict in this episodic story is God's interaction with sinful humanity. The central character or protagonist in this plot is God, the only character present throughout the book.

A final unifying aspect of Genesis considered as a self-contained book is the concept of literary hero. A literary hero is a protagonist who is representative of people generally. Heroes are also largely idealized (otherwise we would not call them heroes), but few heroes are perfect or wholly idealized. Even when the heroes of Genesis fail, we can see our own experiences in their lives, and this points to another aspect of literary heroes, namely, the way in which they are representative of people generally.

Genesis is an anthology of hero stories (to be elaborated in greater detail below). Additionally, even though the gallery of characters in Genesis is huge, the author balances that expansiveness by focusing on six major heroes: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We also remember the book by its five famous heroines: Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel. In a book where the family is the most consistent arena of action, we can also arrange it by five famous couples: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, Jacob and Rachel.

The Genres and Literary Forms of Genesis

Story of origins. Genesis starts with a genre that was especially important in the ancient world — the story of origins. This label can have a broad definition, but usually it means stories that recount how a divine being (in classical mythology divine beings [plural]) brought the physical world into existence. The label "creation story" is often used synonymously with story of origins, but we need to define the issues carefully. As C. S. Lewis noted, the so-called creation stories of mythology are usually not about the creation of the world but are theogonies, stories about the origin of the gods. Or, if they are stories about the physical world, they usually start with "stage props" already in place, with the result that they recount an early stage in the history of the world but not the actual beginning.

Genesis 1–3 can be viewed as a triptych of stories that together constitute the Bible's story of origins: chapter 1 is the Bible's creation story; chapter 2 tells the story of the beginning of human life in a perfect garden; chapter 3 narrates the story of the origin of evil. The Bible's creation story (chap. 1) is noteworthy for the high degree of artistry with which it is told. The stories of origin in Genesis also embody foundational information that explains much of our own lives, and their explanatory value is incalculable.

Etiology. Closely related to the story of origin is the genre known as "etiology," which is a story that tells how a person or place received its name or how a practice began. A biblical etiology links the origin of a name or a custom to a historical event and is not a fictional story composed to explain an already existing phenomenon. Within the Bible, the form appears most often in the book of Genesis. The story of the Tower of Babel (11:1–9) tells how Babel received its name, as well as how multiplicity of languages began. The story of Jacob's wrestling with the angel of God (32:24–32) explains why "the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket" (v. 32). The etiology is a somewhat mysterious form for modern readers, but it was important in ancient societies and is so preeminently in Genesis.

Genealogy. The genealogy is a close relative of the story of origin and etiology. A genealogy is a list of ancestors. It is a genre that baffles modern readers, but, again, it was an important genre for the primitive mind. The genealogies of Genesis serve as many as five purposes: they reflect the interest of biblical cultures in family and individual origins or roots; they express the continuity of generations (for either good or evil); they show the importance that God places on individuals (inasmuch as named individuality is important in the genealogies); they root biblical faith in space-time history; and they embody theological meaning (as, for example, in the genealogies that trace the messianic line).

Hero story. The preceding three genres are important in Genesis, but in terms of total space they are of second-tier importance. Far more crucial to our successfully navigating the book is the genre of the hero story. In fact, Genesis is an anthology of hero stories. The things we primarily need to know about these hero stories are the following.

• The minimal requirement of a literary hero is that he or she is a representative of universal human experience, including our own experiences.

• A hero needs to be largely admirable, a positive model whom we aspire to follow.

• But a hero need not be wholly admirable; heroes become our representatives partly by embodying the common failings of the human race.

• Although we legitimately apply the adjective heroic to any admirable and representative character in a story, it is best to use the noun form, hero, for the protagonist. This is a helpful strategy because a hero story is built around the central hero. We can assimilate a hero story well if we simply view ourselves as the hero's observant traveling companion, learning the lessons that the hero learned.

• A key to assimilating a hero story is to assume that the tellers of hero stories say what they want to impart about human experience and truth by embodying these things in the life and actions of the central hero and secondary characters who might be heroic. Hero stories codify a society's values and moral code.

• We should identify the hero's experiment in living and note whether that experiment comes to a good or bad end. On that basis, we can formulate an understanding of what the storyteller intends for us to carry away by way of instruction. We can extract the intended instruction from a hero story if we regard it as being an example story in which we can see good behavior to emulate and bad behavior to avoid.

If we apply the foregoing grid to the hero stories of Genesis, we will handle them very well — better than if we consult commentaries that say virtually nothing about the story qualities of Genesis and the way in which the author embodies truth in the characters and actions of heroes. Writers of hero stories cast their lot with character and action as the vehicle for the truth they aim to impart; we cannot extract that truth without analyzing character and action.

In keeping with our focus on the literary forms that biblical authors impose on the materials of real life, it is important to make a distinction between life and the literary/historical portrayal of life. Real life provides the materials from which a hero and heroic life can be constructed, but real life does not provide heroes of the type we find in Genesis. The heroes of Genesis are the product of the selectivity and shaping hand of the author. The author has molded the materials of life (but did not invent fictional data) in such a way that the essential issues stand out, silhouetted with clarity.

Narrative or story. We should not overlook the obvious: a hero story is, first, a generic story. From start to finish, the primary literary form of Genesis is story. The individual units are comprised not of ideas but of the three ingredients that make up all stories: plot (actions), characters, and settings. The essence of plot is one or more conflicts that run their course and reach resolution. Our primary goal in regard to the characters of Genesis should be to get to know them as fully as the storyteller enables us and to ponder what the storyteller is telling us about life by means of these characters. Settings provide the enabling context for the events in a story and the characters who inhabit the settings; we should therefore analyze how a setting serves as a fit "container" for the actions and characters that exist within it.

Tragic plot. A tragic plot tells the story of a hero or a group who begins in prosperity, makes a tragic choice, and brings about misery as a result. Genesis 3, the story of the fall, is the prototypical tragedy for the entire human race; it is the story in which we can see the tragic principle in its pure form. After Genesis 3, we find many tragic plots in Genesis, to which we can apply the following grid: (1) What is ideal in the initial phase of the story? What constitutes the tragic hero's greatness? (2) What tragic mistake does the tragic hero make, and what tragic flaw of character can we discern in that mistake? (3) What form do the usual catastrophe and suffering take in this particular tragedy? (4) Does the tragic hero come to perception about the nature of the tragic mistake? (5) For us as readers, what wisdom or redemptive aspect can we carry away from this particular spectacle of human failing? The story of Cain (4:1–16) is a good example of a tragic plot.

Comic plot. A comic plot is a U-shaped story in which events first descend from prosperity into potential tragedy and then rise to a happy ending. That is the complete comic plot, but many comedies begin at the bottom of the U and narrate the gradual conquest of obstacles to the happy ending. In either case, a comic plot is a success story. Literary tragedy embodies the pessimistic principle of human life in this world, whereas comedy embodies the principles of optimism and hope. There are as many comic plots as tragic plots in Genesis. The story of Joseph, the favored son of his father who is sold into slavery and then endures a series of misfortunes but eventually becomes the second-most powerful ruler in his nation, fits the U-shaped comic plot to perfection.

Conversations and divine-human encounters. In keeping with the impulse of biblical narrative to package its material as mini-dramas, we should be alert for the prominent role that dialogue plays in the stories of Genesis. Often the action is carried by conversations; as we overhear characters interact, we can piece together the outlines of a story. In addition, many of the conversations in Genesis are between God and people, thus falling into the narrative subtype of divine-human encounter.

Satire. Satire is the exposure of human failing. The template on which a satire is constructed is an object of attack. There is also a stated or inferred satiric norm — a standard of correctness by which the failure is being judged. The satiric element in Genesis is embodied in narrative form, and more specifically it is located in the character flaws of many characters. The most sustained satire in Genesis is the story of Jacob, as his character flaws are repeatedly laid out to view. But some of the shorter stories are also classics of satire, such as those of Cain and the Tower of Babel. Additionally, Genesis contains numerous stories of dysfunctional families, and these always have a satiric element.


Excerpted from "Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Leland Ryken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents

Cover Page,
Title Page,
The Bible as a Whole,
1 Samuel,
2 Samuel,
1 Kings,
2 Kings,
1 Chronicles,
2 Chronicles,
Song of Solomon,
1 Corinthians,
2 Corinthians,
1 Thessalonians,
2 Thessalonians,
1 Timothy,
2 Timothy,
1 Peter,
2 Peter,
1 John,
2 John,
3 John,

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