Professor Jeanie Crain


Bible as Literature


November 4, 2012


Jeanie C. Crain, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Polity Press, 2010. Pgs 90-107


Crain begins chapter five by reviewing the concept of genres. Crain defines genres as a way of seeing the world and arranging its content. Genre addresses narrative/story, drama, and poetry as kinds of writing, the result of an expressive mode of writing intended to convey the thoughts and feelings of the author(s), as contrasted to two other forms of writing: informative writing, conveying the truth about something; and argument, making truth claims and defending them. Biblical writing cannot be strictly defined as expressive: it always mixes faith, what people happen to believe, and fact, what actually existed or happened. Crain reminds us how she has talked about how the Old Testament sets out a universal history of beginnings-how it starts in prehistory, then moves into the historically based ancient world, events, and people’s experiences-and how, existing as it does today in multiple languages. The New Testament appeals to historical fact in the presentation of Jesus as a person who lived and whose life impacted faith. In chapter five Crain asks us to focus on what we have in the existing Bible.

Genres deal with conventions that guide readers into a text and help them to understand what to look for and how to organize their experience of reading. A literary approach emphasizes the familiar genres found in other kinds of literature as well as the universal features present within these that make them similar and recognizable across the centuries. Traditional literature courses encourage close reading, interpretation, and appreciation of an existing text. Crain emphasizes that this is not he goal when reading the Bible as literature. The emergence of genres occurs almost naturally in normal reading of the Bible. Genesis for example follows the creation stories while other books of the Bible trace the history of a family and include a collection about heroes, in which the latters’ quests are domestic and spiritual, almost epic in its narrative of national destiny. This raises genre challenges however, should a particular book be read as story, a folktale, or a narrative structure paralleling Greek drama? This leads to the conclusion that genres cannot be easily separated.

Metaphorically, biblical genres can be described both as mapping divine action in history- God’s will for human behavior and the privileges and responsibilities of God’s covenant people- and as providing an explanation of how persons fit into God’s created order-a question that certainly the wisdom literature addresses in practical and reflective ways. Recognizing the diverse types of literature in the Bible helps readers make sense of a collection of texts they would otherwise find hard to read, difficult to understand, confusing, esoteric, and ancient. It can even be argued that the external form of biblical text must be settled before readers fully understand its content. Critics argue however that genres seem to be reduced to essences derived from a study of other works and that they become the subject of regulations established by critical abstraction.

The Bible has many examples of words meant to be sung: victory hymns and songs, marching songs, and songs of celebration, music apparently being very important to the people of Israel. Their “lived” songs express joy, relief, praise, thanks, and deliverance; in lifting their hearts and voices outward and upward to their God, they provide a cultural inheritance for the generations that follow them. The Song of Moses, the Song of Miriam, and the song of Deborah represent the genre of victory hymn.

Stanza, imagery, and parallelism make the poetry of the Bible striking and memorable. Stanza in poetry refers to the grouping of regular, rhymed, recurrent unites; strophe also groups words and lines, but these evidence less regularity, rhyme, and recurrence. Each subsequent strophe in the song of Moses arguments or builds upon the first, each presenting a greater fullness. The first strophe presents the event: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army/ he cast into the sea” (Exod. 15.4) where they sink like a stone (15.5). The second expands the event with detail and vivid imaginative pictures (imagery): the waters pile up, the floods stand in heaps, the deep congeals in the heart of the sea (15.8). And finally, the third strophe stretches the event, its details and pictures, into the consequences: the people led, redeemed, and guided through the wilderness, the terror of the people into the land and the establishment of the sanctuary of the LORD, and the conclusion, “the LORD will reign forever and ever: (15,13-17, 18).

Both the Old and New Testament contain many examples of allegory and parable, allegory being more closely associated with metaphor and parable with simile. Both use analogy and make comparisons, both direct and indirect, both explicit and implied. Allegory may be described as a continuation of metaphor, where a term of phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable to suggest a resemblance. Through metaphor and allegory, the Bible often expresses abstract or spiritual meaning in concrete or material forms.

From the second century onward, church fathers debated whether the Bible should be read as literal, within a historical context, or as symbolic, resulting in one tradition that reads the Bible almost exclusively as allegory and another that argues the danger of this allegorization. Reading the Bible literally as fact resists full consideration of the complex nature of language as symbol. Without analogy and allegory, much of the meaning of the Bible would be lost.

The Bible evidences many examples of parable, which are particularly abundant in the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. Parables make explicit use of analogy to show a similarity between two things, to demonstrate a common denominator between two unlike concepts, characters, events, or objects. A parable continues simile (an explicit comparison characterized by realism, brevity, absence of allegorical names, persuasive strategy, subtle undermining or ordinary patterns of thinking, variability in details calling for corresponding meaning, and artistic excellence). Analogy (demonstrating a similarity of features between two things), serves as the common denominator for all parables, often explicit and overt. In a true parable, two meanings must be constructed in parallel action; often in the Bible, a set of circumstances in the physical sphere will be compared to a spiritual counterpart, leading to the description of parable as a moving picture. A parable must contain a figurative object and a figurative action. A parable does not have to include a lengthy story. Jesus did not create a new literary genre when he used parables; the gene had a long tradition, and was employed throughout the Mediterranean world, and by Greek and Roman philosophers and rhetoricians.

Prayer can be described as life-changing, character-constituting dialogue between the human and the divine. As with song, allegory, and parable, one must resist any tendency to read the prayers as isolated texts and to understand them as embedded in a traditioning context. Understood in this way, prayers have a historical, traditioning and faith context. Prayer as genre exists in a continuum between conversation and formalized address. In the individual’s relationship with God, prayer expresses the conviction that God can and will respond. Sacrifice in the Old Testament carries the idea of offering some commodity to God, expressing itself in the New Testament in the sacrifice of Christ. Prayer evolved and changed through the patriarchal and Temple periods, exhibiting both individual and communal expressions. Individual prayers, voluntary and spontaneous, lack the ritual and liturgy associated with communal prayer. The Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament, existing in 1,395 languages and dialects, has influenced people worldwide. Simple, natural, and spontaneous, the prayer has been regarded as a compendium and synthesis of the Old and New Testaments. In addition to songs, allegories, parables, and prayers, the Bible provides many other sub-genres, including genealogies, tribal lists, legal codes, legends, fables, speeches, sermons, theophanies, gospels, epistles, epigrams, acrostics, wisdom, and apocalypse, to name a few.

I really felt like this chapter did a good job reviewing the previous material we have discussed as well as diving into new material. I found the review and discussion on genres very interesting in the first section of the chapter. I also enjoyed learning about the use of songs and hymns in the Bible. I really liked the idea of using parable and allegory to build upon our definitions of simile and metaphor that we learned in the last chapter. I felt like chapter five did an excellent job of using the material we have already covered to build upon our definitions and expand our knowledge about rhetorical devices and literary techniques used throughout the Bible. It’s almost like learning math, where you learn a basic concept and then gradually keep adding onto the equation, making it more complex and thorough. I can definitely begin to understand that the Bible is much more complex than I have previously thought. When thinking about this it only makes sense though, the Bible is after all perhaps the most important literary work we as humans poses, it would only make sense that there would be more than meets the eye.