Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 22-42.
Chapter five introduces four sub-genres (song, allegory, parable, and prayer) and their uses, examples, and interpretations. Before delving into the heart of the material, the chapter begins with a series of preliminary considerations that are necessary for understanding the chapter. Dr. Crain reviews the importance of recognizing genres because of their affect on the meaning and interpretation of Biblical passages. She also brings to light some of the challenges associated with genre identification including: separation, interpretation, and cohesion of genres. The objections to genre criticism are also reiterated. Essentially genre critics argue that “the literature of ‘living texts’… resists such reductions to classification and types” (p.93), meaning that the Bible should not be watered down and over-generalized to make it fit standard genre classifications.
The first sub-genre described is song, which occurs throughout the Old Testament. Songs were very important to the Israelite people and were a part of daily life and culture. The Israelites had songs for victorious battles, marching, celebration, mourning, expressing emotions, and communication with God. Ten preeminent songs in Israel’s history include the Song on the night of the Exodus, the Song at the Sea, the Song at the Well, Moses’ Song on completing the Torah, Joshua’s song on stopping the sun, Deborah’s Song, King David’s Song, the Song of the Dedication of the Holy Temple, Solomon’s Song of Songs, and the culmination with a final song that will capture “all of creations ultimate striving” (p. 97).
The songs of the Bible are very closely related to poetry because of the use of inset arrangement, markers, antiphonal arrangement, and many more characteristics. This similarity contributes to the unification of scripture as a whole. Songs are easily identified in the Bible because of the use inset text and stanza to set apart poetry and song from surrounding prose. Markers also identify songs with a clear statement that a song is about to follow. Songs contain striking examples of imagery, parallelism, theophany, prophecy, allusion, and intertextuality. The victory hymn was thoroughly examined as an example of song in the Bible. The victory hymn is represented by the Song of Moses, the Song of Miriam, and the Song of Deborah and was also widely used in Egypt and Assyria (p. 94). The use of antiphony, the alternation of two groups singing, is commonly seen in victory hymns, especially with the alternation of male and female voices.
Another prominent example of a sub-genre is allegory. Allegory is closely related to metaphor and uses analogies and comparisons. Allegory can be defined as “ a continuation of metaphor, where a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable to suggest resemblance” (p. 98). Psalm 23 is used as an example of allegory because of the use of the Lord and the Shepherd’s care to illustrate how God cares for his people. Allegory enables the representation of abstract ideas in a concrete form that can be grasped by common people. This representation of both the literal and the figurative meaning causes debate about whether the Bible should be read literally or symbolically (p.99).
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all utilize allegory to depict the actual and ideal relationship between God and humans. Isaiah depicts Israel as a childless, abandoned woman and assures her that God has not forsaken her and she will have abundant children. Jeremiah was written after Judah had been defeated by Babylon. This book contrasts a pure bride and immoral whore to show Israel and Judah’s disobedience in opposition to God’s mercy. Ezekiel, a prophet, explains the defeat of Israel by the Babylonians occurred because of disobedience. In this book, God rescues and raises an abandoned, helpless female infant (Judah), only for the baby to grow up and become a whore. In all of this, God remains faithful and merciful. Hosea confronts Israel’s disobedient alliance with Assyria. God instructs the prophet Hosea to marry a whore, Gomer, who has children by other men and remains in prostitution. Hosea’s commitment to her is representative of God’s love and mercy on Israel and his desire for their obedience (p.100-1). In the New Testament, Ephesians and Revelation use similar metaphors of marriage to represent the relationship between God and his people.
Parable is another sub-genre used throughout the Bible. Like allegory, parable uses analogies and comparisons and should be interpreted in context. Parable is closely related to simile and, unlike allegory, is concise and realistic (p.103). Many parables are explicitly explained after their exposition. A true parable is composed of physical circumstance compared to a spiritual one in which two parallel meanings are constructed (p.104). The shortest parable in the Bible is Luke 4.23, “Physician, cure yourself!” The parable is literal in that physicians cure people’s ailments. The figurative or spiritual interpretation involves the reader to view “cure” as applied to spiritual and not physical ailments. Jesus is not the only one to utilize parables in literature. The use of parables was widespread before Jesus’ time by Greek and Roman philosophers and even in the Old Testament by prophets, like Nathan.
Prayer is the final sub-genre described in this chapter and is defined as “a life-changing, character-constituting dialogue between the human and the divine” (p. 104). As with the other literary devices, prayer must be read in context and not as an isolated passage. Prayer shares many similarities with song and the two devices tend to overlap. The Song of Moses, the Song of Hannah, and many more are identified as being both song and prayer. Dr. Crain eloquently says, “prayer exists in a continuum between conversation and formal address” (p. 104). Organized communal prayer tends to be more formal whereas individual, spontaneous prayer lacks those ritualistic aspects.
Abraham, Moses, and Nehemiah pray concerning God’s provisions and protection of his people. Abraham prays that God’s promise of an heir will come to pass, regardless of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, and God is faithful. Moses prays for the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt and throughout their journey to the Promised Land. He prays that God would remember his covenant with Abraham and choose to not destroy the Israelites. In Nehemiah, Ezra reminds the people of God’s faithfulness and reliability throughout their history. Another important prayer to the Jewish people is the Shema, which has been very influential. An important prayer from the New Testament is the Lord’s Prayer, which “has been regarded as a compendium and synthesis of the Old and New Testaments” (p. 107).
On a large-scale view of this chapter, Dr. Crain did an excellent job of providing and clarifying background knowledge from earlier in the textbook that was necessary for understanding sub-genres. There are innumerable sub-genres and only a few could be expounded upon, but the sub-genres that were chosen were very applicable. Song, allegory, parable, and prayer are very common in the Bible and relatable to the reader, regardless of experience. These four sub-genres are also among the most common, so an in-depth study of them is very useful in terms of the sheer number of Biblical excerpts that relate.
The descriptions and explanations of each sub-genre were thorough and understandable. The chapter encompassed many different examples from both the Old and New Testaments and included analysis and explanation. I benefited from the comparisons and contrasts among the sub-genres. This gave me a clear view of how they relate to each other and yet remain unique.
Organizationally, the chapter was structured well. I had to do very little turning back in the chapter to understand and synthesize the material. The sub-genres transitioned well and the chapter ended with a brief description of other important sub-genres.
Overall, Chapter five of “Reading the Bible as Literature” was very well written. Proper background knowledge was clarified and reviewed. The content of the chapter was definitively chosen and very applicable to the readers. Each sub-genre was well supported with Biblical examples, explanations, and clear definitions. This chapter is an essential resource for understanding song, allegory, parable, and prayer in the Bible.