The Literary Bible

Bible as Literature

The Bible is a theological text containing several literary genres: history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, laws, letters, etc.

The Bible is a literary text using numerous types of genres (narrative, law, wisdom, parables, poetry, prophecy, letters) and literary techniques: parallelism, allusions, chiasms, many types of figures of speech, etc.

The Bible is Ancient Near East Meditative literature. Before the advent of the printing press, texts were always read out loud, usually with other people present. To grasp the subtleties of the Bible, it was necessary for people to have memorized the biblical text so that they could meditate on it so that they could fully grasp the meanings and implications of each text and be able to relate different texts of the Bible to each other such that they added to each other’s meanings.

The Bible is both perspicuous and complex. That is, at one level, the Bible is able to be understood by the average person, but at another level, the Bible is complex enough to challenge the most educated of Biblical scholars.

Purpose of this document

In our current culture, we usually associate “literature” with “fiction,” but that is a limited perspective. Non-fiction works, such as the Bible, can also use extensive literary techniques and thus also be considered as literature. The intent of this document is to make you aware of just how much the Bible is literature, a literary work. For those who are not trained in literature and therefore not familiar with the terms on the following pages, don’t feel overwhelmed – the goal is just to become aware of how much the Bible is truly a work of literature. For an introduction into literary styles, you may view the video animations at

Literary genres

Law – Rules, statutes, and instructions, and are generally concerned with how people live that are meant to instruct and lay out the conditions of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel.

Letters – or ‘epistles’ – written to individuals or churches They contain practical, theological, and relational instruction as well as evidence, and aim to encourage, teach, instruct and sometimes to make practical arrangements.

Narrative – Histories, stories meant to capture the experience of the people of God. That are meant to document communal stories and histories for official record and to faithfully pass them on to future generations, and to show God at work in the lives of his people.

Poetry – Very different from English poetry, it is basically thought-based in balanced, parallel lines. It is very compact and tries to express truth, feelings, or experiences in imagery.

Prophecy – encouraging or warning those who need it. It is usually forth-telling (instructing how to behave) but sometimes it is fortelling (predicting the future). The Apocalyptic genre is a subset of the prophetic genre that uses figurative, often exaggerated, language to reveal the spiritual reality behind events.

Wisdom – Pithy sayings concerned with making sense of life and how to live well. Meant to make sense of the meaning of life as experienced and observed.

Literary structures

Acrostic – A device found in Old Testament poetry in which the successive units of a poem begin with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The units might be single lines, pairs of lines, or stanzas (as in Psalm 119).  This can only be seen in the original Hebrew text.

AlliterationThe repeating of consonant sounds right next to each other, which creates a memorable or melodic effect. Psalm 9:55 From the wind, sweeping from the storm (mērûaḥ sōʿâ missāʿar)

Allusion – An indirect reference to something else, usually understood from a personal or cultural context. John 8:58, “Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Exodus 3:14 “God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

Assonance – The repetition of the same internal sounds of adjacent or nearby words.  This is a literary device that can really only be seen or heard in the original languages of the Bible Gen 1:2 and the earth was formless and void … we’hararetz hayetah tohu wabohu

AposiosisBreaks off a thought in mid-sentence. “‘And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’–therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22-23).

ApostropheA figure of speech in which an exclamation is addressed to an object as if it were a person. “Then he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, ‘O altar, altar!’” (1 Kings 13:2).

Climax – A series of actions or qualities is repeated and intensified. “What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4).

EllipsisThe omission of one or more words that must be supplied by the reader to complete the thought. “And Saul had a concubine, whose name [was] Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah. So [Ishbosheth] said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’” (2 Sam. 3:7). The words “was” and “Ishbosheth” are italicized in the translation because they are not in the Hebrew text. They were added to complete the sense of the passage.

EpigramA clever and memorable statement. Rom 9:13 (MSG) Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.”

OnomatopoeiaA word that sounds like what it means. Luke 12:15 … keep yourselves from all covetousness (phylassesthe apo pases pleonexias)

OxymoronA phrase that uses two contradictory words to create a new meaning. “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

ParadoxA statement that appears to contradict itself but contains some truth, theme, or humor. “Blessed are those who hunger.” (Matthew 5:6) “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry.” (John 6:35)

Parallelism – A figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through the lines of a poetic structure in order to make a larger point. Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”

A form of parallelism is a Chiasm a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as the ideas are “reflected” back in a passage. Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.”

Genesis 3:5-22

a 3:5 You will be like God, knowing good and evil
—–b 3:7 They made coverings of fig leaves
———-c 3:8 Wife as yet unnamed
—————-d 3:9 Adam questioned
——————–e 3:12-13a Eve accused and questioned
————————-x 3:13b Serpent accused

————————-x 3:14 Serpent’s curse
——————–e 3:16 Eve’s curse
—————-d 3:17-19 Adam’s curse
———-c 3:20 Wife is named Eve
—–b 3:21 The LORD God clothed them in tunics of skin.
a 3:22 Man is like one of Us, to know good and evil.

Pericope – a set of verses that forms one coherent unit or thought. a parable (parable of the sower), a psalm (Psalm 23), a chiasm (Gen 3:5-22) an anecdote within a narrative (Genesis 14:1-17, Lot’s captivity and rescue)

PleonasmUses an excessive number of words for the sake of emphasis. “Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Gen. 40:23). The redundant “but forgot him” adds force to the statement.

Repetition – Emphasis is gained by repeating the same word, phrase, or sentence. “Moses, Moses!” (Exod. 3:4).

Figures of Speech

Literal language is the type of straightforward writing you’ll find on road signs, in office memos, and in research papers. Figurative language is indirect language used to create meaning or heighten effect often by comparing or identifying one thing with another with references that are familiar to the reader or listener.

AntithesisA direct contrast in which two sets if figures are set in opposition to one another. So, justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. (Isa. 59:9)

ApostropheApostrophe is a figure of speech in which an exclamation is addressed to an object as if it were a person. “Then he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, ‘O altar, altar!’” (1 Kings 13:2).

CircumlocutionCircumlocution is a way of talking around a topic, sometimes by being wordy or talking in circles. From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17 Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” because as an orthodox Jew he would never say “kingdom of God.” If he were a contemporary, he might write “kingdom of G_d,” but he’s writing in the first century using a Hebrew circumlocution. He’s sensitive to his audience and he knows that his audience is primarily Jewish and primarily orthodox. Luke can use “kingdom of God” and not offend anyone. Matthew can’t.

EuphemismA euphemistic figure substitutes an inoffensive or agreeable expression for one that may offend or suggest something distasteful. “You shall go to your fathers in peace” (Gen. 15:15). A euphemism for death.

HyperboleIn hyperbole, the writer or speaker exaggerates to create a strong effect. “Every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss” (Judg. 20:16).

Idiom – A figure of speech or an expression that is peculiar to a particular language, and in and of itself cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its component words taken separately.  Examples in English would be “to pay through the nose,” “break a leg,” and “a bee in your bonnet.” Matthew 23:24, “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

ImageryThe use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas. Revelation 12:1, “Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.”

IronyIrony is an expression that denotes the opposite of what is meant by the words themselves. “And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).

LitotesLitotes understate one thing in order to magnify another. “After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A flea?” (1 Sam. 24:14).

MetaphorA metaphor involves a direct or implied comparison of two unlike things. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (2 Sam. 22:3). Allegories are extended metaphors. Allegorical stories have several points of comparison. allegories often use words in a figurative rather than literal sense. 

MerismThis is a listing of opposite parts to signify a whole or a totality.  For example, the division of “night/day” and “darkness/noonday” in the Psalm below means “all the time.” Psalm 91:5-6, “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.”

MetonymyIn metonomy, the name of one object or concept is used for another because of an association or similarity between the two. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). This is a metonomy, because “Moses and the prophets” stands for the writings of Moses and the prophets.

ParallelismA figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through the lines of a poetic structure in order to make a larger point. Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”

PersonificationA figure of speech which takes a human characteristic and applies it to an object, quality, or idea. “Destruction and Death say, ‘We have heard a report about it with our ears’” (Job 28:22). Anthropomorphisms aretypes of personification that apply human characteristics to God.  Genesis 6:6, “And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.”

Punpun is a form of wordplay that purposely substitutes words that sound similar but have different meanings. Example: (Philemon 11) “Once he was useless to you but now he is useful to both you and me” Onesimus means useful.

Simile An explicit comparison of two unlike things using the words “as” or “like.” “So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city” (Isa. 1:8). Parables are extended similes using short stories to teach a truth or answer a question. Parables often use realistic situations to make effective use of the imagination. Mark 4:1-9 the parable of the sower.

SymbolismThe use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities, giving meaning or character to something. Revelation 13:1, “Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.”

SynecdocheIn a synecdoche, a part is used for a whole, or a whole is used for a part. “All flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Gen. 6:12). Flesh is used for the whole person.

TypeA literary foreshadowing, where one person or thing serves as a metaphoric for something similar that is to come later.  Numbers 21:9, “So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” John 3:14-15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

WordplayWitty use of the meanings and ambiguities of words.  Biblical writers made plays on word meanings that can only be seen in the original languages. Matthew 16:18, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” [Petros, the word for “Peter,” means “a small rock, stone, or pebble”; petra, the word for “rock” here, means “a large rock.”]

Zeugma – A word modifies two or more words but strictly refers to only one of them. One or more words must be supplied to complete the thought. “Forbidding to marry, [and commanding] to abstain from foods” (1 Tim. 4:3). “Forbidding” only applies to marriage, and “commanding” must be supplied.

Intertextual reference: Matthew 2:15

Some have thought that Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 is a case of sensus plenior (“fuller sense”), that is a new revelation given to an apostle that was not given to prophets in the Old Testament. In fact, Matthew used the same methods of interpretation that the prophets did; Matthew used Hosea 11:1 as a reference because he wanted to use Exodus 4:22 the way that Hosea did.

  • Matthew 2:15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
  • The Old Testament has limited references to “my son.” The reference to Egypt has already been established as a figure of speech in the Old Testament.

Link 1: Matthew 2:15, Hosea 11:1

  • Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son.

Link 2A: Hosea 11:1, Hosea 11:5, 8; 9:3;

  • Hosea 11:5, 8; 9:3; 12:3 “He shall not return to the land of Egypt; But the Assyrian shall be his king, Because they refused to repent … “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred … They shall not dwell in the Lord’s land, But Ephraim shall return to Egypt, And shall eat unclean things in Assyria.”
  • Hosea 11:8 directly states that Israel is being sent to Assyria, not Egypt, while other verses in Hosea set up the anticipated exile into Assyria as a metaphorical parallel to Egypt.

Link 2Ai: Hosea 3:5; Ezekiel 37:4

  • Hosea 3:5 Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days.
  • Ezekiel 37:4 David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in My judgments and observe My statutes and do them.
  • The deliverer will be “David their King,” that is, a second David.

Link 2B: Hosea 11:1, Exodus 4:22

  • Exodus 4:22 – “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn,”
  • The phrase, “my son” in Hosea 11:1 is an allusion to Exodus 4:22 and an appeal to God’s love so that the Lord would deliver Israel again.

Link 2Bi: Exodus 4:22: Psalm 80

  • Psalm 80:8-9, 17You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, And caused it to take deep root, And it filled the land … Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.”
  • Hosea is appealing to God’s love for Israel, (linking Psalm 80 through Exodus 4:22) that even though God will be sending Israel to Assyria, that God will rescue Israel from Assyria even as He had done when Israel was in Egypt.

Link 2Bii: Exodus 4:22; Psalm 18:2, 13, 50

  • Psalm 18:2, 13, 50 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold … The Lord thundered from heaven, And the Most High uttered His voice, Hailstones and coals of fire … Great deliverance He gives to His king, And shows mercy to His anointed, To David and his descendants forevermore.
  • In Ps. 18:13, 17, David shows his experience of deliverance is similar to Exodus by using references to hail (one of the plagues) and the Rock (Moses speaking to or hitting the rock) to allude to the Exodus. At the end of the Psalm, he declares that God’s deliverance will be show to his “descendants forevermore.”

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: