October 27, 2014
Literary Forms in the Bible
When we think of the Bible as the written word inspired by God, the laws (teachings) and history will most likely come to mind. However, poetry covers about one-third of the Bible, which also contains almost all of the other literary forms. Hopefully, this will interest Christian readers in general, but as poets and writers, we do well to study these forms and their usages to expand our literary options in what we write.
We can do this by ourselves, of course, but if you’ve ever read one of the many books by writer, editor, and university professor Leland Ryken, you’ll want to see what he has to say on this subject. I certainly did! So I warmly welcomed the review copy I received of A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, recently published by Crossway.
In the Introduction, Dr. Ryken defines literary forms as “anything pertaining to how a passage expresses its content.” So the focus is not on the content or the what of the text but on these categories as listed by the author with my notes added in parentheses:
1. Literary terms (discussed in this alphabetized handbook)
2. Genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry)
3. Literary techniques (for example, theme and variation)
4. Motifs (pattern or theme)
5. Archetypes and type scenes (recurrent patterns or symbols)
6. Figures of speech (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, paradox)
7. Rhetorical devices (for example, an envelope structure or inclusio, which “consists of bracketing a passage with the same statement”)
8. Stylistic traits (features of style from high to conversational)
9. Formulas (such as a number formula “for three transgressions and for four” or a “woe formula)
You might feel like saying “Woe is me!” if those terms are new for you, but take heart! The A to Z (make that "W") format of the book enables you to look up the entry you want on your own need-to-know terms.
Since I wanted to give the book a thorough reading, though, I began with “Abundance, Story of” and kept going, soon coming to the conclusion that, when I catch up on my stack of review copies, I’d like to read this again and give myself a writing exercise for each entry to which I'm drawn.
For instance, I’ve enjoyed writing acrostics, which, in Bible literature, means, “An Old Testament poem in which the successive units begin with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in consecutive order.” Mine were written using the English alphabet, but the Hebrew Bible includes acrostics in several Psalms where “The most elaborate acrostic poem in the Bible is Psalm 119. The poem is comprised of twenty-two eight-verse units. The units unfold according to the Hebrew alphabet, but in addition, all eight verses within each unit begin with the letter that the unit as a cluster highlights.” To make Psalm 119 even more difficult to write, the poet consistently included words referring to the “law of the LORD” such as “precepts, “statutes,” “commandments,” thereby adding to the impression that the Bible consists primarily of rules.
Dr. Ryken, however, reminds us of so much more in the “Adventure Story,” “Allegory, “Apocalyptic Writing,” “Beatitude,” “Benediction,” “Christ Hymn,” and even the “Comedy,” which he describes as “A kind of plot structure, with accompanying traits, that forms a U-shaped story in which events first descend into potential tragedy and then rise to a happy ending.”
Who would expect that, from a literary perspective, “comedy rather than tragedy is the dominant narrative form of the Bible and the Christian gospel.” For example, the Bible “story begins with the creation of a perfect world. It descends into the tragedy of fallen human history. It ends with a new world of total happiness and victory over evil” – which is surely more than enough to make us smile!
Other examples of the literary form include the stories of Joseph, Ruth, Esther, and Job – none of whom endured the laughing matters we expect to see in a TV sit-com or humor story. Nevertheless, each lived through a U-shaped story where events went from bad to good, shaping their faith and also the lives of readers who welcome the relief of a happy ending based on biblical truths.
Continuing through the alphabetized entries, we find “Drama” and “Dramatic Irony,” such as “Pharaoh’s daughter unknowingly paying the mother of Moses to take care of her own son.” And, in “Epic,” we see that “The biblical story that most obviously fits the description of an epic is the story of the exodus.”
When I came to the entry for “Epistle,” I thought of the form many Christian writers use in their blogs! As a fixed form in the New Testament, the epistle has five main parts, which, according to Dr. Ryken, consist of the following (parentheses his, this time):
• opening or salutation (sender, address, greeting)
• thanksgiving (including such features as prayer for spiritual welfare, remembrance of the recipients, and eschatological climax)
• body of the letter (beginning with introductory formulas and concluding with eschatological and travel material)
• paraenesis (moral exhortations)
• closing (final greetings and benediction)
Instead of focusing on parables, paradox, penitential Psalms, and other forms you’re most likely familiar with, I’ll turn to the entry for “Paraenesis,” which frankly I’d never heard of before, perhaps because, as Dr. Ryken notes, “No English word has gained currency as a designation for this fixed ingredient in the Epistles.” As he explains, however, paraenesis is “A section in the New Testament Epistles that lists moral virtues and vices, or a collection of commands to practice specific virtues and avoid specific vices.”
Hmm. Interesting. Even without know what paraenesis means, I’ve been seeing a lot of it in blogs by Christian writers when I’d much prefer to see the use of literary forms such as the “Penitential Psalm,” “Praise Psalm,” “Quest Story/Motif,” “Witness Story,” or “Worship Psalm,” each of which has specific characteristics and/or patterns (forms!) you might want to study, practice, and enjoy in your Christian writing life.
©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is the poet-author of 27 traditionally published books in all genres, many of which can be found on her Amazon Author Page.
Literary Forms in the Bible, paperback