The Bible as Literature

The Bible is a Book of Rich Variety

It contains many types of literature: songs and other poetic material, historical narratives, laws, liturgies, prophetic utterances, wise sayings, short stories, Gospels, letters, sermons, apocalypses. There is reading matter for every mood. One can skip through lush meadows to the music of the birds, drink from sparkling fountains, and loll under the cedars of Lebanon (Ps. 104). One can ride the waves in a ship of Solomon’s fleet in search of the gold of Ophir (I Kings 9). One can dawdle in the pleasure gardens of kings, sipping wine from golden goblets and watching maidens from the royal harem entertain the banqueters (Esther 1-2). One can enter into the awful silence of the temple, cry out for mercy before a majestic and holy God, and depart with sins forgiven and a mission to perform (Isa. 6). One can vent his anger over the rank injustices in life, lament the day of his birth, and perhaps battle his way to faith (Job and Jeremiah) or turn to bitter pessimism (Ecclesiastes). One can spend his life in unselfish service and know the agony of vicarious suffering and death (Isa. 53 and the Gospels). One can peer into the future with prophets and seers, tremble before the great white throne, and shout “hallelujah!” with the redeemed or wail with the damned (Daniel and Revelation).

The Bible is a book that plumbs the depths of human experience on all its sides.

The Bible is a Picture Book

Its pictures are, of course, word pictures. But so graphic are they that we see the scenes almost as if we are looking at photographs. Isaiah’s description of the daughters of Zion walking with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly as they mince along with the tinkling feet (Isa. 3:16) is almost as effective as a motion picture of the scene would be. Jeremiah’s word picture of the drought in Judah (Jer. 14:2-6) is so realistic that our lips seem cracked like the parched earth and we fairly pant with the wild asses on the barren heights. The picture language of the Bible is technically called metaphorical language. A metaphor offers a comparison between two objects of realms of experience. When we speak of the head of the table, a leg of a chair, the foot of a bed, the face of a cliff, an arm of a sea, the hands of a watch, we characterize one object in terms of another.

In the Bible almost every page glistens with metaphors (our example of a mixed metaphor). Judah is “a lion’s whelp,” Israel “a wild vine” and “a wild ass . . . in her heat sniffing the wind.” Jesus is said to be “the Lamb of God” or “our paschal lamb.” He is represented as “the bridegroom,” and the church as his “bride.” Christians are “the light of the world.”

Skillful use of metaphor is characteristic of great literature.

The Bible is an Inspired and an Inspiring Storybook

The Hebrews were a storytelling people, in some respects like their Arabic-speaking kin, who spun the delightful tales of the Arabian Nights. Some of the world’s best stories are to be found in the Bible. Many literary experts regard the Joseph narrative, for example, as a supreme example of the storyteller’s art.

The real power of the Bible lies in its central story–the story of redemption. The theme of this story is what God has done through the life of Israel to save all humankind from sin and folly and to bring people of every race and condition into a kingdom of love and brotherhood.

The story describes how God called the Hebrews to be his means of revelation, how God was made known to them when they were delivered from the land of Egypt, how he disclosed his will for their life in the giving of the Law of Mount Sinai, how he led them into the Promised Land, how he spoke urgent words to them through the prophets and disciplined them at the hands of foreign nations. It tells how at length God sent his Son to them; how, through the Son’s life, death, and resurrection, the power of evil was broken and a new Spirit-filled community brought into being. It affirms that through Jesus Christ salvation has been made available to all people. It declares that the power of this community will increase, that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and Christ, and finally God’s purpose for all people will be fully realized: God and the redeemed children will dwell together in intimate fellowship forever.

Because of the wonderful story told in the Bible and confirmed in human experience, Christians have always regarded the Bible as an inspired book. It came out of the life of an inspired people, a people granted unusual intimacy with God and special understanding of God’s will. The Bible is the record written by these people about God’s encounter with them. When we read it we find what God is like, what we are like, what God has done and is doing for us, and what God wants us to be and do. In the Bible we have a message from God and about God. We thus say the Bible is the Word of God.

We do not, of course, mean that every word contained in the Bible was placed there by God. We must remember that God works in the world through people who are responsive, usable, and human. God’s own Son became truly human that God might speak to us in a language we mortals could understand. To grasp this message one must view the Bible as a whole, not in piecemeal fashion, as though there were something magical about the individual words.

The Bible tells us what we need to know in order to be saved. It does not satisfy our curiosity about important questions in the fields of science, philosophy, history, psychology, and the like. Its function is to bring us to Christ, to bring us to maturity in him, and to send us out into the world to witness by our life and good deeds in his saving power. It gives us a great hope–that “earth may be fair and all her children one”–and it assures us that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (I Cor. 2:9).