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January 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 1 · pp. 9–14 

Faith and Form: Literature in the Bible

Theodore Hiebert

Not nearly enough attention has been given—in the church in which I have grown up and, I suspect, in the church at large—to the fact that in the Judeo-Christian tradition religious truth has come down to us primarily as “literature.” The Scriptures present such a rich variety of literary forms that it is impossible to do them justice here. However, almost all these forms could be included in one or the other of two basic categories: narrative and poetry. The only major forms in the Bible which do not fit within these categories are the laws in the Old Testament and the letters, and perhaps the Apocalypse of John, in the New.


The major role narrative writing plays in the Bible can readily be seen by a brief survey of the different forms it takes in both Old and New Testaments. That part of the Old Testament written in prose is made up for the most part of two great epic narratives. The first (Genesis—Numbers) tells the story of God’s earliest dealings with the Hebrew people in the light of his plan for human history as a whole. The second (Deuteronomy—2 Kings, except Ruth) describes the life of the Hebrew people as a bona fide nation in order to show that the fortunes of God’s people are always directly related to their faithfulness or lack of it. A third narrative (Ezra—Nehemiah), not nearly of the proportions of the earlier two, describes the first modest attempts at restoration after the Israelite state had been destroyed.

The epic historical narratives incorporate, moreover, a variety of shorter and distinctive narrative forms: the stories of the beginning of the world, of incidents in the lives of the patriarchs of Israel, of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, or of David’s succession to the throne, for example. And each of these kinds of stories is unique and compelling enough in its own right to invite study and reading apart from its larger narrative framework. A few stories which exist independently are those of Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel. {10}

In light of its Judaic heritage, it is hardly surprising that when the early church set about preserving and communicating the truth about Jesus, it appropriated this same narrative perspective. It created, in fact, a new narrative form, unique in its world, which has come to be called the “Gospel” (Matthew—John). Like the narrative works in the Old Testament, a gospel incorporates many shorter literary forms, including such narrative genres as parables and miracle stories, each of which is an important form of expression in its own right and has its own particular ways of affecting the hearer. The Acts of the Apostles, though similar to the gospels, is another narrative form unique among both ancient and modern forms of historical writing.

It is not possible to equate any of these biblical narrative forms exactly with the modern ones with which we are familiar. They could be called history, or biography in some cases, but they are certainly not written with the humanistic presuppositions which determine writing within these genres today. They could also be identified as stories, but they are not really the same kind of individual creations as the modern novel or short story. Many of them like the epics in the Old Testament and the gospels and the Acts in the New—had no exact equivalents even in their own contemporary world. They were evidently created to tell a special story in a special way. But however they are to be specifically classified, it is important to note that all of the biblical forms which have been mentioned so far are essentially narratives. They communicate faith by putting it into the form of a story.

The other major literary category in the Bible is poetry. It accounts for almost half of the Old Testament. Though poetry is largely untranslatable its special use of sounds, cadences, and word configurations by which it achieves its effect can never be reproduced in a different language and though the conventions followed by poets in the ancient Near East are not exactly those which have evolved in the Western world, the major device underlying Hebrew poetry can be seen clearly in English translation. This device has been called parallelism. Using it, the poet puts down an idea in one phrase and then enriches the idea in a second phrase with synonymous words or images, with a contrasting image, or with an expansion of the original idea. The frequently quoted words of the prophet Amos,

“Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,”

are an excellent illustration of this technique.

The three most important types of poetry written among the Hebrews were the psalm, the wisdom saying, and the prophetic oracle. The psalm, which likely had a central place in Israelite worship, had a number of distinctive forms, each written according to its particular pattern. The most common were the Lament (e.g., Pss. 22, 80), {11} the Hymn (e.g., Pss. 8, 100), and the Song of Thanksgiving (e.g., Pss. 34, 107).

The wisdom saying, used by Israel’s sages for instructing the young, is usually an independent, pithy couplet (though sometimes longer than two lines) expressing some observation about life. Many of these couples appear in the book of Proverbs strung together like pearls on a string.

The prophetic oracle can, in general, be identified either as an oracle of judgement, (including an indictment of sin and a prediction of its consequences) or as an oracle of salvation, (in which a predicament is described and help promised). The prophets also borrowed poetic forms from the psalms, from wisdom poetry, and from other sources.

The two poetic masterpieces which do not exactly fall into one of these types are the dramatic dialogue in Job, which questions whether the proverbs of the sages are actually born out in human experience, and the beautiful love poem in the Song of Songs.

Poetry is not found in such large blocks in the New Testament as it is in the Old, but it is present almost everywhere. In fact, the two books of the Old Testament most often quoted in the New, Isaiah and the Psalter, are books of poetry. But new poetry is also present. Much of it is modeled upon one or the other of the three types of Hebrew poetry just described. The Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), for example, reflects the hymnic type of psalm found in the Psalter, while wisdom sayings (e.g., Matt. 6:19-34) and prophetic oracles (e.g., Matt. 23:23-24) are both present in the sayings of Jesus. Other poetic pieces scattered throughout the New Testament, particularly a variety of liturgical hymns, appear to have been composed rather in forms and images prevalent in the Hellenistic world within which Christianity was born.

The inescapable conclusion from such a survey as this is that religious truth and literary form are inseparably tied together in our tradition. In light of the extent of narrative and poetry in the Bible, and in light of the fact that certain types of narrative and poetic forms appear to have been specially created in their time for a unique message, this combination of religious truth and literary form can hardly have been accidental. It is as if these forms were once deemed the best way to transmit the word of God to God’s people.


This relationship between the religious truth and the literary forms has deep significance, in the first place, for preserving biblical faith. {12} Forms are never neutral. Those within which we choose to preserve the faith have a much profounder effect upon our understanding of that faith than we may at first realize. Certain values, perspectives, and presuppositions are imbedded in the forms themselves to such an extent that they not only affect the message which the form is meant to deliver, but they become a part of that message itself. A comparison of the character of the biblical forms with some modern ones may serve to illustrate this.

Narratives, like those in the Bible, are put together in chronological patterns. Thus insight arises as events, unfolding through time, build to moments of tension and move to resolutions. Information comes to us through the description of lived experience and is therefore colored by all of the dimensions of the human personality: its intellect, emotions, intentions, values, intuitions, hopes, and fears. The language is the concrete language of ordinary life and is seldom theoretical or abstract.

Poetic form, for its part, relies heavily on the repetition of sounds (rhyme, assonance, alliteration) or meanings (refrains, key words, motifs, and, in ancient Near Eastern poetry, parallelistic structure).

In such writing, insight arises as a core of truth and is turned around and around so that it can be viewed again and again from all sides, from unique angles of vision, from every dimension of experience. Information comes to us through images and symbols which are not intended as precise and enduring definitions, but as windows which inspire new perceptions of reality and divine presence within it. Its language, too, is the concrete language of human experience.

The difference between these narrative and poetic forms of expression and those which predominate in the church today must be clearly apparent. We have a little poetry left in our hymns and sometimes in our prayers, and we have a few stories left in Sunday school and in sermon illustrations. (Why is it that people so often remember the illustrations but not the point of the sermon?) But our really serious expression comes out in forms other than narrative and poetry: sermons, doctrinal creeds or confessions of faith, reasoned position papers, and systematic theologies. Underlying these modern forms is a decidedly “intellectual” bias. Insight, therefore, arises from a step-by-step development of propositions in a more or less logical order. Information comes to us in the form of concepts, the product of a rationalizing process. The language is frequently philosophical, theoretical and abstract.

Because facts are selected and put together differently in these narrative and poetic forms of literature, they force us to look at God {13} from different angles. The tendency when listening to modern forms—because of their logical order, their propositional statements, their abstract language—is to meet God mainly through our intellectual powers. The inevitable result is that intellectual capacities like knowing, asserting, believing, reasoning, proving are emphasized out of proportion to their relative importance within the personality as a whole or to their relative importance in biblical faith as it was once lived.

The effect of reading biblical forms like narrative and poetry, in contrast, is to meet God much more within the context of human experience as a whole. In a story we view God through the experiences of others who have been confronted by him and we are invited to understand and shape our own lives—in all of their dimensions—in the light of the shape of the story of the lives of God’s people. In a poem, we are brought into God’s presence by a series of images which are not meant as final and comprehensive definitions of divinity which our minds can own, but which are intended as glimpses of the Inexpressible which appeal to the deepest and broadest levels of human experience.

These differences in perspective, language, and structure between the narrative and poetic forms of biblical literature and the more modern “philosophical” forms are hardly inconsequential. It becomes questionable, in fact, whether the biblical and the modern forms are capable of saying quite the same thing. This is not to say that contemporary churchly forms of expression have no place; but it is to say that they are incapable—because of their intellectual bias—of presenting biblical truth in the wholistic way that biblical stories and poems can. To preserve biblical faith, to be confronted by the same God who confronted people in biblical times, we have no substitute for getting back in touch with the forms in which that faith was first expressed.

The relationship between the religious truth and the literary forms in our tradition also has deep significance for inspiring biblical faith in new generations, especially in the one emerging in our day. For this generation has begun to lose faith in the powers of the intellect to account for and give shape to the life it has experienced. Consequently, it has begun to find intellectualistic formulations of faith more and more inadequate or nonsensical. Symptomatic of this disenchantment are the current crises in systematic theology, the reevaluation of the place of the sermon in worship, and the widespread reaction to doctrinally, creedally oriented faith—as is clear from relational theologies, small group movements, and charismatic renewals.

Already a search is underway for new forms of religious {14} expression which will do justice both to the complexity and confusion in modern life and to the richness and depth of divine reality. And many have been led back to the original forms in which their faith was cast—the story and the poem. An example of this quest can be found in the remarks made by Delbert Wiens at a recent discussion of Mennonite Brethren history. Observing the “whoever does not understand that the gospel is more a story than a set of propositions has sold out to the spirit of an already passing age,” he tells of introducing his students to the faith and history of the Mennonite Brethren Church by asking its people to come tell their stories. Another example from the scholarly world should be mentioned is “narrative theology,” an attempt to illuminate biblical truth without taking it out of the context of its narrative structures. And there are other examples.

This new recognition of the power of biblical literary forms to preserve and to inspire the faith does not mean that we must all suddenly start speaking in parables, though we might take some cues from the Jewish rabbis who often do. It should, however, certainly mean a reading of the Bible with new eyes, a clearer understanding of the shape of religious truth in our tradition and in our own lives, and a search, like those just mentioned, for a new speech which will capture the imagination as the stories and poems in the Bible have done for so many generations.


  • Delbert Wiens, “Incarnation and Ideal: The Story of a Truth Becoming Heresy,” in Paul Toews, editor, Pilgrims and Strangers: Essays in Mennonite Brethren History (Fresno, Calif.: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1977), p. 50.
Theodore Hiebert is currently completing course work toward a doctorate in Old Testament at Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Fresno Pacific College.

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