Reading the Bible as Literature (A Book Review)

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading How to Read the Bible as Literature . . .and get more out of it by Leland Ryken. I approached this book with mixed feelings. On one hand, I loved Ryken’s book on Puritans and had high hopes for him as an author. And I would really like to have found a book on biblical interpretation or reading the Bible that I could just hand to my older kids.

On the other hand, someone in an online forum had told me this book was great if you want to use the Bible to study literary concepts and then be able to apply them to other literature. This made me very suspicious, because I didn’t see how it could be true. I know I have said it before, but, in case you are new here, let me explain where I am coming from. I studied biblical Hebrew as an undergrad and in grad school. I have a Master’s Degree in it and was All But Dissertation (ABD) in a PhD program. So I have opinions about how we should approach the Bible. I tend to be pretty opinionated and critical anyway ūüėČ So my initial thought was that I didn’t see how studying the Bible as literature could transfer to English (by “English” in this post, I will mean English language, whatever its country of origin)¬†or western literature. Poetry was the first thing that popped into my head. Hebrew poetry works differently than English poetry. It uses parallelism and not rhyme and really doesn’t use rhythm either, at least not in any coherent, widely agreed upon way (no iambic pentameter here). So how would studying biblical poetry help one when studying English poetry?

After reading Ryken’s book, my mind hasn’t really been changed. I still have a lot of concerns and I still have some mixed feelings. There are some things Ryken says to which I found myself giving an enthusiastic “Hear! hear!” But if anything, his book just raised more questions in my mind, even about the very nature of this enterprise. There is a lot I could say and I have struggled to write this post in a coherent way. So that you are not as befuddled as I feel, let me lay out the issues I want to address from the outset. They are:

  • Can we/should we use terminology and concepts from western literature to analyze biblical texts? This could also be asked the other way: Can we take literary terms from our study of the Bible and apply them to other works we might study?
  • What does it mean to study a biblical story or passage in its “context”?
  • Should we even be studying the Bible as literature? Is this a valid way to study it or does it erode the truth value of the Scriptures?

Literary Terminology and the Bible

To a certain extent, the reservations I had before reading Ryken’s book were unfounded. The concepts he discusses are indeed applicable to other literature one might study. This is because¬†he does not approach the biblical text as I expected. Ryken starts with a western lit mindset and western literary terms. He takes these and applies them to the biblical text. The problem is not that these terms don’t apply¬†to western literature but that¬†the biblical text is not western. (I will speak mainly of the Old Testament because that is what I know best. His categories and terms may apply better to the New Testament writings, especially those of Paul who was very cosmopolitan and fluent in Greek, though I suspect that even there there is a lot of eastern/Semitic influence.)

The biblical text is ancient Near Eastern (ANE), and to understand it I think we must look at other ANE literature. There may be parts of what we know from western literature that do apply as well, but we need to first ask what applies. Ryken does not ask; he just takes western categories and terminology and applies them without asking if they are appropriate. An example of this would be his discussion of the terms “comedy” and “tragedy.” As I read this section, I thought “Ah, Shakespeare!” because in Shakespeare’s work we can see these two categories so clearly. But are they also applicable to biblical stories? Ryken¬†assumes they are, though he must admit in the end that the Bible has few if any true tragedies (by his definition) and that it has many stories which are potential tragedies but which have (again, by his definition) comic endings. Perhaps, though, instead of needing to contort himself so, it would be just better to say that the biblical stories do not conform to western ideas of comedy and tragedy. And, indeed, why should we expect them to? It is worth noting that Ryken’s sources often betray this western lit bias. In the chapter “Types of Biblical Stories” he references works such as Victorian Poetry and Poetics and The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (pp. 77,79).

This, then, is the first issue I have with How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . — it treats the Bible as a piece of western literature without asking if it is appropriate to do so. A corollary of this is that it does not look to eastern sources to shed light on the text. The example that pops into my head is¬†covenants. How can we understand the Ten Commandments or God’s relationship with Abraham without understanding ANE covenants? Nor does he address what the full range of what prophecy is in the OT(it is more than just visions and future-telling) or how the Bible responds and reacts to ANE creation myths. In his list if types of poetry, he completely neglects wisdom psalms and does not discuss wisdom literature as such apart from proverbs.

A consequence of Ryken’s approach is that it does not do as much as one would like to increase our understanding of the biblical text. Now there are places where Ryken talks specifically about how to read and understand certain kinds of texts, poetry and proverbs in particular, and he does discuss parallelism in the chapter on poetry, though he saves this section for the end¬†whereas I would begin any discussion on biblical poetry with the concept of parallelism and what we can learn from it. His comments on these topics¬†are somewhat helpful and are aimed at enabling the reader to better understand what he reads.¬†Nonetheless, I still think there is so much more that could be done.

When we use the wrong terminology, we also find ourselves¬†asking the wrong questions, and in the end¬†we miss quite a lot of what the text is trying to tell us. On some level Ryken seems aware of that his terminology may not apply. In his¬†discussion of what he calls epic¬†hero stories, he says that “David, in fact, is the closest parallel in the Bible to the epic hero of the Western tradition” (p. 80; emphasis mine). Earlier in the same paragraph, he applies the lens of the epic hero story to the book of Judges. In doing so he must admit that “The Book of Judges lacks a unifying hero and is perhaps better viewed as a collection of separate hero stories” (p. 80). I would add to this that not only does the category fail to adequately¬†explain¬†Judges, we also miss quite a lot of¬†its meaning if all we are looking for is hero stories. There is a definite pattern of rebellion, repentance and redemption which structures the book. When we see this pattern, we see that the main story here is not about Gideon or Samson but about God and His people. It shows¬†us the¬†people’s weakness, their unwillingness to be governed by God and why they so desperately feel the need for a king as the nations around them have. As such, it is a¬†kind of prequel to the books¬†of Samuel and Kings.

Understanding Biblical Literature in Its Context

Up until this point what I have been talking about is reading the Bible in its social and geographic¬†context — that is, understanding¬†it in the light of other works from the same time and place (very roughly speaking); we need to view it in its own world, if you will. But when we speak of context in biblical interpretation we also mean its literary context — what other verses, stories, books surround a given passage and how do these affect its meaning? Most Bible readers worth their salt know that we cannot just take isolated verses out of context and quote them willy-nilly to support any old thing we like. This is poor scholarship. But what exactly the context of a given story is when it comes to the Bible is a tricky question. Obviously, what we have in the Bible¬†are stories within books within a Book. Sometimes there are even more layers involved if we are considering, for example, a story from the Abraham cycle. This nested approach applies as well when we are talking of proverbs, prophecies¬†and psalms, each may stand alone but is also part of a collection which is part of the whole Bible.

So the question we must ask is: when looking at a given passage, how wide a context do we need to consider? We may be able to learn quite a bit when reading a story (or psalm, or proverb . . .)  by itself, but when we become familiar with the whole of Scripture and can see it in the light of the rest of the Bible, we are likely to glean even more. Ryken acknowledges this, and even spends a chapter on it, near the end of his book, when he says:

“The result is a book in which no part is wholly self-contained but instead carries echoes from many other parts.” (p. 186)

Nevertheless, there are times when he does not go far enough in considering the wider context. For example he says that:

“For example, it is quite possible to treat the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) as a self-contained story. But that same material becomes only an episode if we are discussing the story of Abraham as a whole.” (p. 45; see also p. 62 where Ryken again discusses this story)

I would add further that the story takes on a whole new meaning when we consider also the story of Jesus and God’s sacrifice of His own Son. Indeed our understanding of the binding of Isaac would be incomplete if we did not consider this wider context.

Though I don’t have a lot of evidence to back me up, I also question Ryken’s assertion regarding the sayings in the Book of Proverbs that “Beyond these [first] sections, though, the structure is miscellaneous and the unity nonexistent” (p. 127). I suspect that there is actually a lot more to which proverb is placed next to which one than we have yet discerned. [Side note: I love the way Psalms 80 and 81 seem to speak to each other — see this post; this is the sort of intentional placing of texts side by side that I thinking of.]

The Bible as Literature

There is still a larger issue which arises as one reads Ryken’s book, namely, is it even appropriate to read the Bible as literature? Is this something we should do? Or does¬†treating the Bible as one would any other piece of literature¬†undercut the truth value of Scripture? Honestly, I did not go into this book with these concerns. If you had asked me before I read How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . I would have said that while we cannot¬†solely treat the Bible as literature that it is a perfectly valid way to approach the text and could even be useful in helping us¬†delve into¬†its meaning. Ryken made me doubt this, entirely without intending to I am sure. As a little preview of posts to come, let me quote the book I am currently reading, Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield; in presenting her own story,¬†Mrs. Butterfield¬†says that:

“I also learned that the Bible was a literary text, discernible through the lenses of literary devices. It seemed to me that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a metaphor, powerful only in the worlds of words.” (p. 13)

The point here is that when we begin to treat the biblical text as literature, as we would any other literature, we¬†can begin to undermine its truthfulness. If we, for instance, regard some aspect of a story as a plot device, are we then saying that it didn’t really happen that way?

At the outset of this book Ryken said a lot about how literature works that I found myself agreeing with. He says “literature expresses truth in its own way” (p. 11) and “The knowledge that literature gives of a subject is the kind of knowledge that is obtained by (vicariously) living through an experience” (p. 13). As statements about literature in general I would agree. But in the midst of this he also says, “when the Bible employs a literary¬† method, it asks to be approached as literature and not as something else” (pp.11-12). On the surface this does not sound too bad. But as I think about it I wonder what this means for the historical books of the Bible. If we are taking them as literature, can we also treat them as reliable history? I feel that there is a door here which is being cracked open, a door that Rosaria Butterfield (in the above quote) and others have gone through.

Now the truth be known, I am well aware that history is written by the victors. Or at least that you and I can both write about the same event and yet give very different interpretations and depictions of it. Ryken addresses this as well:

“Authorial selectivity and arrangement of details lie behind every story in the Bible. There is always more than one way to tell a given story. The story as it finally stands has been consciously assembled by the author for a calculated effect on the audience. In short, storytellers control what you see and don’t see, how you see it, and when you see it.” (p. 63)

And again:

“Characters in biblical stories are conscious creations of the storytellers, not in the sense that the writers disregard the real-life person, but in the sense that they decide what to include and exclude from their portrait.” (p. 64)

We see this, I think, in the two pictures of David given in Kings and Chronicles. In the former, Israel’s great king is nonetheless a flawed and hounded human being; in the latter he is much more majestically portrayed. In a different way, we see it in the gospels, each of which gives a different viewpoint on Jesus’ life and ministry (see Ryken p. 133).

Despite these examples, I still found myself, as I read this book, coming back again and again to the question of how we can trust the historicity of the¬†Bible if we are always confronted with the storyteller’s art and all the mechanisms he chooses to use. The lines are very blurry here. On one hand, I don’t believe we ever have truly unbiased accounts of anything, whether we are watching the evening news or reading history. On the other hand, truth is truth. There is a point at which any account goes from the realm of truth into that of fiction. That is why in our courts we are asked to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Any mother who has been confronted with a naughty child knows that there can be a lot of truth that is not the whole truth and that a half truth or a truth that is not complete might as well be a lie.

Ryken himself seems to be trying to preserve the truth value of the biblical text. He speaks, for instance,¬†of the support of archaeological evidence for biblical claims (p. 131). Nonetheless, many of his statements seem to undercut the reliability of the Bible. He notes, for example, that the settings of various stories often have symbolic meaning –“Spiritual revelations often occur on mountains” (p. 35) being one example. When we begin to make statements like this, we can quickly come to believe (or at the very least lead others to believe) that these settings are authorial choices and¬†therefore purely metaphorical. And once we begin to cast doubt upon the details, it is a quick and slippery slope to coming to believe that the whole story is metaphorical and not historical. Elsewhere he says that the gospel narratives “convey an astonishing sense of reality” (p. 133) and in discussing prophecy that the visions of the prophets “exist in the imagination and not in empirical reality” (p. 165) and again¬†that “We know that people do not fly through the air on wings” (p. 169). He may now this, but I believe that if the Bible says that a prophet was transported and/or saw a heavenly vision that he quite possibly did go somewhere and definitely did see something that was more than his imagination.

Drawing Some Conclusions

So what are we supposed to do then? I’m not advocating living in ignorance or taking the Bible in isolation. But I do think we need to acknowledge that it is fundamentally different from other books. I don’t know that I have all the answers but here are some conclusions and ides that have occurred to me:

  • We need to consider the geographical and social context of the Bible. Its human writers, at least for the OT, would have had some familiarity with the myths and stories of the cultures around them (read: ANE other cultures) and so it is reasonable to expect them to have responded to these cultures in their own writings. They also had to some extent a common culture with their neighbors so it is reasonable to look for similar genres and literary devices.
  • We need to exercise more caution in applying western concepts to the Bible (again, especially the OT). These things will be more familiar to us, but we must guard against putting our own expectations on the text.
  • When interpreting an given text, we should consider it on many levels: on its own, in the immediate context of its book, and in light of the rest of Scripture. A corollary: we should become more and more familiar with all of Scripture so that this becomes easier and easier for us.
  • When discussing the storyteller’s art, we should be careful with the phrasing we use. While the speaker may have¬† a healthy respect for the authority of Scripture, others, especially children, may be led to think that if we call one part of a story metaphor or hyperbole, that skepticism about the whole is appropriate.
  • We need to keep in mind who the ultimate Author of Scripture is. Ryken speaks in his book of the text’s various human authors and, of course, there were many people involved in its authorship and editing. But each of these, I believe, was led by the Holy Spirit. We are told that the Bible is “God-breathed.” While its many human contributors are not infallible and would surely have had their own opinions and biases, we must not lose sight of the fact God has given us the Book He wants us to have. We know for instance that Paul wrote other letters which were not included in the canon and that there were other chronicles which recorded the history of the nation of Israel. But the Bible we have is what God ahs chosen to preserve and hand down through the generations to us. It is this divine inspiration which truly sets the Book apart form all others.


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