Great literature is all about human experience. That’s precisely what makes the Bible so compelling. It is first of all a literature book full of stories, poetry, proverbs, and parables that offers the reader a glimpse into both God’s heart and the human heart. The tension between good and evil runs as a consistent theme throughout with God’s redemption ever the central story line.
With this understanding, I’ve longed to introduce my creative writing students to a deeper understanding of the Bible as literature. What literary tools did the writers use to convey their thoughts and feelings? My search led me to my son-in-law, a seminary professor and serious student of God’s Word. He referred me to a gem of a book titled How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . and get more out of it by Leland Ryken.
In his helpful book, Ryken opens the door to a greater appreciation of the artistic beauty of Scripture. Employing an array of literary devices, the biblical writers take the reader on a journey of discovery. From the epic accounts of the Exodus to the visionary literature of Revelation, the reader experiences unity and coherence through the masterful use of metaphor, simile, symbol, foil, hyperbole, allusion, personification, dramatic irony, and satire, to name a few. It is precisely this dissection of the biblical writers’ use of literary tools that Ryken contends will bring more understanding to a passage.
For example, when the psalmist says “All night long I flood my bed with weeping” (Psalm 6:6), he is using hyperbole, an exaggeration, not literal fact. The writer draws upon hyperbole to express how strongly he feels about the situation. Obviously, it is impossible to literally flood one’s bed with tears. To imagine such a scenario is quite comical, yet the structure is effective in communicating the writer’s emotion.
In another instance, the psalmist uses an allusion or historical reference. In Psalm 33:6, he says, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.” The Psalmist refers to a point in history when God spoke the world into existence.
In the New Testament, the power of parable is prevalent. The gospel writers provide numerous accounts of Jesus’ masterful storytelling skills. According to Ryken, Jesus often “used obvious and heightened foils (contrasts) . . .The rich man and Lazarus, the Pharisee and publican, the generous employer and the selfish workers, the wise and foolish virgins”(141). The parables draw a line in the sand, if you will, forcing the reader or listener “to take sides for or against the characters,” Ryken contends (142).
Even the New Testament epistles (letters) make use of literary devices. Consider the aphoristic sayings of 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Bad company corrupts good character” and Galatians 5:9: “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” Notice the paradox in 2 Corinthians 12:10b: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Consider the visionary literature of Revelation which transcends the ordinary. Revelation is an epic work which takes place on a cosmic stage with scenes shifting between heaven and earth. Such a technique calls for the reader to step out of the familiar and use his imagination. The use of symbols such as thunder, lion, earthquake, dragon, or harvest is prevalent and can be readily understood with the knowledge that “literary symbolism tends to be a universal language that recurs throughout literature” according to Ryken (173).
How to Read the Bible as Literature (203 pages) is divided into twelve chapters and includes an appendix of the allegorical nature of the parables, an index of persons, and an index of subjects. Each chapter provides helpful sidebars that highlight the most significant points of the chapter. Plentiful scriptural examples are included to illustrate each literary tool discussed. Wide margins are designed for note taking. Further resources at the end of each chapter are listed to enhance the reader’s understanding of specific literary devices.
How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken unpacks a gold mine of literary tools and how those devices, rightly examined, can lead to a richer understanding of God’s Word. A great resource for laymen and clergy alike.
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