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Types of Literature in the Old Testament

Updated on November 27, 2016

Modern scholars have classified Old Testament writings according to their literary genres (Gattungen is the German technical term) and have searched for their origin in preliterary oral traditions and in the daily life of the people (or to use the German technical term, in the Sitz im Leben, or "place in life"). From this point of view we may classify the Old Testament writings as songs, wisdom, oracles and prayers, narratives, and laws.

Songs

No tribe or people has lacked songs to express the intense feelings of persons, whether love or hatred, joy or sadness. From time immemorial the Hebrews had love songs, whether serenades to the beloved (compare Song of Songs 1:2-4; 2:8-14; 4:8-11) or wedding songs (3:6-11; 6:13 to 7:5; Psalms 45). Riddles were proposed at banquets (Judges 14:14, 18), and a frequent theme of the songs that were sung was, as in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (Isaiah 22:13; Wisdom of Solomon 2:6-9; I Corinthians 15:32). Other happy occasions, such as the birth of children, were similarly celebrated in verse. From the blessings of fathers on their sons (Genesis 27:27-29, 39-40) eventually arose the blessings of nations, predicting their achievements (Genesis 9:25-27; 49; Numbers 23, 24; Deuteronomy 33).

Boys' mockeries (II Kings 2:23) were the origin of taunt songs (Isaiah 23:16) and later of sarcastic personifications of nations as immoral women (Isaiah 37:22-29; 47; Ezekiel 16, 23). Likewise the funeral lament (II Samuel 18:33) became first an elegy (II Samuel 1:18-27) and then a dirge over a nation (Amos 5:2; Lamentations 1 to 4).

The Bible preserves two ancient songs about the two basic tribal activities: provision of food and war. They celebrate the digging of a well (Numbers 21:17-18) and the slaying of an enemy in blood revenge (Genesis 4:23-24). From songs like the second of these came eventually the victory song extolling the deity (Exodus 15:21; compare Exodus 15:1-8; Judges 5) or the leader (I Samuel 18:7). Later, numerous Psalms praise the Lord for his achievements in peace and war and extol a king for his triumphs through divine help (Psalm 21); Psalm 110 commemorates Simon Maccabeus on his installation as high priest in 141 B.C., and Psalm 2 celebrates the marriage of Alexander Janneus to Queen Alexandra in 103 B.C. (according to the acrostics in the Hebrew text). These two Psalms and others were interpreted, of course, as prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, in accordance with real Messianic poems (Isaiah 9:2-7; 11:1-9; Micah 4:14; 5:2; Zechariah 9:9). Eventually Ecclesiasticus 44 to 49 and Hebrews 11 praised the great religious heroes of the Old Testament.

Wisdom

Popular proverbs are probably as old as songs. Some examples of ancient pithy sayings have been preserved in the Bible: "Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off" (I Kings 20:11); "What is the chaff to the wheat?" (Jeremiah 23:28); "As is the mother, so is her daughter" (Ezekiel 16:44); "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2). Two fables (Judges 9:7-15; II Kings 14:9) ridicule rulers by comparing them to worthless bushes afflicted with megalomania. Nathan's classical parable is preserved in II Samuel 12:14; Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-6) is a famous parable in verse; another possible example is the fictitious story told to David by the woman from Tekoa (II Samuel 14:4-7).

From such popular wisdom a special poetic genre developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia and later in Israel. In every one of these cases wisdom was at first purely practical, utilitarian. Knowledge was required for a career in government service, and thus instruction in wisdom was invaluable. Seldom after 586 B.C. could young Judeans hope to attain high positions in the service of Babylonian, Persian, or Hellenistic rulers; nevertheless, some counsels for achieving success in government work still are found in Proverbs. In general, however, the middle class pupils were trained for commercial and agricultural careers; the advice deals chiefly with the acquisition and preservation of wealth, with its best use, with amusements, family life, and friendship (Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus). In harmony however with the general trend in Judaism, this practical counsel becomes more and more pious, until wisdom is identified with the Law of Moses (Ecclesiasticus, Baruch).

An entirely different type of wisdom literature reaches its culmination in the Book of Job. Early philosophical thought grew out of mythological explanations of historical facts. The myths of creation, of the Garden of Eden, of the fight of Yahweh with the dragon of chaos, and of the Tower of Babel explain the origin of the world and of man (constituted of clay and spirit), of man's mortality and misery, of the continued battle in nature between regularity and disorder, and of the variety of languages. On the other hand, legends and sagas explain the subjection of Canaanites and Israelites under the Philistines (Genesis 9:20-27), the volcanic features in the vicinity of the Dead Sea (Genesis 19:24-28), and the rites of the Passover (Exodus 12:21-39). Eventually, the Book of Job attempted to solve a problem that seems destined to baffle forever the ablest thinkers: in view of the presence of evil in the world (notably the misery of the good and the good luck of some evildoers), can God be both omnipotent and just?

Oracles and Prayers

Strictly religious literature consists originally of communications either of the deity to man (oracles) or of man to the deity (prayers). As happened in other types of Hebrew literature, out of oral prophetic oracles developed the written sermon (such as the one attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy 5 to 26; 28) and the apocalyptic revelation; from oral prayers came various types of psalms and hymns.

In ancient Israel the deity communicated with man through dreams, the priestly oracle (Urim), and the prophetic inspired speech (I Samuel 28:6). Omens interpreted by professional diviners (such as astrologers) played a secondary role in Israel. From dreams developed the apocalyptic vision (as in Daniel 7). The priestly oracle was based on the interpretation of lots drawn from a sacred box and could only be the answer to a question involving two alternatives, such as "yes or no" or "A or B," that is, the sort of answer obtained by flipping a coin (heads or tails). This oracular procedure played no role in literature and became obsolete in Israel soon after 900 B.C., when prophecy proved much more articulate. In the reign of Ahab (875-853 B.C.), prophets instead of priests gave oracular responses to rulers (I Kings 22:5-28). But it was only with Amos (about 750 B.C.) that the prophetic oracles, in the form of sermons, attained such literary excellence that they began to be preserved in writing for all future generations. The sermon of Moses (Deuteronomy 5 to 26; 28) was written shortly before 621 B.C., under the influence of the prophetic books, and gave rise to the notion of inspired scripture; until then divine revelation had been oral.

Persons in dangers, calamities, and illness appeal for help to their gods. Similarly, nations invoke divine help in war or other trouble. Later than such personal or communal petitions are confessions of sin and songs of thanksgiving (the earliest of which in the Bible is Exodus 15:21). Confessions of sin (like Psalm 51), as in Babylonia, were at first lamentations of individuals seriously ill (Isaiah 38:10-20): these are the sources of national lamentations (Lamentations 1 to 4) and national confessions of sin (Nehemiah 9:6-37; Daniel 9:4-19). The earliest example of a superb literary prayer is found in I Kings 8:23-53 (dated 600 B.C.). About that time the confessions of Jeremiah (outpourings of his agonized soul before his God) were destined to create in some of the Psalms a mystical sense of communion with God.

Narratives

Thus far we have dealt with three types of poetry. We now come to prose literature, which in most nations comes later than poetry as an art.

In Hebrew literature our modern distinction between fact and fancy, history and story, must be disregarded, for the narratives of Israel's antecedents and history present all gradations from pure fiction (Adam, Noah, and Samson), through legend and saga (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), to actual historical writings of the most genuine kind (the biography of David in the old source of the Books of Samuel; the autobiography of Nehemiah). Naturally, the more remote the events are from the narrator, the less historicity can be expected. Except for contemporary historical narratives, imaginary histories of the past, and short stories (Ruth, Jonah, Daniel 1 to 6, Esther), the bulk of Old Testament narrative is based on oral tradition, tales told by storytellers to an audience of shepherds and farmers interested in the plot more than in historicity. Except for Simeon and Levi's unfortunate attack on Shechem (Genesis 34), Israel did not remember anything before Moses, and from Moses to Saul recalled merely events enhancing national pride (Exodus to Judges), describing them with some imaginative details: for instance, the two accounts of the killing of Sisera, the contemporary one (Judges 5:24-27) and a later one (Judges 4:17-21).

Fiction is either primitive philosophy (myth, fable, saga, and legend; see section Wisdom) or plain storytelling (fairy tales and short stories). The second type abounds in folkloristic plots (like those of Moses saved in infancy, Exodus 2:1-10; and of Potiphar's wife, Genesis 39:7-20) and discloses vivid Oriental imagination. The stories about Joseph are tales told to an upper-class audience, while those about Samson were enjoyed by shepherds and peasants. Eventually this abundant narrative material was utilized by able literary men in writing the stories in the books from Genesis to Judges. Later some brilliant short stories (Judith, Susanna, Tobit, the Three Youths at the Court of Darius, and others) were written, some with, others without, supernatural features.

Laws

In ancient Israel, civil, religious, and ethical laws were sharply distinguished, as in all ancient civilized nations. Beginning with the Deuteronomic Code found in the Temple in 621 B.C. (Deuteronomy 5 to 26; 28), all three types of law (as may be observed in the Ten Commandments, Deuteronomy 5) are inextricably combined in order to make of Israel a holy nation devoted to Yahweh. It was then that all the laws of Israel came to be regarded as divinely inspired.

But previously, when Israel entered Canaan (about 1200 B.C.), it adopted the civil laws of the country, which now are found, in an Israelitic edition, partly in Exodus 21 to 23 (the Covenant Code) and partly rewritten in scattered sections of Deuteronomy 12 to 26. Like the Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon (about 1770 B.C.), this code of civil laws has three divisions: Law of Persons, Law of Property, Law of Procedure (in the inverse order in Hammurabi's Code). An ancient ritual decalogue, likewise adopted in Canaan, is preserved in a late edition in Exodus 34 and in a much earlier edition in the Covenant Code (Exodus 23:12a, 15a, 16-17; 22:29b-30a; 23:18-19): the first five laws deal with the religious festivals, and the other five with sacrifices and offerings. This decalogue was utilized by the author of the Deuteronomic Code of 621 B.C., but he deliberately disregarded the ancient code of civil laws except for laws having an ethical implication.

The earliest civil laws are based on custom and have primarily the purpose of preserving the integrity of the tribe or the nation. Religious laws, by prescribing the rites and conduct required by the deity, assured help from the deity in times of danger and thus served the same purpose. Eventually both were joined together with moral and philanthropic prescriptions in the Jewish codes beginning with 621 B.C., so that in Judaism the distinction between ethical and ritual, between criminal and impious, eventually was obliterated in spite of the contrary teaching of Amos and the prophets following him.

The instruction of the priest is called Torah (Law); originally it was distinct from legislation based on custom, to which reference was made above. Although most of these 'prescriptions were derived from immemorial practice (as Leviticus 17 to 26), they might be valid only at individual sanctuaries, rather than for the nation, and were not enforced by the state authorities in the monarchical period. The priests, however, were responsible for collecting and preserving a good part of the Old Testament, and to some extent it is due to them, indirectly, that the whole has been regarded as divine Law (in part through allegorical interpretation).

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