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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Non-Narrative Books

As different as the types of narrative books are, they all share the common trait that they tell stories. There is no comparable common characteristic among the non-narrative books of the Bible, and one finds a vast array of such literature—from poetical books to prophetic books to wisdom books to letters. The non-narrative books of the Bible present the reader with a completely different reading challenge and experience than do the narrative books.

Prophetic Books

The prophetic books of the Old Testament may be the furthest removed from the biblical narratives. Stories draw the reader into someone else's life or history, but these books directly address a particular audience and focus on the diagnosis and resolution of a particular community problem. The prophetic books are not telling stories about foreign domination and economic injustice for anyone to read; they are engaging in political, economic, and theological analysis for a very specific community situation in what is for them the present moment.

The prophetic books give the reader access to many prophets whose words and actions have been preserved in writing: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. (Although Jonah appears in the group of the twelve minor prophets, between Obadiah and Micah, it is closer in form to the narrative books than the other prophets; see discussion of Jonah above.) But the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures also describe many other prophets, most notably Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. We must therefore be careful not to view the nature and place of prophecy in Israel solely through the prophetic books. The prophetic books of the Bible contain a particular form of religious literature which forms part, but not all, of an important religious activity in the life of Israel.

The dominant literary characteristic of the prophetic books is the presence of preaching and prophetic oracles in poetic form. The prophetic oracle, usually a poem, is the prophet's announcement of the word and will of God, often prefaced by the phrase, “Thus says the LORD.…” The prophets used the poetry of their preaching and the prophetic oracle to analyze their current political and economic situations, often highlighting the failure of Israel's political and religious leadership, as well as the ordinary people, to live out the righteousness and justice of God.

It may seem odd to the modern reader, used to thinking of poetry primarily as fanciful and artistic language, that the prophets should use poetry to deliver their often harsh messages of social and economic injustice and impending judgment, instead of speaking in the nuts and bolts language common to newspaper editorials and other contemporary forms of social criticism. Perhaps it would help to think instead of the eloquent sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose preaching combined poetry, social urgency, and theological conviction just as the prophets do.

The prophetic books also contain autobiographical and biographical material about the prophets' lives and work. This material may locate a prophet's ministry in a particular historical setting (for instance, Am 1.1 ) or show how the prophet's own life embodies the will of God that he speaks about in the oracles and sermons (for instance, Am 1.10–17; Jer 13.1–11 ). Just as biblical narratives are formed from a combination of shorter stories, the prophetic books are formed from a combination of different traditions. And interestingly, as is the case with the biblical histories of Samuel and Chronicles (and Acts in the New Testament), in most instances, the traditions have been gathered together in such a way as to end on a note of hope (for example, Am 9.9–15, Hab 3 ). The oracles of hope do not diminish the urgency of the judgment, but point toward the ongoing possibility of this faith community's future with God.

Wisdom Literature

At the other end of the spectrum from the prophets are the wisdom books. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job are classified as wisdom books, with Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon representing wisdom in the Apocrypha. Where the prophets are radically devoted to Yahweh, the God of Israel, constantly appeal to the possibilities for righteousness and faithfulness in Israel's history with this God, and call for reform of specific religious and political institutions, the wisdom books are almost completely silent on these topics (Sir 44–50 and Wis 10.1–21, 11–19 are exceptions). Where the prophetic books are a distinctly biblical literary form, without real parallels in the literature of the ancient Near East, the wisdom books are a universal literary form, one also found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other parts of the ancient Mediterranean world. The wisdom books are concerned with everyday experience and what it means to be human, and their subject matter runs from mundane instructions on proper behavior (Proverbs) to a skeptical consideration of the meaning of life (Ecclesiastes).

Wisdom books are poetic in form, with one of their central literary traits being the use of aphorisms or proverbs. The aphorisms usually have an instructional purpose—either to educate the younger generation about what it means to be a productive and moral member of society, or to inculcate traditional wisdom literature values more generally (teachings of wealth and poverty, appropriate speech, how to select one's friends). Proverbs 10–31 and Sirach both represent this traditional didactic wisdom book. Some wisdom teachings are less concerned with practical wisdom and more with an almost philosophical wisdom, reflecting on the nature of wisdom itself (for instance, Prov 1–9, Wis 6–9 ) and on the goodness and reliability of God's created order (for instance, Prov 8, Sir 16–18, Wis 19.18–21 ).

Yet biblical wisdom literature also contains two books, Job and Ecclesiastes, that present other important strands of the wisdom tradition, that which engages in skeptical wisdom and questions traditional religious assumptions about God and creation. Job is a complex poetic dialogue on the nature of divine justice and the problem of suffering, and the famous opening lines of Ecclesiastes, “…vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” set the tone for this skeptical reflection on the meaning of human existence. It is as essential for all readers to struggle with the often jarring and disturbing reflections of Job and Ecclesiastes as it is to read the more traditionally affirmative aphorisms of Proverbs, because it is only when all the perspectives voiced in wisdom literature are taken together that one begins to get a sense of the complexity of biblical faith.

The New Testament book of James, even though its opening address gives it the external form of a letter (see below), is actually much closer to the wisdom teachings of Proverbs or Sirach. Like these books, its focus is instructional and it explicitly hails wisdom as a virtue and equates wisdom with righteousness (Jas 3.13–18 ).

Poetical Books

The discussions of prophetic and wisdom books noted their use of poetic forms, but there are some books of the Bible that consist entirely of poems. The poetical books of the Bible include songs, hymns, and prayers. The best-known of these poetical books is Psalms, a collection of Israel's hymns and prayers. Psalms is often referred to as Israel's hymnbook, and that term gives an accurate sense of the place of poetical books in the Bible. Lamentations also contains hymns for the faith community's worship, in this case laments over the destruction of Jerusalem. The poetical books in the Apocrypha (the Prayer of Manasseh, the Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Jews, and Psalm 151) are also in this hymnic and prayer tradition. One poetical book stands slightly apart from the hymns and prayers of the other poetical books: the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs). This book contains joyous love songs between a man and a woman, perhaps to be used at a wedding.

Although the techniques used in Hebrew poetry may seem complicated to modern readers (see discussions of Hebrew poetry in comments and glossary), the power of the poetical books to communicate deeply and immediately to almost everyone remains undiminished. This poetry is able to span chronological and cultural distance and speak as directly to us as it did to its first readers. Not only that, the biblical hymns and prayers have provided Jews and Christians across the centuries with the words needed to pray and sing their own laments and fears, hopes and thanksgivings.


Like wisdom literature, epistles are a literary form common to the literature of the ancient Mediterranean world. Letter writing was the only way to communicate across long distances, and it therefore should not be surprising, given the missionary nature of the early Christian church, that epistles (letters) are the predominant literary form in the New Testament. Ancient letter writing followed certain conventions and these conventions are adhered to in the New Testament epistles. For example, ancient letters always began with a greeting, in which the letter's sender and recipient are both named. This opening greeting was followed by an expression of thanksgiving, often for a safe journey or rescue from danger, or a prayer on behalf of the recipient. Ancient letters also closed with greetings, in which the writers often passed along greetings from those with them to those at the letter's destination point. The letter of Paul to Philemon, the shortest of Paul's letters, gives the modern reader a good sense of what ancient letters were like.

Although New Testament readers tend to identify the letter form with Paul's writings, twenty-one of the New Testament's twenty-seven books have characteristics of the letter form. Some of these books, most notably James and Revelation, share important characteristics with other literary types (see the discussions of apocalyptic and wisdom books above), but nonetheless contain some stylistic conventions that link them with the letter form. There are no epistles as separate books in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the Apocrypha contains one, the Letter of Jeremiah.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when reading the New Testament letters is that they are real letters, real communication between two parties, preserved through time, and when we read them we are quite literally eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. This puts modern readers at a certain disadvantage to the original recipients, who knew more about the circumstances that evoked and shaped those letters than we ever can. It is our task to find meaning for ourselves in these letters through the prior experience and struggles of the original readers, and we must be attentive to what those prior situations may have been before leaping to our own situation. Yet these letters also give modern readers a vivid portrait of ancient faith communities struggling with the meaning of their emerging Christianity for their own lives and their conduct in the world, and so provide an invaluable conversation partner for contemporary communities of faith. The reader of the New Testament epistles is never a solitary reader, but is always in the company of the letter's sender and original recipients.

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