Bible as Literature, part 1

The idea of treating the Bible as literature was controversial among the conservative Christian set when I was younger, probably because “literature” often meant “fiction” and conservative Christians didn’t want to have anyone think the Bible is fiction. Of course, the Bible is technically literature in that it was written down, but there was this idea that if we started treating it the way we do any other piece of literature (say, Hamlet), then that would be the first step down a slippery slope toward liberalism and worse.

I don’t see it that way. In fact, I propose that by not reading the Bible as literature, we actually miss significant theological truths that its authors are trying to tell us. Here’s what I mean.

Again, we all recognize that the Bible is literature in that it’s a form of writing. We give attention the genre of a text (narrative, poetry, letter, etc), but it seems to stop there. Regardless of the genre of the text, we tend to treat it as a textbook or encyclopedia – we look up ideas like “anger” or “marriage” and hope to find nuggets of truth, or even isolated verses, which can help us with the particular issue we’re dealing with.

And that would work, if the Bible were a textbook. Instead, it’s a bunch of stories. The folks who research this kind of thing tell us that 40% of the Old Testament is story, but we tend to leave those for the kids in Sunday School.

I think that’s a mistake, and in the next three posts, I’m going to try to show you how we are missing out if we don’t read the Bible as we do other literature, especially fiction.


The Bible is full of wordplay, and while we often recognize this, I think we miss the significance of it. In fact, sometimes the authors are making theological points using this wordplay.

By “wordplay” I mean a pun. I don’t want to use the word pun, though, because we often associate that word with something intending to be funny. In the case of the Bible, however, the authors aren’t trying to get us to laugh, but to think.

If you’ve been in church for a while, you probably know that Hebrew word used in the Bible for “man” sounds like the word for “ground.” We see this in Genesis 2.7, where the text reads, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground.” The word for man is adam and the word for ground is adamah. Is this just the author being cute? Or is it an accident of language? Neither.

The author of Genesis is connecting human beings with the land.

There are actually other words for ground or land, and the Bible uses those words, too. Here, though, the author of Genesis is making a point: he is linking human beings with the land. If we only use this wordplay as a sermon illustration or to show off our knowledge of Hebrew, we are missing that point.

How are the humans God created connected with the land? Let’s take a look at the curse God pronounced as the result of Adam’s disobedience:

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you, 
‘You shall not eat of it,’ 
cursed is the ground because of you,
in pain shall you eat of it all the days of your life.” Genesis 3.17

Read that text closely and note precisely what was cursed. It wasn’t Adam. Actually, the word “curse” was used twice in this chapter: once for the serpent and once for the ground. How many times have you heard a Bible teacher talk about how Adam was cursed because of his disobedience in the garden? Read the text again: it’s not Adam which was cursed, it was the ground. But Adam and the ground are connected, in that what happens to one affects the other.

And this idea is repeated in the Bible. At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after Moses has repeated the Law to the people and they are just about to enter the promised land, Moses tells the people what will happen to the land if they disobey the Law. Read what Moses says:

All the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book. Deuteronomy 29.24-27

There’s the connection: if the people disobey, the land is cursed (there’s that word again), and therefore the people suffer. This connection between people and the land was established back in Genesis by a simple wordplay, but the theology is profound and used by Moses at this key moment in Israel’s history.

Names of people can have theological weight

I hope I’ve shown that the connection of human beings to the land is not just an accident of language, but a significant theological point running through the Old Testament. It’s important to recognize that Adam’s name is not the only wordplay in the text. If you have a study Bible, or a Bible app with footnotes, you might have noticed the following wordplays in the first few chapters of Genesis. Take a look at the literary construct around each pronouncement of the name, and spot the difference:

Genesis 3.20: The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Genesis 4.1: Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”
Genesis 4.2: And again, she bore his brother Abel.

When Eve and Cain are named, a reason is given. The name “Eve” sounds like the Hebrew word for “living” or “life-giving,” and we see that connection made right in the text. The name Cain is the Hebrew word for “to buy or create” and again the connection is explicitly made right in the text.

But look at Abel’s birth announcement; there’s no connection made to anything. What’s going on? If you’re reading the story as a textbook, looking for overt theological statements, you’ll miss out on the subtlety. Get this: Abel’s name means “breath” or “vanity” — and if you’re just now thinking about the book of Ecclesiastes, you’re correct: it’s the exact same word. If we read Abel’s story like we would read fiction, we should be able to detect the foreshadowing: there’s something about his story which will not end well. God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1.28) will be met with a fleeting breath, vanity.

Again, the theology is embedded in the story. We have to read it as a story in order to find it.

Names of cities can have theological weight

The authors of the Bible read the Bible. I know that sounds trite, but it’s important to recognize that a good portion of the Bible is a commentary on other portions. It’s not an overstatement to say that the prophets are commenting on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) when they are writing. And as they read the Torah, it seems to me they pick up on the way the Torah uses words. Here’s an example from Micah to show you what I mean:

Tell it not in Gath; weep not at all;
in Beth-le-aphrah roll yourselves in the dust.
Pass on your way, inhabitants of Shaphir, in nakedness and shame;
the inhabitants of Zaanan do not come out;
the lamentation of Beth-ezel shall take away from you its standing place.
For the inhabitants of Maroth wait anxiously for good,
because disaster has come down from the Lord to the gate of Jerusalem.
Harness the steeds to the chariots, inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion, for in you were found the transgressions of Israel.
Therefore you shall give parting gifts to Moresheth-gath;
the houses of Achzib shall be a deceitful thing to the kings of Israel.
I will again bring a conqueror to you, inhabitants of Mareshah;
the glory of Israel shall come to Adullam. Micah 1.10-15

If you’re like me, you read this text, stumble through the weird city names, and move on. But what we don’t know (if we don’t read Hebrew) is that Micah is using wordplay on the names of the cities to make a point. Get this:

Beth-le-aphrah means “town of dust”
Shaphir sounds like fair or beautiful
Za-anan means “going out”
Beth-ezel  means ”adjoining house”
Maroth means “bitter”
Jerusalem means “founded peaceful”
Moresheth Gath means “possession”
Achzib means “deceit”
Mareshah means “head” or “chief”

Micah is turning each city name on its head: the town of dust will roll in the dust; the beautiful city will be naked and ashamed, etc. By understanding the wordplay, we have a deeper grasp on what the author is trying to communicate. And I don’t know about you, but I have a greater appreciation for Micah as a man struggling to put the word of God into words.

What would it be like for us in the United States, speaking English, to do this? If a modern-day prophet arose and tried to follow this example, what would he or she say? How about:

Denver will be the lowest city.
The wind of God will not blow through Chicago.
Los Angeles will no longer see God’s angels.

Or something like that, anyway! After all, I’m not a prophet, but you get the idea.

Wordplay in the New Testament

It shouldn’t be a surprise that wordplay — especially name wordplay — extends to the New Testament as well. Once again, the names have both literary and theological significance.

Perhaps you know that Jesus means “God is salvation.” We should expect to see him bringing the salvation of God, and so we do. Lazarus means “(he whom) God has helped,” so when we read that he died (John 11.14), it should create some tension in us: will God help him?

More complex is the name of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. His given name is Saul, and being from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 1.11), this makes sense, as King Saul is the most well-known member of that tribe.

The first Saul’s story did not end well. What will happen to the second Saul?

Look at the parallels in their lives: both are called by God in powerful and defining ways. Both are pioneers, King Saul to be the first king and unite the tribes under one leader, and the apostle to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Both are given prophetic visions.  But the first Saul’s story did not end well. What will happen to the second Saul? Will he follow suit? If you read his story as literature (dare I say fiction?) instead of as an encyclopedia entry, the literary tension is evident.

And why the name Paul? It’s an easy jump from “Saulos,” as the Hebrew name is rendered in Greek, to “Paulos,” but that’s not common; we’ve seen other Jews take entirely different sounding Greek or Roman names (Levi -> Matthew, John -> Mark, etc). Paulos is Latin for “little” or “humble;” perhaps the apostle was attempting to convey the image of a humble servant, rather than a rash king. It is also a literary tipoff that he may just not end up like his namesake.

Speaking of Paul, a man steeped in the Hebrew tradition and who has large portions of the Old Testament in both Hebrew and Greek, it should come as no surprise that he also uses wordplay around names. Look at this verse:

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. Romans 2.29

Now, I can follow the first part of the argument: God no longer looks at external signs of kingdom membership; instead, he looks at the heart. Yup, got it. But what’s the part about praise? I think the answer lies in a play on the word Jew.

The word Jew comes from the the name Judah; it’s more obvious in the Greek Paul uses, where Ioudaios is Jew and Ioudas is Judah. When you remember that Judah is Hebrew for praise (Gen 29.35), then it clicks! Paul is using a wordplay in two languages to make his point: faith in Jesus makes me in effect a Jew, and my status as a Jew — my praise — is from God.

There’s a lot more to say about wordplay in the Bible, but this post is long enough already. Next I’ll look at storytelling.

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