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How to Read the Bible Artistically


The Bible is a literary book.

If we can’t read the literary dimension of the Bible, we’re missing a lot of it because so much of the meaning happens on the literary level. This means that if we are going to take the Bible on its own terms, we need to learn to read it artistically.

What Does It Mean to Read the Bible Artistically?

The Bible is a work of art and, just like every work of art, there are meanings on the surface and meanings waiting at greater depths.

The deeper meanings only yield themselves over time and only according to their own rules. It follows that part of being a good reader of the Bible, then, is to learn its rules. I’m suggesting that some of those rules (and the meanings they unlock) can only be accessed with an artist’s eye and an artist’s mind.

As an aside before going any further, separating the meanings in the Bible into “surface” and “deeper” is a bit of a false dichotomy. I’m not saying that meanings that stand out clearly are less important than meanings that take more time to reveal themselves or are communicated literarily. Nor am I saying that the “deeper” meanings are the “real” meanings. God has scattered his truth over creation and across the pages of the Bible with a broad hand. His revelation is not limited by the level of literary sophistication (or even literacy) on the part of those who approach his word.

In saying there are surface meanings and deeper meanings in the Bible, I’m trying to make a point that there are deeper meanings. The Bible is not a set of IKEA instructions, designed to be completely understood by anyone at a glance. There are meanings in the Bible that reward discipleship and long discipleship to the genres and books at hand.

In other words, it is literature.

Saying That the Bible Is Literature Is Different Than Saying the Bible Is Only Literature

In the past, some have said that the Bible is literature in order to say that it is only literature. Used this way, the word “literature” means it is not sacred scripture, not authoritative, not divinely inspired, or not historically accurate. It is just, you know, literature. Like the Homer’s Odyssey or Dante’s Inferno.

Modern biblical scholarship has often sought to draw a distinction between the Bible as scripture and the Bible as literature as if the literary dimension of the Bible can be isolated from its nature as the word of God. Some scholars have set the human and divine elements of Scripture against one another as if the former could nullify the latter.

That isn’t what I’m saying.

My point is that God communicated his truth through the medium of cultural writing conventions, limitations imposed by the evolution of writing technology (oral tradition letter writing, proverbs, vellum, etc.), the boundaries of genre, and a thousand little surprising and profound applications of literary devices on the part of the authors of the Bible.

To the One With the Hammer of Modernity, Everything Looks Like a Rationalistic Nail

Modern people sometimes to have a problem with reading the Bible artistically.

It is not automatically the case that just because you believe the Bible is the word of God and that you read it with the best of intentions, you will be able to understand what it is saying. Rather, the opposite is true all too often. We read the Bible with modern eyes and that often means that we misread the Bible because of those same eyes.

The thing about human beings is that we apply our paradigms to everything we interact with by default, often without being aware of it. We see through a glass darkly and that smoky glass is made of our preconceptions, biases, cultural dispositions, upbringing, experiences, and a whole mess of other things.

The things that make us who we are both illuminate and obscure reality. That is even true when it comes to the Bible.

To read the Bible as a modern Western person is to grapple continuously (though often unconsciously) with the way we’ve been taught to read and think. That is, we try to break things down into their constituent pieces so that we can categorize and understand them. Only once we have systematized their essential pieces can we distill their meanings and assign them their places in a larger, rationalistic framework.

However, meaning also lies in the relationships between things, not only in their discrete components. The words, paragraphs, passages, and books of the Bible are too carefully arranged to be able to break them apart without marring much of the meaning they contain. To preserve that meaning, we have to read them in context and so much of that context is operating on the literary level.

So we are back to reading the Bible with the eyes of an artist, not only the eyes of an analyst.

Can’t I Just Read the Bible Literally instead of Literarily?

Yes and no.

“Literal” is a tricky word when it comes to the Bible. When people throw the L-word in, they are sometimes trying to talk about taking the Bible seriously or whether it is inerrant or the authoritative word of God or if it happened in real history. The word “literal” can be a stand-in for those other words and can act as a tribal marker or ID badge that can be waived around for identification purposes. “Do you believe the Bible is true?” “Yes, I take it literally. Every word.”

The Bible is a book of books and the individual books that comprise the one, greater Book belong to different genres, are written in different styles, employ different literary techniques, achieve different aims, and often belong to different centuries. Each genre has its own rules, each section of the Bible has its own rhythms, and each book has its own ways it needs to be read. But to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and if the only tool in your literary toolbox is labeled “literal,” you are going to smash all that other stuff to bits.

So to begin to answer the question, “Should we read the Bible literally?” I would start with another question: “Which part of the Bible?”

Let’s start with genre. The Bible has at least eight major genres: law, history, wisdom, poetry, gospel, epistles, prophecy, and apocalyptic. And several of these break down into further categories when applied to the various books of the Bible. Some books even contain multiple genres inside themselves.

Some genres should be read more literally than others. As historical biography and eyewitness accounts, the Gospels have many passages that should be read literally, but even the historical aspects are full of symbol-laden language, literary devices, and organization that is the result of internal structure. For instance, did the cleansing of the temple happen at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (as in John’s gospel) or at the end of his ministry (as in Matthew’s gospel)? Is that even the right question to ask about that event? Should we rather be asking why John and Matthew put their accounts of the cleansing of the temple where they did according to the other unfolding themes of their gospels?

Or take the example of the book of Proverbs. Reading it takes a bit of sophistication. It is an inspired book, like all of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that if you do what a proverb says, the result the proverb predicts is guaranteed to happen to you. They are wisdom sayings that are generally true. This is especially the case when you have two proverbs next to each other that say opposite things. How do you take that literally? I know a man who nearly broke his faith because he kept doing what the proverbs said but not getting the promised result. Was God lying to him? Was the Bible a farce? Or was he bringing expectations to the book that didn’t fit what the book of Proverbs is?

Apocalyptic literature, like the book of Revelation and parts of the book of Daniel, turn into mushy nonsense when you try to read them literally because they are usually a kaleidoscopic mashup of images from elsewhere in the Bible. Instead of trying to figure out if, say, the locusts in Revelation literally correspond to modern attack helicopters. You should instead build up your understanding of the image of locusts in the Bible and then bring that understanding back into the context of Revelation to begin to wonder what it is communicating because that is one of the rules of that specific genre of literature in the Bible.

You Have to Read the Bible Artistically Because It Is Full of Literary Elements

The Bible often uses propositional statements to convey its meanings (“Thou shalt not murder”), but it also uses literary elements to get its points across.

A “literary element” is a meaning-laden convention of writing or storytelling that conforms to the rules of a certain style or genre. Rhyme and meter are literary elements in the medium of poetry, for example, or the way young adult fiction uses cliffhangers, or how mystery novels build toward the big whodunnit reveal at the end.

Every culture produces and employs literary elements—often so naturally that natives of a language don’t even notice them. When someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside” (literary element: idiom), we don’t wonder why animals are falling from the sky. We know that it is just raining hard.

The Bible is no different.

If were to list the literary elements in Scripture, the list would be long indeed. If we were to list the moments those elements combined to create deeper meanings on the literary level, the list would need several volumes. If we were to list the deeper meanings themselves, the items on the list would outnumber the stars and the list would remain mostly incomplete.

Nevertheless, I do not want to end this essay without at least giving some concrete examples of what I’m talking about.

Consider this brief list of literary elements that the writers of the Bible use to get their meanings across:

  • Character: Yes, the Bible has lots of abstract concepts in it, but it is also full of characters, people making choices that have consequences for themselves and others. Many of these characters take on meanings beyond themselves that echo through the rest of the Bible (think of Abraham as the archetype of faith or Job as the archetype of suffering).

  • Setting: The important settings in the Bible are almost characters themselves and take on a significance greater than just the backdrop of the stories. By way of examples, think of the meanings attached to all the things that happen in the wilderness, or the sea, or on mountaintops, or in gardens.

  • Plot: Plot is the careful arrangement of events in a narrative. The Bible has micro-plots and macro-plots. For instance, you have many micro-stories of various kings that all exist on a larger narrative arc of the failure of Israel’s kings and the appearance of Jesus, the true and ultimate king, who is given a crown of thorns, a bloody purple robe, and who is enthroned on a cross beneath the words, “King of Israel.” The macro-plot of the theme of kingship is built of a hundred kingly micro-dramas.

  • Genre: As stated above, the Bible has at least eight major genres: law, history, wisdom, poetry, gospel, epistles, prophecy, and apocalyptic. Some books even contain multiple genres inside themselves. Each genre has its own rules, its own rhythms, and its own ways it needs to be read.

  • Symbolism: Symbolism is the figurative use of one thing to represent another thing. For instance, here are two examples from the Psalms that we’ll look at in-depth on this Substack: “God is my rock” or “I am like those who go down to the pit.” We understand that God is not a rock and death is not really a pit, but there are things about God and about death that are like a rock or a pit.

  • Repetition: In the Bible, repeated is related. The texts of the Bible are in constant conversation with one another. Later texts hearken back to and draw meaning from previous texts. Later writers build upon and expand meanings found in the very texts that have shaped their own imaginations. Biblical writers constantly repeat themselves to create the dense web of literary allusions we call Scripture.

  • Themes: Certain big ideas unfold throughout the course of the entire Bible, such as kingship, sonship, sacrifice, priesthood, anointing, messiah, the temple, the tree of life, sabbath, exile, holiness, the law, and on and on. These themes interweave the books of the Bible and build to a double crescendo in the Gospels and Revelation.

  • Symbolic numbers: Have you ever wondered why there are so many sets of three (the Trinity, days Jonah was in the whale), seven (days of creation and many others), twelve (tribes, apostles), and forty (years in the wilderness, days of Christ’s fasting) in the Bible? When we approach these numbers with our literary lenses on we can both notice them and become equipped to ask the next question, “What do the numbers mean?”

Jesus was an Artist

There is a curious moment in Matthew’s gospel:

“And the disciples came up and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” And Jesus answered them, “To you, it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them, it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” (Matthew 13:10-12)

and then the narrator adds the comment

“All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak anything to them without a parable.” (v. 34)

Why did God incarnate spend so much of his time telling stories? Why did the gospel writers think it was so crucial to his method of teaching that they devoted so much space to Jesus’ parables their own (carefully curated) works of art?

You would think that if Jesus wanted to get his point across, he would have just stated things plainly. After all, he had a lot to cram into those three years with his disciples, shouldn’t he have chosen to communicate in the most clear, concise way possible, i. e. propositional statements instead of stories?

Or is that our modern, rationalistic bias showing again?

Let’s give Jesus credit where credit is due. He was smart. He was the perfect teacher, infinitely wise, patient, and creative. If there was a better way to get his message across, Jesus would have found it. We can assume, then, that Jesus taught in parables for a reason.

Toward the end of his time with his disciples, he also said to them, “I have more to teach you, but you can’t bear it yet.” (John 16:12) This implies that he knew what they could handle and he was shaping and pacing his teaching accordingly. Perhaps his parables were like “time-release truth capsules” that would enlarge inside his hearers as they remembered them again and again across the span of their whole lives.

And let’s give the gospel writers the benefit of the doubt too.

It might be that they thought conveying Jesus’ teaching by preserving his stories and parables was the best way to present the life-transforming message of the gospel. Perhaps they wanted to give future believers the same opportunity that was given to them, namely, to approach God’s truth with an artist’s eye, with patience, curiosity, and wonder.

What if the whole Bible is like that? What if it is meant to be stood under and watched rather than mined for nuggets of truth that can be applied to one’s life? What if we were meant to learn to read it with an artist’s eyes?


Andy Patton is on staff with the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member of L'Abri Fellowship in England. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at The Darking Psalter (creative rewordings of the Psalms paired with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Pattern Bible (reflections on biblical images in the Bible).

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