The Literary Beauty of the Scriptures

Jim Coakley, a professor of the Bible at Moody Bible Institute, is the author of 14 Fresh Ways to Enjoy the Bible (Moody Publishers).

The Bible is the most read book in the world, but sadly it does not come with an instruction manual on the best approaches to study it. However, literary scholars have noticed that the Scriptures are replete with devices that enhance the rhetorical effect of the Bible’s message and reveal its literary artistry. 

Awareness of these devices can go a long way not only to enhance a person’s comprehension of the text, but also to increase their enjoyment of the Word of God. Since the Bible is a literary book, it should not be surprising that it contains some of the same devices that great authors implement as they go about their craft. If God has created beauty and structure in the world around us on both the macro and micro level, it should not surprise us that the same beauty and design is also woven into the revealed Word of God. 

Even a basic understanding of such literary devices as inclusios, chiasms and key word repetition can go a long way in enhancing a reader’s pleasure factor. They also allow the person in the pew to track alongside what the biblical author is foregrounding since they obviously used such devices for purposeful effect. 

For example, Bible characters are often succinctly characterized when they are first introduced. By tracking three basic elements (a character’s physical descriptors, first actions and first uttered words), readers are given a great thumbnail portrait of traits that characterize that character the rest of the time they are present in the text. 

For instance, consider Esau. His physical description was red and hairy (Gen. 25:25). His first actions? He is portrayed as a skillful hunter and an outdoorsman (Gen. 25:27). And his first words were “Let me eat some of that red stew” (Gen. 25:30).

These details clearly portray Esau in animal-like fashion. Like an animal, he wants instant gratification, and he shows no capacity to understand the long-term benefits of keeping his birthright. Esau looks animal-like, lives outdoors like an animal and brutishly talks like we would envision an animal would communicate. This first impression accurately gives the reader a portrait of Esau’s general character traits which will define the way readers encounter him in later texts. 

This is just one example of the literary artistry of the Bible. You can help the people in your church take this approach to the Bible in order to become better readers of the Scriptures by simply learning the literary tools of biblical authors. Thankfully, many helpful resources are available to help you accomplish just that. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (Basic Books) is a groundbreaking book highlighting the literary artistry used by the biblical authors. 

The Gospels as Stories: A Narrative Approach to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by Jeannine Brown (Baker Academic) tracks the literary devices utilized by the gospel writers in crafting their accounts of Jesus, and helps readers appreciate these narratives as stories.

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi by David Dorsey (Baker Academic) contains visual displays of the chiastic structures of individual Old Testament Bible books and how they enhance the author’s thematic thrusts embedded in the book.

The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III (Zondervan Academic) is a helpful book-by-book discussion detailing the literary aspects used in the Bible book under study.

Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible by Leland Ryken (Baker Academic) is an excellent primer on the literary nature of the Bible. The author organizes biblical passages into literary genres including narratives, poetry, proverbs and drama.