The Bible as literature

What are your thoughts on the literary quality of the Bible?

My thoughts is that unfortunately the vast majority of the Bible seems to be about God’s judgement, and appeasing him, so I don’t know if the Bible’s big story is as good of a work of literature as other works from the time, like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

But I find the books of Amos and Daniel strike out for their powerful prophetic imagery and tone. I know Amos 1-2 is concerned with judgement of the nations, but I find it is ‘more’ concerned with attacking the Israelites for their arrogance and hypocrisy.

The counter-narratives of the Bible are also great, the Book of Jonah seems to be critiquing the view of a vengeful God, and the Song of Songs seems to be a nice counter to the male gaze of scripture.

I also like Esther, I like court intrigue.

I think it’s a decent book. It’s not going to be in the same category for me as a great fiction story. But compared to the other texts at that are a few thousand years old I think it’s on par.

I think it’s extremely complex. The patters , play on words, and so on that hyperlink to other stories blows me away. The repeated groupings of 7,10,and 40 that I don’t always feel is so literal is still often chosen to make you remember previous things. The random snippets of minor characters amuse me.

Take how Cain was given a sign that if anyone murdered him they would be punished worse somehow. Then few chapters later you get to Lamech whose clearly very prideful.

  1. Lamech is the first time mention having more than one wife. He has two.

  2. In the case of Cain he was afraid and asked God for protection while Lamech not only demands greater protection he goes through himself and not God.

  3. His name is mentioned like 3 times in one chapter. The time before the boast his name is spelled in Hebrew with “La” and then during the boast his me is spelled “Le” and I believe that was intentional to show how ridiculously prideful and boastful he was by making it image the god connotation of “El” but reversed.

Or how the first sentence in Hebrew is 7 words and the middle word is built on the words for alpha and omega meaning beginning and and end or eternal. The book of Ruth has everyone’s name in Hebrew ties directly to their fate and lifestyle. The combination of history, mythical fiction, poetry, aspects of their law ( which is 611 dos and don’ts which equals the same numerical value added to the word Torah).

The way it lines out a beautiful arc of life was meant to be great where humanity, God, and nature was in harmony and how disobedience and war shook heaven through the angels that lusted after women to Adam and Eve sinning to Satan being cast out. It’s a war story filled of hope.

But I enjoy it in a way different from how I enjoy reading a good horror fiction story with a build up to doom and loss that hits harder because the characters have had great development. Metamorphosis, Odyssey, and many others classic epic poems and so on are great but they also are not the same to me as modern fiction either.

Or maybe it was just using the object marker for heaven and earth, just as the word 'et is elsewhere in scripture, and in other languages

Any fans of the book of Amos here?

I think it’s opening sequence ‘is’ a masterpiece, one perfectly gets the message, if God is going to punish these pagan nations for their transgressions, how much more will he punish Israel? The point is to attack the arrogance of Israel, for seeing themselves as aloof and without sin, on account of their chosen status, not to preach literal divine punishment.

I also like the Book of Ezekiel, especially Chapter 28, which is well written. The Prince sees himself as the god 'El who sits enthroned in the heart of the seas, where El’s dwelling was in Ugaritic texts, how ironic that he would later be sent down to the heart of the sea upon death

Amos and Hosea are great books that show Israel’s failure even when it seems that they are worshipping Yahweh. The Rest of the Bible is a great piece of literature that though made by humans gives us a good glimpse of how God worked and communicated among these ancient people. The various styles of books in the Bible is what interest me the most.

3:2 - You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

Makes me wonder if that decree is still valid upon this day.

The vast majority of the Bible is about God’s judgement and appeasement? No sir, the vast majority of the Bible is the narrative of the history of Israel. Perhaps you’re referring to the prophetic books which, in any case, make up a small fraction of the entire Bible.

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I’d say some parts of the Bible are wonderful literature. This includes the opening chapters of Genesis, the David story in I&II Samuel, Job, so-called deutero-Isaiah, Amos, John, for example. Other parts are not – Leviticus, Chronicles, II Thessalonians.

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I doubt it with all the following patterns of 7 in that chapter alone.

אֵ Is the first letter of their alphabet and ת is the last. It’s placed in the very center of the sentence. The patterns of 7 is used repeatedly. I feel Ivin Panin brings up neat things. Same for 10 as well. God said appears ten times in the creation account and with pharaoh the ten agues deconstruct that. Jesus 10 I ams and so on. To much of a coincidence for me to think it was not intentional

What is the definition of good literature?

I’m not sure. I wish I had more formal literature background, as @glipsnort or @laura or @Christy do.

I wonder if it has something to do with how many people’s experiences it resonates with. As someone said in the Anthony Hopkins version of Lewis’ “Shadowlands,” “We read to know that we are not alone.”

There is none, and lots of serious, scholarly people will tell you the very idea is nonsense or an attempt to impose a power structure or some such. As for me, I think writing can do lots of different things, so there are lots of different ways for it to be good: exciting story-telling; creation of characters with rich interior lives; connection with the mind of the author; exploration of meaningful themes; evocation of strong emotions; beautiful images; the sheer beauty of the sound.

Try reading Robert Alter’s translation of and commentary on the David story. Or just read I and II Samuel as a story, noticing how vivid a sense you get of the personalities of most of the major players, almost entirely through their words and actions. (This has nothing to do with historical reliability: it’s just about as difficult to vividly portray a real person in writing as a fictional one.)


That’s a good question. From a (mostly) academic perspective, there is the literary canon, but that’s easier to determine for historical periods because you can see more of the big picture of what literature was truly influential and important in its time. And even then, you have to ask “important to whom?”

A friend once asked how you know something is art, and the answer his son came up with was “people tell you it is.” :wink: That’s about how I feel in an art museum.

But I think you’re right, Randy, that it has a lot to do with how many people resonate with it, but also which people and in what ways – there’s plenty of “popular” art and literature that won’t end up in a canon anytime soon. Personally I see good literature as something that resonates with us but also guides us to look beyond ourselves – but what that means will vary for different people.


Thanks for the thoughts. Interesting!
In that way, the Bible does make us look beyond ourselves.

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Oh, that sounds good. I enjoyed his interview with Pete Enns. One of the things he became excited about what the original word play. Thanks.

Yes! I also enjoy the structure of Isaiah’s opening chapters, 1-5 setting up the problem and ch. 6 as Isaiah’s commission to “Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

What a strange thing! Yet it crops up again in Jeremiah ( Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear), Ezekiel (Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear), the gospels, and Revelation.

I love the prophets, although they’re not always great literature. If Genesis 1-11 is Israel’s critique of Assyria/Babylon and Revelation is a critique of Rome, then the prophets are Israel’s critique of Israel. A remarkable thing to find in the literature of antiquity, which with few exceptions sang the praises of kings and priests.

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The conclusion seems to be: Some of it.

It does seem that many people try t generalise or treat all of Scripture I the same way when it is a collection of different styles, types and “literature”. Some of the nuances and qualities are literally lost in translation. Hebrew Poetry and form does not always translate.
One of my favourite pieces of literature comes at the end of Ecclesiastes ch12

when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

It is a beautiful vision of old age and dying.



I would agree with this based on my experience. At one point in my life I probably would have recoiled in horror at the idea of the Bible being “literature” because in my mind “literature” usually referred to fiction. But viewing it as a giant blob of data isn’t a good idea either.

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Glad you grew out of that phase! I just looked up a book done by my friend Wick Allison back in the 90s, The Bible: Designed to be Read as Living Literature. I wish Wick had chosen a version other than the KJV for readability, but it’s definitely the most “literary” of the available translations.

Now for the odd part: Skimming the reviews, I learned that this is the version of the Bible that Jordan Peterson recommends.

If you look up Literature in a dictionary it does not restrict itself to genre. Possibly the best understanding is the archaic (original) notion of Culture and learning?

In fact, if you do look up the dictionary definitions you will find that the bible fulfils more than one of them as a whole let alone individual sections of it.


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Absolutely, and I’m more in agreement with that now. I had just developed a rather polarized view of the term which I’m glad to find was too limited.

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