studying God's Word: Analysing a Book

This is the first post looking at some of the detail of studying God’s Word edited by John B Job that I first mentioned a couple of posts ago.

The chapter (written by Laurence Porter) by way of introduction, compares devotional Bible reading with Bible study and states the following:

  • Studying the Bible is complementary with and not an alternative to devotional reading.
  • Thorough Bible study can enrich and inform devotional reading.
  • The corollary is equally true - devotional reading can extend and reinforce the benefits of Bible study.

Regarding book study Laurence makes the following observations:

  • All books have some context and particular historical placement.
  • This context needs to inform our reading, understanding, interpretation and application of biblical truth.
  • Laurence states, “Many passages will be misunderstood, or indeed incomprehensible, if wrenched from their context and read in isolation.”

Stage 1 - Type of Literature - Genre

In approaching any particular book Laurence suggests we firstly need to identify the genre, viz:

  • History - the Pentateuch, Acts.
  • Prophetic books - prophecy and narrative linked with some biographical or historical material.
  • Exposition or doctrinal - Paul’s letters fit in here.
  • Narrative - primarily the Gospels, but they also contain other forms of literature.
  • Worship - the Psalms, but parts of other books, too.
  • Wisdom - Proverbs, Ecclesiates, but also parts of others.
  • We also need to be aware that some books contain examples or sections of many different genres.

The genre will, to a fair degree, dictate or determine our approach to the book.

Once the genre has been established, Laurence suggests we pay particular attention in poetic books or passages to the form. Hebrew poetry has no rhyme instead relying on parallelism to make its point (thanks goodness, otherwise Hebrew poetry translated to English would simply fall flat).

Genre shouldn’t be seen as hard and fast as many books contain many different forms of literature. But overall we should have an appreciation of the broad type of literature before us.

Stage 2 - Structure of the Book - Outline

Laurence recommends that the second step is to identify the structure of the book. This is best done by reading and re-reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) the book to identify themes; major breaks or divisions; key words; primary locations, identities or events.

He makes the point that “It is important that we should learn to make our own analyses” rather than rely on commentaries and dictionaries. This is because the resulting analysis or outline is the product of our effort and understanding.

This structuring of the book is best seen through creating an outline of the book from major divisions to sub-divisions and then to passages or, technically, pericopes1. Generally speaking this passage is the smallest unit of text that you would be wanting to read, study or preach from.

I would think this outline then forms the basis for more detailed study - at the passage or pericope level. Each passage contains a thought or primary idea to study and meditate on which is given context by the sub-division, division and book in which it is found.

Personally I would add a stage in between the above two. Once the genre has been determined some investigation should be done regarding the historical setting of the book - author, recipients, time of writing, context within the corpus (whether other writings by the same author, or within that Testament). This can also flow from the reading and re-reading of the book as we build a picture of the author, recipients, themes, ideas or questions addressed. Sometimes we can garner sufficient information from the text, but dictionaries or commentaries can provide that necessary background context.

This outline becomes invaluable as a tool or guideline for further study and provides a frame of reference for any reading from that book or letter.

  1. It’s a great word. ↩︎