In a helpful essay on “Literary Forms of the Old Testament,” Ronald L. Giese Jr. identifies levels of context in written texts:

  • Every word and phrase of Scripture belongs to the context of the sentence and paragraph where they appear. What the grammatical form of a word is, or what the role of a word or phrase is in relation to the sentence as a whole (syntax), are important considerations in determining meaning. This is immediate context.
  • Every statement in Scripture is expressed in a certain way, whether it is giving praise to God as in the psalms, proclaiming God’s judgment as in the prophets, predicting the expected outcome of certain conduct as in the proverbs, or telling the story of God’s chosen people as in the historical books. This middle level of context is that of literary forms.
  • Every statement in Scripture is part of the total context of the canon of Scripture. Since no single statement can completely reveal all of divine truth on any topic, the whole counsel of the Word of God is important for understanding the individual statements in the Bible. This is distant context (sometimes called theological context).

Giese believes that the middle level of context—literary forms—is the most important aspect of the interpretive process, and also the most neglected.

He gives an everyday example:

Let’s say I have a friend named Otto who, when I give him a ride, feels compelled to tell me how to drive, park, and navigate shortcuts. One day he asks me, “What would you do if I ever stopped telling you how to drive?” and I reply, “I would give you a thousand dollars.” Otto’s application of this statement depends entirely upon his understanding of its genre. It is not the immediate context that matters. Looking up words like give or thousand in a dictionary does not help, and any syntactical analysis (like diagramming the two sentences) is of no value in discovering the way the statement functions (and hence how the receptor should apply it). It is the middle level of context, that of literary forms, that is determinative. The sentence “I would give a thousand dollars” is couched within a larger genre which is the conversation. Whatever label is given to the kind of statement, it is given in jest as part of the give-and-take banter and discussion of superficial topics between friends that sometimes characterizes car rides, short walks, or conversations in hallways or lounges.

If, on the other hand, the same words are used (“I” as the subject, “give” as the verb, and “thousand dollars” as the object) in a different genre, a legal one, the way that the statement functions and the way that the receptor applies it changes completely. If these words are in response to the question, “What will you do with your assets when you die?” it is the genre of “will and testament” that is paramount in interpretation. No amount of syntactical or lexical study (immediate context), and no amount of study on the concept of financial matters in the life of the author (distant context) will crack this code. It is only the deciphering of genre that enables readers to see not only what an author desired to communicate but what an author desired his readers to do with his communication—how he wanted them to respond.

He also shows that we can illustrate the importance of literary context by using almost any biblical passage. For example:

  • “The waves of death swirled about me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.” Without knowing the context we might think of Jonah after his deliverance from near drowning at sea, for these words could describe his plight of floundering in the waves of a terrible storm.
  • “Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.” Deprived of its context, this statement might raise several questions. Is it describing real smoke and fire? Is it describing a terrible creature, and the smoke, fire, and coals are simply pictorial language to add to the terrifying appearance of the creature? Is it describing a dragon? Or Satan?
  • “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.” These words might call to mind Peter’s experience of trying to walk on the water in his own strength when Jesus had to rescue him.

But all three of these verses come from one passage in 2 Samuel 22 (vv. 5, 9, and 17; cf. Ps. 18). It is one of David’s psalms of praise for God’s deliverance. As a psalm it is poetry, hence David expresses his thanksgiving in very vivid language. He was not threatened with drowning, though his life was in danger like that of drowning. His description of almighty God in terms of smoke, fire, coals, and even nostrils and mouth are not literal descriptions of a dragon-like creature: it is a poetic way of underscoring how awesome God is. What Scripture says needs to be carefully understood in light of the genres in which the authors wrote. Failure to do so results in a mishandling of God’s communication to us.

—Ronald L. Giese Jr., “Literary Forms of the Old Testament,” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting the Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese Jr. (Nashville, B&H, 1995), 5-8.

For those wanting to explore more about interpretation, the best one-stop introduction is probably now Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson (Kregel, 2011).