Published on September 9, 2015 by Todd Scacewater

Crossway, 2014 | 220 pages

Reviewed by Frederic Clarke Putnam

In the past four decades, Professor Leland Ryken (Wheaton College) has offered a number of works that demonstrate the contribution of literary studies to reading and understanding the Bible. Literary Forms in the Bible: A Complete Handbook (“the Handbook”) is the latest, a brief encyclopedia of a sub-group of literary terms that apply to the biblical text. Its great strength lies in Professor Ryken’s years of experience teaching literature, and how to read the Bible as literature. His definitions display the depth of understanding that comes from long, careful reflection on the nature and study of literature; readers versed in literary studies will also recognize that he could have added a great deal more to each discussion (but his book was not written with them in mind).

The introduction should be Chapter One, since non-academic readers (especially) seem prone to skip introductions, prefaces, and the like. Although brief (eight pages) the introduction is crucial to understanding both the emphases and limitations of the Handbook.

Professor Ryken points out things that I found enlightening. In discussing “motif,” he says, “In the Gospel of John, there are nine instances when a person misunderstands a statement that Jesus utters, making the misunderstood statement a motif in John’s Gospel.” (12) A great idea for a series of sermons or lessons, or just the benefit of personal study. (The discussion of motif in the introduction, from which this is taken, is far more helpful than the article in the main body of the book, another reason to read the introduction.) I doubt very much that he merely “tossed off” this sentence—it betrays a great deal of study; this kind of “off-hand” observation occurs throughout the book.

I have a few quibbles. On the first page we read the claim that “[k]nowing about [the literary forms discussed in this handbook] will uncover a great deal of the meaning that is in the texts but that remains hidden from view if we do not know about the forms and how they function,” but this is not demonstrated in the book. How does knowing that something is a “metaphor,” “emblematic blazon,” “character type” or “occasional poem” “uncover a great deal of meaning”? Answering this question could consume the entire book, but it should at least be addressed so that the reader can see some of the fruits of the sort of knowledge that the book is designed to convey.

The introduction also addresses the question of “literary form,” which Ryken defines as “anything pertaining to how a passage expresses its content” (11, emphasis original). Since he later explains that this work does not replace his magisterial Dictionary of Biblical  Imagery (with Tremper Longman III)—this is “not a dictionary of the images and symbols of the Bible”—because “[t]here is a limited sense in which an individual symbol such as light or water can be said to embody the meaning of an author, and as such meet[s] the criterion of how a passage expresses its contents” (15), he seems to imply that literary forms embody the author’s meaning. Is this true? It at least seems to require some discussion.

Following this definition Ryken discusses in brief paragraphs nine “specific categories” (ibid.): “literary terms,” “genres,” literary techniques,” “motifs,” “archetypes and type scenes,” “figures of speech,” “rhetorical devices,” “stylistic traits” (an explicitly catch-all heading), and “formulas” (11-14). Since each of these subjects can be (and is) addressed in entire books, these paragraphs will either frustrate readers or whet their appetites; it is unfortunate that most of these lack illustrations.

For example, in the paragraph on “type scene,” we learn that a type scene “consists of a number of ingredients that converge in a certain story pattern.” This sounds suspiciously like the definition of “genre”—a “type or kind of writing,” which is divided primarily into poetry and prose, but has subgenres such as “rescue story, murder story”—how are these subgenres not examples of “a number of ingredients …”?

With regard to his example—“encountering God on a mountain”—we are told that this type scene “consists of (1) a summons from God, (2) a journey from an outlying place to the mountain that has been stipulated, and (3) an encounter with God after the person has arrived at the top of the mountain.” (12-13) No specific examples are given, but we might imagine that it refers to, e.g., the story of the binding of Isaac (Gn 22) and to Moses’ experience at Sinai (Ex 19-34; cf. Ex 3-4). Does this list of “ingredients,” however, exclude the stories of Elijah (1 Kgs 19) and the Transfiguration (Mt 17)? Elijah was not summoned, nor did the disciples travel “from an outlying place.” When we turn to the actual article on type scenes we read that “[t]he importance of type scenes is multiple” (203), followed by a list of reasons. If this is so, it would seem that careful readers would want and need to know how to answer such a question.

The article on type scenes cross-references the article “meeting at the well” (123) describes the “ingredients” that make up this type scene, refers to the stories of Abraham’s servant, Jacob, and Moses (all of whom met women at a well, meetings that ended up in marriage), and ends by noting that “Jesus’s [sic] encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well represents a variant of the pattern (John 4:1-42).” (123) Since this is the only biblical record of a “meeting at the well” that does not end in marriage, the careful reader of Scripture (those who are most likely to use the Handbook) might well want to know whether or not this variation is significant and why (or why not).

In this light, readers would benefit from Professor Ryken’s having discussed how to ascertain (1) why—since they are “forms”—there are variations in specific forms, genres, type scenes, &c.; (2) what is the significance of the literary form or forms used in a biblical passage; (3) what those differences may signify (or not); and (4) what guidelines help us think through these things.

I was disappointed to discover that not all articles refer to biblical passages, and that some refer only in general terms to, e.g., the “story of Joseph.” I also found his discussion of “metaphor” and “simile” disappointing (especially the latter, which is far too brief), mainly since it ignores the work being done in metaphor theory since Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors We Live By) and Lakoff and Turner (More Than Cool Reason).

I read this book in light of other handbooks, specifically those on poetry, and especially David Packard’s Poet’s Dictionary: A Handbook of Prosody and Poetic Devices (HarperCollins, 1989), in which Packard illustrates every definition with copious, helpful examples. This is what I was expecting to find when I opened the Handbook, but perhaps what seems to be over-compression reflects an imposed page limit—Dr. Ryken had to choose between broader coverage with shorter discussions and focusing on fewer items in greater depth. He seems to have made the right choice (and the harder one by far) in light of his intended audience.

The major drawback to its intended use as a reference work is that the only index is “Index of Entries,” an alphabetical list of the contents. This seems pointless, since the articles themselves are in alphabetical order. The reader of the Bible needs to know or suspect that he or she is reading a “victory, song of” or “diatribe” in order to look it up in the index (and it could be found just as easily by flipping through the entries themselves). An index of biblical passages would make the book much more useful.

The big question: Is this book worth having? If you intend to use to it occasionally, as a reference work, it will most likely prove more frustrating than helpful, primarily since there is no way to know where to turn for help with a particular passage, and since someone who understands the idea of a “farewell discourse” (89-90) will not need the brief discussion that it offers.

On the other hand, someone who reads it through as a book (beginning with the introduction), and preferably more than once, so that he or she is familiar with the kinds of things that Ryken discusses will find it extremely helpful in alerting her or him to different types of literary forms. And, of course, its value will only increase for the student of Scripture who personalizes it by adding notes, references, &c. For such readers this will become a valuable lifetime companion to keep nearby—a truly “handy book.”

Frederic Clarke Putnam, Ph.D., is Associate Professor, Biblical Studies Templeton Honors College (Eastern University), St. Davids, PA. 

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A Complete Handbook Of Literary Forms In The Bible

Crossway, 2014 | 220 pages

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