How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 2—Literary Units and Text Hierarchy

Series: How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament 

by Jason DeRouchie November 19, 2020

Step #2 – Literary Units and Text Heirarchy

Determining the Boundaries of a Text

After genre, the next step in your exegesis is to determine the limits of the passage that you are studying. The limits of the passage could be a quotation, a paragraph, a story, a song, or even an entire book. The process of establishing literary units is not random, for the biblical authors wrote with purpose, logic, and order, creating groupings and hierarchies of thought to guide understanding. As a biblical interpreter, consider whether there is a clear beginning and end to your passage. Are there clues in the content and/or the grammar that clarify a passage’s boundaries? If you are unsure what any of this means, this blog post will help you out. Determining the boundaries of a passage can help you lead a Bible study, plan a series of Bible studies, or plan a preaching series. Before you can do any of these things, you have to know where to start and where to end. This blog post offers some basic guidelines for establishing the boundaries of literary units.

1. Don’t automatically trust English translations’ verse and chapter divisions.

The chapter and verse numbers in our Bible help us to find a given passage quickly. However, they were not part of the original biblical text. For example, the narrative of the creation week stretches from Genesis 1:1–2:3, and then 2:4 contains the first of Genesis’ ten toledoth (i.e. generations) formulae: “These are the generations of” (cf. Gen 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; etc.). Each of these toledoth formulae introduces distinct literary units. It is these toledoth formulae that are meant to divide up Genesis, not our present chapter divisions. For this reason, a proper wrestling with the preface to Genesis will cross the boundary of chapter 1 and include 2:1–3. Jewish scribes probably began to separate verses during the age of the Talmud (ca. AD 135–500), but the actual numbering of verses did not occur until the sixteenth century. Also, it wasn’t until around the 1200s when the Roman Catholic Stephen Langton (AD 1,150–1,228) first added the chapter divisions. Langton’s purpose in adding these chapter divisions was to aid reference. He primarily meant to help interpreters find biblical passages rather than read them. Because of this, the chapter divisions are misleading at times for our Bible reading purposes. The point is this: Don’t assume the verse and chapter divisions in our modern translations are accurate guides to text-boundaries. You need to carefully assess on your own where a passage begins and ends.

2. Remember that some multi-volume works in our English Bibles were single books in Jesus’ Bible.

Originally the Israelite seers, sages, and singers wrote the OT with consonants only; ancient Hebrews verbalized the vowels but did not write them. This allowed them to write even big books like 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles on single scrolls. However, when the Jews translated the OT into Greek in the 3rd–2nd centuries BC, they included vowels, so books doubled in size, and the longer books required more than one scroll to reproduce. Whereas 1–2 Corinthians in the New Testament (NT) are two different Pauline letters, 1–2 Chronicles in the OT is a single book, and we must read it accordingly. So, when wrestling with literary units in books like Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and even Ezra-Nehemiah (which is a single book in the Hebrew OT), remember that they were all originally single volumes. As such, literary units could cross “book” boundaries.

3. Look for recognizable beginning and ending markers.

In English we intuitively recognize literary markers that signal the beginning or end of a unit. We signal the end of a tiny thought expressed as a text unit with punctuation like a period or question mark. We signal the beginning of a small thought by using a paragraph indentation. We signal the end of a larger thought using a chapter division. In some cases, we even signal the boundaries of a book with established expressions like “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after.”

The OT did not originally have punctuation, paragraph indentations, or chapter divisions. Its authors used different means of marking the boundaries of a text.

Some beginning markers

  • Title: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shegionoth” (Hab 3:1)
  • Introductory formulae: “These are the generations of …” (Gen 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; etc.); “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (Judg 3:7, 12; 4:1; etc.)
  • Common beginning words or phrases: “And now” (Deut 4:1); “Hear!” (Deut 6:4); “Thus says the LORD” (Amos 1:3); “Woe!” (Zeph 3:1); “Behold” (Zeph 3:19)
  • Vocative address: “O LORD” (Ps 8:1)
  • Rhetorical questions: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Ps 2:1)
  • Shifts in time: “When Abraham was ninety-nine years old” (Gen 17:1)
  • Shifts in place: “And the people of Israel … came into the wilderness of Zin” (Num 20:1)
  • Shifts in characters or speakers: “Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said” (Job 4:1)
  • Shifts in topic or theme: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1)
  • Shifts in genre: from narrative to genealogy in Genesis 11:9–10
  • Shifts from poetry to prose or vice versa: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah” in Isaiah 36:1 after the poetry of Isaiah 35

Some ending markers

  • Concluding formulae: “And there was evening, and there was morning” (Gen 1:5, 8, 19, etc.)
  • Poetic refrains: “Yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6, 8, 9, etc.)
  • Summary statements: “This is the law of the burnt offering, of the grain offering, of the sin offering, … which the LORD commanded Moses” (Lev 7:37–38)
  • Conclusions: “Thus the LORD gave them rest on every side” (Josh 21:43)

4. Treat literary units as wholes.

Whole texts, not just isolated words or clauses, supply the natural framework for verbal communication. While a text could be one clause (e.g., “YHWH is a consuming fire”) or even a single word (“Run!”), usually a text contains a sequence of clauses, whether short (an answer to a question) or long (a book).

Texts themselves often divide into discrete parts or self-contained literary packages, and biblical interpreters need to work with these whole units of thought. We need to consider some of the ways the biblical authors signaled these literary units in their surface structure and then consider special rules associated with different genres.

Patterns of similarity

A literary unit commonly distinguishes itself from others by its similar content and form. As for content, we can identify literary units by noting similar time period (e.g., the time before the fall, Gen 2:4–25), similar location (e.g., Israel at Mount Sinai, Exod 19:1–Num 10:10), similar characters (e.g., the judgeship of Samson in Judg 13:1–16:31), and similar topics or themes (e.g., the tabernacle building instructions, Exod 25:1–31:18). Regarding form, literary units often contain similar poetic devices (e.g., the alphabetic acrostic in Psalm 119) and similar genre (e.g., the song at the sea in Exod 15:1–18).

Special rules for different genres

The issue of genre demands special comment, for every genre has its own patterns for shaping literary units. For example, in historical narrative, we need to deal with whole scenes in light of episodes. If we only look at a scene, we will most likely miss the point of the passage. Consider the structure of some common TV series. In shows like “24” or “Elementary,” there are 24 episodes in a single season, and each episode may have a dozen or more different scenes. Within a single episode, each scene contributes to the overall plot of the week, and then, to a greater or lesser extent, each week’s episode contributes to the plot of the season or show. Now, just as you would struggle to grasp the point of an individual scene apart from the overall episode, so too we will struggle to grasp the point of a biblical scene without reading it in light of its overall episode.

Genesis 39 is a good example. Casual readers of Scripture too often treat the story of “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” as an episode, when actually it is a scene. As a scene, the narrative may simply seem to be a charge to flee sexual temptation. Certainly, this is an important lesson from the story, but we cannot stop here, for this view fails to clarify why the chapter is framed with four statements that “the LORD was with Joseph.” He was with Joseph when he entered Egypt as a slave (39:2); he was with Joseph as he served in Potiphar’s house (39:3); he was with Joseph when Potiphar’s wife unjustly accused him of sexual misconduct and had him thrown into prison (39:21); and God was with Joseph during his extended incarceration (39:23). “The LORD was with Joseph!” The repetition of this clause four times helps identify the limits of the episode and clarifies that the scene in Potiphar’s house supplies an example of the type of person with whom God remains. Sexual purity is a vital expression of godwardness worth emulating, but the episode is less about Joseph and more about God. The Lord remains with those who consider pleasing him to be a greater prize than pleasing worldly passions.

In prophetic sermons, like those found in Deuteronomy or Isaiah, paragraphs and oracles take the place of scenes and episodes. Does your paragraph contribute to the primary exhortation? Or is it part of the motivation, whether through historical reflection, promise, or prediction? The function of your text may require you to broaden the boundaries of your interpretive focus in order to properly grasp a full literary unit.

For example, very often in English Bibles Deuteronomy 5 is titled, “The Ten Commandments.” However, a careful look at the chapter shows that Moses retells God’s thunderous words from Mount Sinai in order to describe how the Lord appointed him as a covenant mediator (Deut 5:2–31). The whole history lesson on the giving of the Ten Commandments and the appointment of Moses then provides the reason why the new generation (post-wilderness) must heed Moses’ voice (5:1, 32–33). Moses is God’s mouthpiece, and when the prophet speaks, God is speaking. If you don’t account for the context, you may easily miss the main point.  

Similarly, in the poetry of the Psalms, you should ideally study an entire poem and not just a single stanza (i.e., a poetic paragraph). When this is impractical (as could happen when trying to tackle a huge poem like Psalm 119), you must deal not simply with poetic lines but with stanzas. Then you need to read those stanzas in light of the whole poem. In Psalm 1, the ESV translators distinguished three stanzas, as is evidenced by the spacing. In Psalm 2, they saw four. Your own exegesis may force you to disagree with the stanza breaks that others have proposed. Regardless, you need to be aware that verses work together less like strings of pearls and more like inter-woven bracelets with a pattern, texture, and color greater than any one part. You must address verses within their immediate literary context and not in isolation.

5. Check your decision against modern translations and, if possible, the standard Hebrew text.

Bible translators use indentation to signal paragraph-breaks and to distinguish literary units. Similarly, the editors of the standard editions of our Hebrew Bibles make similar decisions, and it’s helpful to compare our personal assessments against theirs. At times there is a level of subjectivity regarding literary units, but if you decide to start or end your passage where no editor or translator has, then it is your responsibility to argue fully for your decision.

*Material adapted from “Chapter 2: Literary Units and Text Hierarchy” in DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 98–127.

Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a 12-part series from Dr. Jason DeRouchie. View the previous posts in the series here.

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