Understanding Biblical Literary Style

Understanding Biblical Literary Style.

We need to understand that our expectations of the Biblical literary style may not be correct.

As a 21st-century reader of the Bible, we can come to some ideas about its text that are probably incorrect. How we think about things can change slowly over time, and later generations can struggle with the message. Biblical literary style can be hard to understand by modern readers.

In recent years I have become more aware of the cultural bias I place upon the Bible. We are far more likely to want to be very literal in our books and lectures than people of the past. The way we assimilate information is different from the past.


For most of the world’s history, people told stories to convey meaning. A current example of this is the dragons of Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, some buildings have windows or rectangular holes in them. It is called Feng shui, which aims to align buildings with nature. As the temperature changes during the day, the winds move between the mountains above Hong Kong and the ocean below. The wind is told to be the dragon that lives in the mountains. The shifting winds are the dragons traveling to and from the sea.

That may seem silly to westerners, but for them is a story that conveys the idea of being in harmony with nature. It is something that holds their culture together. In America, we have the EPA, and in Hong Kong, they have Feng shui. The EPA takes a purely scientific approach, and while Feng shui has a spiritual aspect, it can serve a similar purpose.

Consider the host of heaven.

With this in mind, let us look at the Bible and how people thought about things when it was written.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

Genesis 2:1

The phrase “all the host of them” tells us about a spiritual world that exists. To me, it reads like God created all of what you see, but don’t forget the unseen world. They didn’t because they actually started to worship the hosts.

“Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness?”

Acts 7:42

So then God was challenged by the host of heaven. Who is greater before Israel? Isaiah made it clear.

Behold, the day of the Lord cometh,
Cruel both with wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate:
And he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
10 For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light:
The sun shall be darkened in his going forth,
And the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
11 And I will punish the world for their evil,
And the wicked for their iniquity;
And I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease,
And will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.

Isaiah 13:9–11

And it shall come to pass in that day,
That the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high,
And the kings of the earth upon the earth.
22 And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit,
And shall be shut up in the prison,
And after many days shall they be visited.
23 Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed,
When the Lord of hosts shall reign
In mount Zion, and in Jerusalem,
And before his ancients gloriously.

Isaiah 24:21–23

Other references: 1 Kings 22:19, Nehemiah 9:6, Joel 2:10,31, 3:15.

Identifying idioms, metaphors, and allegories.

Now we can see that the description of the host of heaven not giving their light is an idiom for the principalities and power losing their power (Ephesians 6:12). The idiom is not meant to be taken literally. Because of our modern western thinking, we can lose sight of this. When Jesus talked about the sun, moon, and stars being darkened, we should not think of them as physical objects becoming dark. Instead, we are to think of Jesus diminishing their powers.

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

Matthew 24:29–30

The failure to understand how the Bible communicates leads to some wrong interpretations. Many treat Revelation literally and would teach that the stars will fall from heaven.

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; 13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. 14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

Revelation 6:12–14

The stars are constantly used as a metaphor for angels (Job 38:7). Revelation continues that theme of the host of heaven being spiritual beings.

The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.

Revelation 1:20

And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; 11 And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became Wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.

Revelation 8:10–11

And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.

Revelation 9:1

“The verb fall tells of a past event. It could be said, “I saw a star that had fallen…” So we can assume that the angel called Wormwood is the angel given the key. It is hard to imagine a star using a key.


My point was not to have a study on stars; instead, it was to demonstrate that we impose a modern way of thinking upon ancient texts. We somehow feel our way is better than the past and that theories are superior to myths. I believe that we should start with this knowledge as we read from Genesis to Revelation.