Poetry, Narrative, and Prose Discourse

Jon and Tim discuss the different literary styles used in the Bible.

Episode 7
Jun 23, 2017
Play Episode
Show Notes

This is part four of our How to Read the Bible series. Jon and Tim discuss the different literary styles used in the Bible. (It's not just a history book!)

In the first part of the show (0-28:00), the guys go over an example of both poetry and narrative in the Bible, Exodus 14 and 15. It's the Exodus story told in both narrative style and then Hebrew poetry.

In the second half of the show (28:00-End), Tim shares an example of prose discourse in one of Paul's epistles.
Tim discusses how Paul's writing style was heavily influenced by philosophers like Seneca.

This series is designed to accompany our video series on Youtube called "How to Read the Bible.
You can view the accompanying video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUXJ8Owes8E

Show Resources:

"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins

"Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible" by Thomas Long ​

"Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll

Music Credits:

Defender Instrumental by Rosasharn Music; Take It Easy by Beautiful Eulogy

Scripture References
Genesis 1
Exodus 15:2
Exodus 14:21
Ephesians 4
Exodus 14:26-28
Exodus 15:8
Exodus 15:10
Exodus 14
Exodus 14:22
Exodus 15:4-6
Zephaniah 1:12
Job 10:10
Ephesians 4:5

Podcast Date: June 23, 2017


Speakers in the audio file:

Jon Collins

Tim Mackie

Jon: Hey, this is Jon at The Bible Project. Today on the podcast, we're going to

continue our conversation in the series on How to Read the Bible. If you're

like me, the Bible can get really intimidating and even confusing. And one

reason is because there are different styles of writing in the Bible.

In this episode, Tim and I are going to talk about three main types of literary

styles in the Bible: Poetry, narrative and press discourse. And of the three,

perhaps the hardest one is poetry, yet, poetry in the Bible is really important.

Tim: One of three chapters in the Bible is not trying to communicate content or

information to you. It's rather trying to create an experience that shapes how

you feel and how you think. That's remarkable to me. A third of the Bible is

this kind of literature.

Jon: in this episode, we break down some examples of biblical poetry, narrative

and discourse and we talked about their differences. Here we go

33% of the Bible. That's a really clean number there.

Tim: Forget what the decimal's for when I did my...I did by chapters. Did I write it in

these notes? I have it somewhere in my notes. Here it is. 502 chapters in the

Bible are narrative, 387 are poetry.

Jon: Now, it's not always that clean. A chapter can have both.

Tim: That's true. I tried to round up because there are many poems that are

embedded in stories, in which case, that's the narrative chapter. I didn't count

it as a poetry.

Jon: Oh, so poetry actually has a little bit more—

Tim: Probably poetry, yeah. But some poems embedded in narratives are whole

chapters. So yeah.

Jon: You would count that as a poetry chapter?

Tim: Yeah. There's probably another dozen to 15 chapters’ worth of poetry

embedded in small poems in either Paul's letters, he quotes a number of

poems, or in other narratives. So yeah, it's probably more like 35%, maybe


Here's the thing with poetry. This is like the Dead Poets Society. You can begin

with a definition.

Jon: Let me put that on my list to watch again.

Tim: Remember when he's drawing on the board? They have somebody read from

this classic introduction to the poetry and he's drawing a chart. He’s drawing

a chat and he talks about it, and then he's like, "Everyone....

[crosstalk 00:02:49]

Jon: And everyone's like, "Ahh."

Tim: Here's the thing. We could read the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of

poetry, we could read a sentence from one of the classic introductions to

poetry by Lawrence Perrine, or we could read just an example, one of my

favorite examples of the uniqueness of poetry in biblical literature. Do you

might start with the example or start with the definition?

Jon: The example. Like an actual poem.

Tim: The example is actually reading a narrative that's told in the Bible. Then right

after it is told, a poetic retelling of the narrative you just read. So you can see

very clearly how narrative and poetry work differently.

So Exodus chapter 14, classic story. It's where the Israelites walk through the

sea as on dry land and Pharaoh's destroyed.

Jon: This is the narrative?

Tim: This is the narrative. "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the see all that

night. The Lord drove back the sea with a strong east ruach, wind and turned

it to dry land." All that language is echoing Genesis chapter 1. "And the

waters were divided, the Israelites went through the sea as on dry ground

with a wall of water on the right and on their left.

The LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the

waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen."

So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak, the sea went

back to its place.

The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea.

The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen--the entire

army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of

them survived." Epic scene.

Jon: So that's the character of Moses and the Israelites. The setting is the sea.

Tim: The sea of reeds.

Jon: The sea of the reeds on the way into the wilderness. The other character is

Pharaoh and

his army.

Tim: The conflict is the Egyptians led by Pharaoh want to destroy the slaves that

they just let go.

Jon: So they are off to go get them.

Tim: Through Moses, God fights on Israel's behalf and all Moses—

[crosstalk 00:05:09]

Jon: By taming the sea?

Tim: By taming the waters. Making the waters to [split? 00:05:13] just as they did in

Genesis 1.

Jon: And then the resolution is Pharaoh gets ripped over.

Tim: So you walk away from the story going, "God's Creator of all things, and He's

on a mission to defeat evil and rescue the helpless." That's the story.

Jon: All right.

Tim: All right. You turn the page to Exodus 15 and the Israelites sing the first

worship song in the Bible. I've just excerpted these two sections that retell the

story we just read. It opens with "The LORD is my strength and my song. He is

my God; I will praise him. He's highly exalted." It goes on verse 4.

"Pharaoh's chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of

Pharaoh's officers are drowned in the sea. The deep waters covered them;

they sank to the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O LORD, majestic in

power, your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.

By the blast of your nostrils waters pile up. The surging waters were like a

wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. You blew with your

breath. The sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. So


Some interesting things to contrast. It opens up "Pharaoh's chariots and his

army hurled into the sea." That's a very different image than what we got in

the story.

Jon: Right.

Tim: You do get the water standing, congealing like a wall later in the poem but in

this first line, it just looks like God picked them up and just threw them into

the water.

Jon: But when he says, "The deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea," it

evokes more emotion for me than when he says just—

Tim: The narrative is a little clinical. It's just like, "And the waters parted and they

stood up like a wall on the right and left."

Jon: I guess narrative can use poetic tons of phrases and stuff all the time.

Tim: All the time.

Jon: One observation is that the poetry actually made me feel like I was there

more than the narrative.

Tim: Oh, interesting. Yes. It evoked your imagination more than the story?

Jon: Yeah, it did. And it might have just been the way the story is written - you

said it's clinical, it is a little more clinical - because a good storytelling can do

the same thing.

Tim: That's true.

Jon: But I mean, the blasting of his nostrils, pile up the water.

Tim: Blast of your nostrils, you blew your breath. In the narrative, the description is,

"the Lord drove the sea back with a strong wind." It's same word "breath" or

"wind." Ruach. And it's God doing it. But nostrils and blowing?

Jon: It's connecting more ideas. So poetry—

Tim: Here. There's one more.

Jon: Okay.

Tim: Whose hand is most important in the narrative?

Jon: Moses'.

Tim: Moses stretched out his hand. Then God says, "Stretch out your hand." And

Moses stretched out his hand. So three times Moses' his hand is the key thing

shaping the flow of the narrative. In the poem, it's God's hand. "Your right

hands, O Lord. Your right hand."

Actually, the poem never even mentions Moses. In the poem, only God is the

actor through his hand and his nostrils, and his mouth. In the poem, Moses is

the main actor at the Lord command. Sorry. In the narrative, Moses is the

main actor.

So that's the difference there, that the poem also is a level of theological

reflection, where—

Jon: What did this mean?

Tim: If you were there, what you would see is what the narrative tells you. The

poem steps back and uses metaphor "God has big nostrils." It's also

interpreting the event in a really reflective way that Moses' hand was like

God's hand. All of the vivid imagery of them sinking, the soldiers sinking,


Jon: The weightiness of - he's calling them lead.

Tim: Yeah, they sink like lead and like rocks. There we go. That's good. You get the

experience. So what just happened?

Jon: Well, it seems like the poem was like, I'm not worried about making sure that

the character...I don't know. That's the thing is like poems and stories, there's

definitely an overlap. Like if you drew the Venn diagram, you could have right

there in the middle this very poetic storytelling.

Tim: We're reflecting on the memory of an event or of an experience.

Jon: Because there's other poems that are so abstract that it gives you feelings

and emotions and it might conjure up ideas.

Tim: Okay, sure. So that would be poems that aren't reflecting on a story. In this

case, this one is.

Jon: This one it is. It is it seems like kind of in the middle. This poem has a


Tim: It's a poetic retelling of a memory. That's right. In this case, this is why it's a

good example because the poem's anchored in something that seems more

familiar. So it's not like abstract poetry. But the techniques and the mode of

communication is fully poetic.

Jon: The elements of story are there, but what else does it have that makes us

think, "Oh, this is more poetry"? And that seems to be its loose structure. It's

not really worried about sequence this much.

Tim: Yeah, sure, it's not about sequence. You mentioned your imagination was

more ignited?

Jon: Yeah. And I think that's because much more liberal use of metaphor, which is

making me connect the ideas that I either haven't connected before or that

has helped me see maybe I have but it just is planting that idea right in front

of me.

Tim: So ignited your imagination through its use of metaphors that you wouldn't

have thought of. Like you'd never read the narrative and go, "Oh, God blasted

with his nose." And then, emotion. You felt something when you think of God

blasting with his nose breath?

Jon: Right. Or just the example of the wall of water. To me, that's the most

magnificent image in the story is...Where is it in the story?

Tim: The waters congealing.

Jon: But where is it in the actual story?

Tim: Verse 22. "A wall of water on their right and left." That's it.

Jon: Wall of water on their right and left. That's an amazing image.

Tim: Yeah, it is actually. It is.

Jon: That's an intense image. When I read it in the story, I'm like, "Whoa, that's

intense." But then when I get into the poem, and it says, "The surging water

stood up like a wall," now it's actually making the waters - What's the word?

Anthropomorphizing the waters. The water stood up. The surging water

stood up. So it's like giving the waters more of a character.

Tim: Yeah, or animating them.

Jon: Animating them. It wasn't just a wall. It was a wall that congealed in the heart

sea. So I'm picturing the wall now and it is just as intense, but now there is

even more emotion to it.

Tim: Yeah. It's like when Jell-O cool.

Jon: Congeal. What's the Hebrew word there?

Tim: It's a unique one.

Jon: It must be for them to use such a unique English word.

Tim: Qapha' [SP] from qapha. To thicken, condense or congeal. It's used here. It's

used one time in Zephaniah when he talks about wine that's left to sit for too


Jon: It congeals

Tim: It gets all like thickens and gross. God says, "I'm going to search Jerusalem

with lamps and bring justice on those who are complacent who are left like

wine that congeals."

Jon: Does wine do that? Wine thickens if you leave it out?

Tim: Apparently. Maybe how they made wine. Then Job asks God, "Don't pour me

out like milk. Don't congeal me like cheese." Oh, so that's like cheese

coagulating from—

Jon: Coagulation.

Tim: That's it. Those are the three times the word occurs in the Bible. Anyway.

Jon: That's amazing. Like Jell-O.

Tim: Yeah, hardening like Jell-O. Okay, all right. Let's back up. Let's allow

Encyclopedia Britannica to give us a scientific definition of what just


Jon: Oh, can I say one more thing that I noticed?

Tim: Yes, please.

Jon: The cadence.

Tim: Oh, yeah, yeah. Totally. That's very important.

Jon: There's a rhythm to it. I don't know why that's significant, but all poetry seems

to have that.

Tim: Different cultures have different types of rhythmic structures, and a lot of the

English European tradition have rhyme. Rhyming is way to do that. Not really

a feature of Hebrew poetry, but Hebrew poetry definitely has a very

intentional kind of structure to it. Itself communicate.

It's called parallelism, where basically you create little pairs, sometimes triads,

most often pairs, where you pair two things and either you create them in a

sequence, or you are saying the same thing twice. There's a whole variety of

ways you can use it. But it creates a structure. Pharaoh's chariots and army

hurled in the sea. Best of Pharaoh's officers drown in the sea. Deep waters

covered them, they sank to the depths like a stone.

Jon: It's saying the same thing three times in a row. Three different ways.

Tim: Yeah, totally. "Your right hand, O Lord, majestic in power." "Your right hand, O

LORD, shattering the enemy." That's a good example where you just said one

thing. But "majestic in power" "shattering the enemy" are two very different

things and you want to say both.

Jon: I remember learning this. Instead of rhyming sounds, they rhyme concepts.

Tim: Yeah. Then it gets you to pair or bounce off of each other two things that you

wouldn't have thought. "Surging waters standing up like a wall" is paired with

"deep waters congealing like jello." And you think, "Oh, how the walls

become..." You know, it ignites your imagination. Then you're thinking about

these two walls made out of jello.

Jon: Jellowy water.

Tim: Okay, perfect. Perfect. This is from Lawrence Perrin it's one of the classic

Western introductions to poetry called Sound and Sense. He says. "Poetry is

the kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does

ordinary language." It's not a not very technical description but I like it.

It says more and says it more intensely than normal language. So normal

language says, the sea blows with the waters, they parted into a wall.

Jon: There's a wall in left and right.

Tim: Yeah. You are saying more by calling the "surging waters standing up like a

wall" "deep waters congealing." Just right there you're saying more and you're

saying it more intensely. With the pairing of "standing up like a wall" and

"jello congealing waters," now your imagination is set loose to create more

meaning than any of those words would do by themselves.

That's what poetry does. It's a condensed form of language that uses and

pairs new images, metaphors, ideas, and then you, the reader are set free to

go on your own experience now. It's participation. Just like stories force you

to participate, poetry forces you to participate through your imagination and

through your emotions.

So poetry has this main aim to affect how you feel and how you daydream,

you could say. Its primary goal is not to communicate information. This is a

big hang up, I think, especially more Western religious traditions have is

because we think, again, of the Bible as primarily moral instruction literature.

The fact that a third of it is poetry - and it shapes you and it affects how you

think even morally - but its primary goal isn't to tell you what to do. Its goal is

to set loose your imagination and make you feel.

Jon: This has reminded me of a poem actually. Have you heard of Billy Collins?

He's poet.

Tim: Talk to me.

Jon: He's a very accessible poet. He's got this poem called "Introduction to

poetry." I want to read it. He's an also an instructor.

"I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

Tim: Wow, that's really good.

Jon: Yeah, it's good. Huh?

Tim: Whoa. What is that? Billy Collins?

Jon: Billy Collins "Introduction to Poetry."

Tim: I'm just going to put that in for future lectures. That's awesome.

Jon: His poems are amazing. It's like the only poetry I've ever read recently that I

just get absorbed in it. His poems are great.

Tim: Couple of things. I have two quotes down in the notes. One is, poetry is this a

surprising form of language. This is from Thomas Long, who actually wrote a

book called "Preaching from the Literary Forms of the Bible."

It's actually a whole book for pastors and teachers, helping giving you ideas

for how you when you preach from the different kinds of literature from the

Bible, you should preach in a totally different way. Like you shouldn't actually

preach or teach from a poem with the same approach as a narrative. Poem

isn't trying to communicate information; so don't teach it the same way you

would teach Romans...

[crosstalk 00:20:35]

Tim: Yeah, totally. He has this great line where he says, "Poetry works to disrupt the

customary ways in which we use language. Poetry stretches the ordinary uses

of words and places them into unfamiliar relationships with each other,

thereby, cutting fresh paths across the well-worn grooves of everyday

language." He just did it in this sentence. Then what you just read, the Billy

Collins is exactly waterskiing across the poem.

Jon: Put your ear up to the hive of the poem.

Tim: Yeah, totally. It's that.

Jon: That image is so intense to me because beehives are so —

Tim: You would never do that.

Jon: Yeah, you would never do that.

Tim: They're like alive with frenetic dangerous energy. And he's saying that's what a

good poem is.

Jon: And to interact with the poem you've got to put your ear up to it. Sticks with


Tim: It's using language in surprising...The surging water stood up."

Jon: Surprising. Waters don't stand.

Tim: Oceans don't congeal like jello, but in Exodus 15 they do. Just pause. I almost

don't want to read the Encyclopedia Britannica definition because it's so


Jon: It's so clinical.

Tim: But it's interesting. Okay, I'll just read it. It's a long run on sentence. To me, it's

actually so ironic that this is the definition of poetry. "It's a kind of literature

that evokes a concentrated, imaginative awareness of one's experience or

emotions by means of well-crafted language that is chosen for its meaning,

sound and rhythm."

Jon: That's not bad.

Tim: No, it's not too bad. It's just a long, complicated sentence. There are three

things. It evokes a concentrated, imaginative awareness. So concentrated—

Jon: It does more with less.

Tim: It does more with less and it's an imaginative awareness. You go inside your

mind and start painting pictures. What are you aware of in that concentrated

imaginative way of your experience and your emotions? And how do poetry

do that? Through well-crafted language that is chosen for its meaning, which

is also true in narrative, and also true in a good essay, but also for its sound

and for its rhythm.

The sound and rhythm communicate things that are really intangible but they

communicate things as the poem did there. The famous example of this is

Lewis Carroll. I actually don't know that much about Lewis Carroll.

Jon: Me neither.

Tim: He was a British English author, writer. He wrote "Alice in Wonderland."

Jon: Oh, okay.

Tim: Then "Through the Looking Glass." But he wrote this famous poem called


Jon: Oh, yeah, Jabberwocky.

Tim: And the "Hunting of the Snark."

Jon: And he just uses this nonsense language, right?

Tim: Yeah, yeah. The whole thing about Jabberwocky was using non-existing


Jon: And the sounds carry the meaning?

Tim: And the sounds carry the meaning and the rhythm of it. This is the opening


Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Jon: Wow. I pictured a meadow - kind of a dark meadow.

Tim: That's the brillig. Oh, no. The wabe.

Jon: The wabe?

Tim: Yeah. And what's going on in the meadow?

Jon: I mean, just like the wind's going through this maybe mist and just like—

Tim: The slithy toves.

Jon: There are these creatures in the meadow. It's kind of a swampy meadow.

Tim: Yeah. It was all mimsy. But then the mome raths outgrabe. It's the beginning

of plot conflict something.

Jon: It's amazing.

Tim: It's complete nonsense, but it communicates through rhythm and sound.

Jon: That's cool.

Tim: Then, once you're using words that you do understand in freshman. There

you go. There you go. That's poetry. Poetry is amazing and I don't read

enough of it. I'm actually disciplined this year; I'm going to—

Jon: Grab some Billy Collins.

Tim: That's good. I was going purchase TS Eliot, "The Four Loves," which I've heard

is one of the most bottomless modern poems.

Jon: I should do that too.

Tim: What's funny is that it's the easiest thing to not do before bed or something.

It's like the last thing. Because it's not functional—

Jon: And it's hard sometimes - oftentimes.

Tim: But I've found we've done a couple times recently where the last thing we do

before turning out the light is reading a poem aloud.

Jon: Oh, cool.

Tim: I always go to bed with the full imagination.

Jon: I've also wanted to memorize poetry but never have.

Tim: Seemed noble. You want to be the kind of person that memorizes poetry?

Jon: Yeah. This is my ideal self is someone who has a lot of poems memorized.

That's my ideal self.

Tim: So let's stop and just maybe land the plane on this one, and just say, a third

of the Bible is this kind of literature.

Jon: That's crazy. One out of three sentences in the Bible. Or one out of three


Tim: One of the three chapters in the Bible is not trying to communicate content

or information to you. It's rather trying to create an experience that shapes

how you feel and how you think. That's remarkable to me.

The poems reflect on all kinds of concrete events sometimes. The book of

Lamentation it's all about the fall of Jerusalem and—

Jon: What if a third of the sermons you heard were poetic sermons?

Tim: Yeah. Very good question.

Jon: That to me, going back to the son versus the knife. We like to use the knife as

a tool. It's easier to handle and it's quick and it's decisive.

Tim: It gets things done in very efficient way.

Jon: If I want to change people's behavior, I grab my knife, and I say, "Here's what

this means. Here's what you should do. Here's how you should change the

way you think."

Tim: And the scriptures are likened to a knife. Like in Hebrews, double-edged


Jon: You need that.

Tim: You need that. That's right.

[crosstalk 00:27:34]

Jon: But then a third of the time you probably need to just sit in it and let it just

put your ear up to the hive. What would that look like? I think most people

would walk out of that Sunday service going like, "Well, that was weird."

Tim: But that one part was really interesting.

Jon: And yeah, but that sticks in you.

Tim: Yeah.

Jon: Okay. I think we landed the plane.

Tim: Yeah, on that one.


Tim: The last part of the bookstore in our biblical bookstore video.

Jon: The corner of the bookstore.

Tim: The corner because it's only one quarter.

Jon: It's only one quarter.

Tim: One-quarter of it. 24% of the Bible is prose discourse.

Jon: To go back to the grocery store thing, that's where we should put the

discourse in the back so you have to walk through the rest of the store. You

come in for the discourse, but you have to walk through the poetry aisle to

get there.

Tim: That's actually kind of how the Bible is organized if you start on page 1 and if

you start on page 1 of the New Testament. Anyway. So with prose discourse,

that may not be a quiet prose. In American terminology - I don't know what is

in British - prose discourse is not nonfiction. We call this nonfiction in our

culture. It's not narrative. It's not literature. We call it. literature. It's not poetry.

It's essays.

Jon: And articles.

Tim: Yeah. You feel like you're hearing someone give a speech, a little mini-speech

or a little essay embodied form.

Jon: It's the quickest way to convey information.

Tim: Yeah. It has two main goals, typically. Usually, it's to get your listener to do

something and you persuade them by a set of arguments or set of facts that

you arrange as an argument to persuade them to do something.

Actually, that's a really important part is that even prose discourse, the main

purpose isn't just to give you information. Still, it's to get you to do

something, to persuade you that you need to make certain kinds of choices.

And it'll do that by engaging your intellect, engaging your reason, your

rational capabilities. If this is the case and if this is the case, and because of

that these things follow. And in light of all of this, therefore, you should do X,

Y, and Z.

That kind of staged sequential, linear process of thought and reasoning

leading to rational outcomes and decisions, that's a very specific way that our

brain works. Totally different than narrative and poetry. And a quarter of the

Bible is this kind of literature.

In the Old Testament, the best example is the book of Deuteronomy, which is

mostly Moses seeking to persuade the Israelites to be faithful to the


Jon: It's one long lecture.

Tim: Yeah, the whole book is set as one long lecture. Then the essays, there are

laws within it and even little mini-narratives. But the biggest sections in the

first half and the end are these kinds of discourse. "Remember this. That

taught us this. From this, we know this is true. Therefore, do this." That kind of


But Ecclesiastes is mostly this. Ecclesiastes has many embedded poems within

it. Actually a lot. But the main framework, the way the philosopher thinks

through things is very much "I saw this, and I conclude this. Therefore, I'm

going to do this." And that kind of thing.

This literature is littered with logical connector terms, like, "and" "therefore,"

"but," "because," "so that." "as a result." That's actually how you learn how to

follow it.

I remember when we took our introduction to reading the Bible from Ray

Lubeck, actually, we did one semester on narrative and poetry - we studied

the book of Jonah - and then we did one semester on prose discourse. And

we did Ephesians.

And do you remember, one whole exercise was going through...? Well, I think

I made a photocopy. Then I just highlighted in pink all of the logical

connective words. "And," "But," "therefore."

Jon: I don't remember.

Tim: He had us do a paragraph. That's what we did. Actually, he had us do a

sentence diagramming exercise.

Jon: I remember that. I remember the sentence diagram.

Tim: And you diagram it, you shape the diagram, by means of the "ands"

"therefores" you subordinate things, "because," "so that," "as a result." There

you go.

All of the New Testament letters are shaped by this kind of structure.

However, embedded within them are poems. Paul's constantly embedding

poems within.

Jon: And stories sometimes.

Tim: Yeah, little mini story sometimes too. This is really significant. Narrative, I

think, engages both hemispheres of the brain because you're seeking pattern

and connection.

Jon: Which is the right side.

Tim: But also through your imagination. Poetry is mostly engaging your right brain

in which is image, experience, emotion, feeling sensory. Then discourse is

mostly left brain, which is also about patterns like in narrative but in a more

abstract way.

Jon: It's connected to the logical and it's connected to language. All language is

going through your left brain. So you can't read language without engaging

your left brain. The whole to brain thing is very interesting. You know how

people say, like, "I'm more left brain or more right brain?"

Tim: Oh, that's not true. Everybody's using their whole brain.

Jon: Everyone's using the whole brain unless you've severed your - What is it

called? Whatever. That thick cable of brain that connects your two

hemispheres. If that's been severed, then you're in trouble. There's been a ton

of interesting studies on people who have a suffered brain. But everyone has

that thick cable and so you can use both sides of your brain.

But it is true the hemispheres they have disciplines that they do it much

better than. The language goes through your left hemisphere, but experience

an emotion is more generated from your right hemisphere.

Tim: I feel like you would know more about this than I do, about the unique—

Jon: Cerebral cortex. That's it.

Tim: Who was it? Was it Aristotle or Plato, who said, "What makes humans is that

there's a reasoning animal"? Humans uniquely are able to abstract things,

ideas into this symbolic and then create whole hypothetical chains of cause

and effect to try and illuminate a decision before me. "Do I take this? Do I eat

this berry? Do I not eat this berry? Or do I swim in that lake or do I not?"

Humans uniquely have this ability to create this elaborate cause-effect

feedback loops.

Jon: It doesn't seem like we know exactly how uniquely because we don't

experience life like animals, or as CS Lewis wished animals wrote stories, so

we could know.

Tim: Maybe it's not a difference in kind, but maybe just some degree?

Jon: Well, yeah, there's definitely a difference. It's like we have language the other

animals don't have, which allows us to understand things in a much more

abstract way and create more concepts. And then we have the ability to think

about life as a story. So the past it can then inform how we think about now

and the future, and then we can imagine futures and work towards futures.

Animals just don't do that. Like a squirrel when it's burying a nut isn't thinking

like, "Hey, next summer, or next winner, I'm going to be so glad I buried this

nut." It actually just has this instinctual urge to bury the nut. And it doesn't

know why. Most likely the case. I don't actually know. Never been a squirrel.

That's unique...

Tim: That's it. Something about humans to a degree that no other species on the

planet does, we're able to abstract out cause-effect patterns in long chains to

motivate behavior that makes no sense.

Jon: And we're constantly telling ourselves stories of why things happened and

creating meaning through the stories so that we can have motivation to

continue. Animals just don't do that.

One really interesting thing I've been thinking about is, there's a certain kind

of - what do they call it? Heuristics. There's a certain kind of heuristic. It's the

sunk cost...I don't know what they call it. But it's kind of like the sunk cost

heuristic, where it's like, if you've already put a bunch of energy into

something, you're now more committed to that thing. So even if now it's not

going to work out, it's harder for you to abandon that project because you've

put so much energy into it. It doesn't make sense logically—

Tim: Oh, sure. It becomes utterly irrational why you'd keep doing that thing.

Jon: But to us, we've attached so much meaning to all of our labor and we've told

the story about why it's so important, we can't abandon it. And humans just

do this all the time. Where like a dog won't do it.

Like if a dog's been sitting at a certain door waiting for days for the store to

open for to get a treat, and he's just waiting and waiting and waiting and it

never happens, and then the door opens like 10 feet away, a different door,

the dog's not going to be like, "I'm just committed to this door, though."

The dog will never do that. It'll just go to the next other. "Oh, there's a treat

over there." But humans will actually do that. They'll just sit there like, "No, I'm

committed to this store." Why do we do that? It's we're attaching all this

meaning to it. This might be more about story than actually discourse at this


Tim: Well, but there, I think the point is that we've abstracted the value of sitting at

the door. It may be a bigger story about it, but the point is we've turned the

value into an idea that we use to motivate ourselves. I like the squirrel

analogy too. On a basic level, we're impulse sensory creatures also, and so

maximize pleasure, and minimize pain.

Jon: The lizard brain.

Tim: Yeah. But we will also deprive ourselves of pleasure for some long-term goal

and will convince ourselves to do it based on an abstract set of reasoning.

Jon: That is the difference between the lizard brain and the neocortex. All animals

have a neocortex. Even like a mouse, it's like the size of a postage stamp. It's

very thin, and it's a small covering of their brain, but it's that neocortex that

allows them to observe the things have happened and then learn from it. A

lizard can't do that. A lizard all instinctual.

Tim: It's always in the moment impulse, you are saying?

Jon: Yeah. It can't observe another lizard do something unique and go, "Oh, I

should do that." A mouse can. A mouse can observe another mouse do

something and go, "Oh, interesting. I should do that," and learn from

experience. That's because of the neocortex. Then humans have this thing

folded neocortex. We've got this massive one that's all over the brain.

Tim: In terms of biblical literature, this is fascinating. Think of a letter like

Ephesians, which was the first...it's what we studied when we were introduced

how to study this type of literature. It's a great example of prose discourse

that's designed to persuade through information and then change of

behavior because it's cleanly broken into two halves connected by the word

"therefore" at the beginning of the second half in chapter 4.

The first half, actually it has a poem opening and closing it. It has a lot of

storytelling within it, but basically telling the story of Israel as the covenant

people, and then how through the Messiah, Gentiles, non-Jews are now

included in the covenant Family of God, and he's brought eternal life, and he's

defeated evil, and he's created a new family. That's more story driven, but he

has full of there for us.

But then chapter 4, it says, "Therefore." And then he gets pretty abstract. He

starts talking about "keep your unity." He's writing to a multi-ethnic

community. Think of impulse behavior, like attracts like. It's a very strong

behavior. And ethnic groups keep kind of high boundaries around

themselves. And then the Greco Roman world of Paul's day, it's a very multiethnic


Jon: Your lizard brain will tell you not to trust people that aren't like you.

Tim: Don't trust people that aren't like you. What Paul was able to accomplish was

communities that intentionally remove the barrier as he talked about in

chapter two, remove the ethnic barrier to realize their common humanity in

the Messiah. That they are actually one new humanity made up of all kinds of

different people.

So he starts saying, "Listen, we have one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one

God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." Sounds like

Holy Spirit language. One spirit. Then just on the basis of those ideas, he was

able to create communities of people who chose to override one of the most

basic human impulses, which is to withdraw from people who aren't like you.

Such a powerful example. It's like eating. Such a powerful impulse.

Humans are able to override...

Jon: With rationality.

Tim: ...by means of rational chains of thought to override our basic bodily or our

most basic impulses. And that's the power of this literature is it gets you to

think in new ways to accomplish change on a fundamental level in the lives of

the people who read this. That's all what Paul's letters are designed. All these

letters in the New Testament engage your brain to invite you to do a new

story turned into a set of ideas that you then turn to motivated whole

different course of action. That too is a quarter of the Bible literature.

It's very much in the first century. It's no joke that most of it is in the New

Testament letters. Those letters are influenced by conventions of Greek and

Roman letter writing, Greek and Roman argument and philosophy.

Here's the interesting exercise. Paul grew up in Tarsus and so people have

tried to reconstruct what his education would have been like because as an

educated Jewish man, cosmopolitan, Tarsus. Man, you go through it and you

read some of the classic educational texts that people were raised on and you

feel like...so there's one in Seneca.

Jon: He would have been reading Seneca?

Tim: Correct. Seneca, Tacitus. No. Was he later? I forget. There's a set of my

Amazon wish list. It's about four books. The first time I read this it was

reading a section of Seneca and I felt like I was reading the letter to the

Romans. The idioms, the manner of speech and "What should we say then? In

light of this, tell me this. Do you say this? I tell you this. But if that is so how

can this be?" You feel like, "Oh, that's how Paul writes."

Then you realize like, "Oh my gosh, where did he learn how to write? He went

to school." And how did you learn back then? You just immerse yourself in

the educational classics.

That's a good example where the writing didactic reasoning style of prose

discourse of the New Testament is very much this melting pot of Jewish

biblical culture and imagination merged with the Greek philosophical


Jon: Interesting.

Tim: Yeah, it's really cool. Anyway, all that say this literature makes you think and

makes you think in deeper ways than you probably would normally. And

that's his goal is to engage your brain so that you'll make new different kinds

of choices.

Jon: Thanks for listening to The Bible Project podcast. We'll be continuing this

series on How to Read the Bible through this summer. It's also a series on our

YouTube channel. You can check that out at youtube.com/thebibleproject. All

these resources are free, and it's thanks to your generous support. So thanks

for being a part of this.

40 Episodes

Episode 40
The Obvious and Extravagant Claim of the Gospel
All four gospels are pointing toward the same simple yet profound claim. As we read the Gospels, how should we understand discrepancies and variations to see the point of it all?
52m • Sep 30, 2019
Episode 39
Why Are There Four Accounts of the Gospel?
Each of the four gospels begin differently—and for a reason. Learn more about the unique opening chapters of each gospel and discover new ways to read these accounts and understand their claims.
1hr 8m • Sep 23, 2019
Episode 38
The Gospel Is More Than You Think
Where does the word "gospel" come from, and are we using it right? Learn the history of this word and dive into how the biblical authors talked about the Gospel.
55m • Sep 16, 2019
Episode 37
What Does the Word "Gospel" Mean?
Explore the history of the word, "gospel," how modern Western Christians often use the word different than the biblical authors. What is the gospel? The answer is far more exciting and complex than we've been led to believe.
1hr 11m • Sep 9, 2019
Episode 36
Wisdom Q+R
Enjoy our Q+R episode on the wisdom literature in the Bible.
1hr 12m • Jul 29, 2019
Episode 35
Solomon the Cynic and the Job You Never Knew
Welcome to our final episode discussing wisdom literature in the Bible. In this episode, Tim and Jon cover two books, Ecclesiastes and Job.
1hr 5m • Jul 15, 2019
Episode 34
Song of Songs: Semi-Erotic Love Poetry
Welcome to episode 5 in our series on How to Read Biblical Wisdom Literature! In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss Song of Songs.
1hr 4m • Jul 8, 2019
Episode 33
Proverbs: Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly
Welcome to episode four in our series on how to read the wisdom literature of the Bible. Today, Tim and Jon dive into the book of Proverbs.
45m • Jul 1, 2019
Episode 32
Solomon: The Wisest of the Fools
Welcome to our third episode discussing the theme of Wisdom in the Bible.
1hr • Jun 24, 2019
Episode 31
The Quest for Wisdom
Welcome to our new series on how to read the wisdom books in biblical literature!
46m • Jun 10, 2019
Episode 30
Law Q+R
Listen to our audience's questions about how to read biblical law.
56m • Jun 3, 2019
Episode 29
Jesus Fulfills the Law
Welcome to another episode exploring how to read biblical law. This is the final part of this discussion before our Q+R episode for this series.
48m • May 27, 2019
Episode 28
God's Wisdom in the Law
Welcome to our fourth episode on how to read biblical law!
51m • May 20, 2019
Episode 27
The Law as a Revolution
Welcome to our third episode on how to read biblical law!
1hr 2m • May 13, 2019
Episode 26
The Law as a Covenantal Partnership
Welcome to our second episode on how to read biblical law!
1hr 13m • May 6, 2019
Episode 25
The Purpose of the Law
Listen in as we begin our disccusion on the laws in the Bible.
1hr 13m • Apr 29, 2019
Episode 24
Prophets as Provokers
Welcome to episode two in our series on How to Read the Prophets.
56m • Apr 22, 2019
Episode 23
What Prophecy Is for
Welcome to episode one in our miniseries on how to read the Prophets.
58m • Apr 15, 2019
Episode 22
Poetry Q+R
Here is our question and response episode where we answer our listeners' questions about poetry and metaphor in the Bible.
48m • Jul 2, 2018
Episode 21
Chaotic Waters
In the last episode of our Metaphor series, Jon and Tim discuss how water is often displayed as rambunctious and dangerous in the Bible.
1hr 11m • Jun 25, 2018
Episode 20
The Mountain Garden and the Human Ideal
This is our second episode in our series on metaphors in the Bible.
46m • Jun 18, 2018
Episode 19
Metaphor and Our Imagination
This is our first episode in our three-part series on the use of metaphor in the Bible.
59m • Jun 12, 2018
Episode 18
God Speaks in Poetry
This is the 2nd episode in our Art of Biblical Poetry podcast where we explore how God speaks in poetic language.
44m • Jun 4, 2018
Episode 17
The Thunder of God
This is episode 1 in our series on Biblical Poetry!
1hr 18m • May 28, 2018
Episode 16
Chaotic Waters and Baptism
Tim and Jon continue to recap key stories in Genesis and the Old Testament. The key themes in these stories are the chaotic waters and salvation through them.
1hr 2m • Apr 23, 2018
Episode 15
Crossing the Chaotic Waters
Tim and Jon discuss literary design patterns in the Bible.
51m • Apr 16, 2018
Episode 14
Live from Milpitas! Part 2
This is part 2 in our live conversation from Milpitas California! Tim and Jon continue their discussion on design patterns in the Bible.
1hr 18m • Apr 9, 2018
Episode 13
Live from Milpitas! Part 1
Tim and Jon discuss literature design patterns in the Bible to a live audience and answer questions from the audience.
1hr 16m • Apr 2, 2018
Episode 12
Setting in Biblical Narrative
Tim and Jon discuss the importance of understanding “Setting” in Bible stories.
35m • Mar 25, 2018
Episode 11
Character in Biblical Narrative
In this episode Tim and Jon discuss character design in the Bible.
49m • Jan 15, 2018
Episode 10
Plot in Biblical Narrative
Tim and Jon discuss how understanding the unique ways plot and narrative are used by the Hebrew authors to write Bible stories can impact how we read the Bible.
51m • Oct 2, 2017
Episode 9
The Bible as Jewish Meditation Literature: Jewish Scripture Meditation vs. Modern Meditation
In this episode, Tim and Jon continue their conversation about Cain and Abel and why it is a good example of Jewish meditation literature.
40m • Aug 11, 2017
Episode 8
Why Isn't There More Detail in Bible Stories?
Maybe, like us, you've asked yourself this questions or found yourself confused while reading the Bible. We don't know why a character did what they did, or what they looked like, or even what the moral of the story is. How do we make sense of this?
44m • Aug 4, 2017
Episode 7
Poetry, Narrative, and Prose Discourse
Jon and Tim discuss the different literary styles used in the Bible.
45m • Jun 23, 2017
Episode 6
Literary Genres and the Stories We Tell Ourselves
Tim and Jon discuss the three literary styles used in the Bible: narrative, poetry, and prose discourse.
1hr 1m • Jun 19, 2017
Episode 5
Is Reading the Bible Together Just a Form of Groupthink?
A jam-packed episode where Tim and Jon discuss the ancient Hebrew practice of reading the Bible aloud, the sociology of both creating environments and being created by environments in Christianity, and the different kind of power between stories and facts.
48m • Jun 9, 2017
Episode 4
Ancient vs. Modern Ways of Reading Scripture
Tim and Jon discuss the differences in ancient and modern ways of reading scripture, including why the Hebrew people would read scripture together as a group. The guys also talk about how challenging it can be to read the Bible by yourself.
59m • Jun 2, 2017
Episode 3
What Is the Story of the Bible?
In this episode Tim and Jon discuss the big narrative arcs of the Bible. What is the Bible really talking about?
59m • May 26, 2017
Episode 2
What's in Your Bible?
In this episode, Tim and Jon give an overview of the entire Bible with a focus on the Hebrew Scriptures.
1hr 10m • Feb 14, 2017
Episode 1
The Bible as Divine Literary Art
Why are the books of the Bible ordered the way they are? Is there a value in reading the Bible in any other order?
1hr 3m • Feb 8, 2017
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