Lesson 5

Proverbs, Satire, and Epistles

While stories and poetry dominate the Bible, a host of genres thrive in its pages. This lesson looks at three significant literary forms: proverbs, satire, and epistles.

The Bible’s Treasure Trove

“Beyond even [the Bible’s] poetry, I was impressed by it as a treasury of gnomic wisdom . . . its richness in utterances of which one could, as it were, chew the cud. This, of course, has long been recognized, and Biblical sentences have passed into the proverbial wisdom of our country.”
— Francis Thompson, Books That Have Influenced Me

Proverbs in the Bible: Words to the Wise

A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7)

This famous proverb fulfills the classic definition of an aphorism — it is a concise, memorable statement of truth. It is one of many proverbs you will discover in the Bible. In fact, the Bible may be the most aphoristic book in the world. Proverbs are embedded within its narratives and poems, and much of the New Testament is inherently proverbial. And if that isn’t enough, the Bible has the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs — whole books devoted to proverbs.

What are the essential features of the biblical proverb? Consider these three chestnuts:

A gentle tongue is a tree of life. (Proverbs 15:4)

Those who trouble their households will inherit wind. (Proverbs 11:29)

A good wife is the crown of her husband. (Proverbs 12:4)

Based on these examples, we can make a few generalizations about what a proverb is. First and foremost, it is memorable, an insight conveyed with striking brevity. It is both simple (easily grasped) and profound (it gets to the heart of an issue). It is often poetic in form, using such staples of poetry as concrete images, metaphors, and similes. The language used is both specific — tongue, tree, wind — and universal.

If we turn from the form of a proverb to its content, it is important to bear in mind our most basic literary principle — that the subject of literature is human experience. The truthfulness of a proverb reflects the way things are in the world. A proverb encapsulates universal, recognizable human experience.

As you analyze a proverb, ask the following questions:

  • What human experience does the proverb describe?
  • How does the proverb achieve its effects? (Does it use concrete imagery, figurative language, or other poetic idioms?)
  • What does the proverb mean? What virtue does it encourage, what vice does it denounce, and what value does it offer for approval?

As a case study, let’s look at the proverb, “Like a bird that strays from its nest is one who strays from home.”

  • What human experience does the proverb describe?
    It cautions against the physical dangers and moral temptations that threaten people when they leave the grounding influence of home and family.
  • How does the proverb achieve its effect?
    It takes the poetic form of a simile — one who strays from home is like a bird that strays from its nest.
  • What is the meaning of the proverb?
    It commends the virtue of home, warns about the vice of getting into trouble when away from home, and affirms the value of home.

Take a few minutes and read Proverbs 27 (pages 977-979 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). These proverbs touch on all manner of human experience — from the folly of people who brag (verses 1-2) and the deceptiveness of flattery (verse 6), to the trials of having to endure a cheerful early-rising neighbor (verse 14) and the prosperity that comes to diligent workers (verses 23-27).

As you analyze Proverbs 27, post your “words of wisdom” on the Message Board and check in to see what your fellow students have to say.

Two Worlds of Literature

“[In} the happy endings of comedies, we seem to be looking at a pleasanter world than we ordinarily know. [In] tragedy and satire, we seem to be looking at a world more devoted to suffering or absurdity than we ordinarily know. In literature, we always seem to be looking either up or down.”
— Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Biblical Satire: Tell It Like It Is

In his classic The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye claims that “there are two halves to literary experience. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with.” Satire is the preeminent genre used by writers who want to show a world gone awry.

The distinguishing mark of satire — the element that allows you to know for certain that you are dealing with a satire — is an object of attack. If a writer is attacking someone or something, the discourse immediately has a satiric element. Although writers of satire usually take on one main object of attack, they often take potshots at a whole range of subjects (a feature that one literary critic calls “satiric ripples”).

In itself, satire is not necessarily literary. It can occur in an editorial, song, cartoon, or any other vehicle. Satire becomes literary when it is couched in a distinctly literary form, such as narrative, proverb, or lyric. Biblical satire appears in virtually every genre — story, parable, poetry, epistle, discourse, visionary writing, and more.

Even though all satire targets something foolish or evil, there is always a stated or implied satiric norm by which the object of attack is satirized. In the Bible, satiric norms include the character of God, the moral law of the writer’s religious community, basic virtues like love, generosity, or humility, and the golden rule (behaving toward others as one wants to be treated by others).

Finally, tone (the writer’s attitude toward the material) is crucial in satire. Two modes of satiric attack exist: Satirists can either laugh vice and folly out of existence, or they can lash vice and folly out of existence. Drawing on the Roman tradition, angry satire is called Juvenalian satire, while lighthearted satire is called Hortian satire.

Satire in the Bible

Where can we find satire in the Bible? Practically everywhere. To get a feel for the many forms in which biblical satire appears, you may want to peruse some of these examples:

  • Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 (pages 992-993 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). Here we see satire in proverbial literature. These proverbs deal with the futility of trying to find satisfaction in money: It doesn’t satisfy one permanently (verse 10), wealth is attended by numerous anxieties (verse 12), and so on. The satiric norm appears in verses 18-20: The antidote to the futile pursuit of wealth is acceptance of what God gives you.
  • The Book of Jonah (pages 1375-1378) is satire in narrative form. While most of the satire in the Bible is serious, the Book of Jonah is a masterpiece of humor in the Bible — the story of a pouting prophet whose career is a veritable handbook on how not to be a prophet. Jonah embodies the nationalistic, ethnocentric zeal that views God as the exclusive property of the Jews.
  • The Book of Amos (pages 1357-1369) is an example of satire in prophetic literature. As a plainspoken satirist, the prophet Amos spews out a kaleidoscopic collection of literary forms and objects of attack. What unifies the book is its satire: From start to finish, Amos either attacks vice or appeals to a standard of virtue from which the wealthy and privileged classes of his society have departed.
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, page 1980) embodies satire in parable form. The object of attack is self-centeredness, indifference, and lack of compassion toward people in need. The Good Samaritan’s acts of mercy embody the satiric norm of love and compassion.
  • For an example of satire in visionary literature, look at Zechariah 5 (pages 1416-1417). It is a fantastic vision of a flying scroll, a woman named Wickedness, and two flying women with stork-like wings. The objects of attack are people who steal and lie.
  • This is but a small selection of biblical satire. As you read these and other samples of satire in the Bible, you will discover that it is a fundamentally subversive genre. Its aim is to unsettle us and undermine our complacent belief that people and institutions are basically good.

Letters in the New Testament World

“In the social world [of the early Christians], letters were one of the most important media with which to communicate: Almost anything could be (and was) shared in letter form, all the way from simple instructions for household workers, to invitations to family celebrations such as weddings, to . . . essays that today would be published in literary journals.” –William G. Doty, “The Epistles

The Epistles: Letters as Literature

Of all the literary genres we’ve examined up to now, the Epistles stand alone. They are letters; in format, they resemble the Greek and Roman letters of the ancient world. To our modern eyes, they look like no correspondence we have ever seen.

The Epistles constitute all of the books of the New Testament between the Gospels and Book of Acts before them and the Book of Revelation after them. First and foremost, they are religious in content. Most were addressed either to churches or pastors of churches. They largely consist of ideas about religious topics and early church issues. Generally, they have a five-part structure:

  • Opening or salutation
  • Thanksgiving
  • Main body
  • Paraenesis: Moral exhortations — vices to avoid and virtues to practice
  • Closing: Final greetings and benediction

As a rule, the first part of a New Testament Epistle is doctrinal in content. Halfway or two-thirds of the way through the letter, the writer turns to practical application of the doctrine, showing how the doctrine should influence moral behavior.

The Epistles address actual situations facing the founders of the Christian church. This, in fact, is one of the things that make the Epistles literature: They convey the immediacy of real life. Taken together, the Epistles paint a vivid portrait of the varied life of the early Christian church.

More than that, the Epistles are literary by virtue of their rhetorical flourishes — their use of repetition, rhetorical questions, parallel clauses — as well as their poetic figures of speech, such as “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

Reading a New Testament Epistle

Take a few minutes and read the Book of Colossians (pages 2212-2217 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What real-life event is the writer responding to?
  • What is the unifying theme of the letter?
  • What literary qualities does the letter possess?

Jot down your thoughts. When you are finished, continue with the lesson.

  • What real-life event is the writer responding to? Paul is responding to the heresy of Gnosticism, which had taken root in the church at Colossae. Adherents of Gnosticism claimed to have superior insight into the mysteries of religion beyond ordinary Christian belief.
  • What is the unifying theme of the letter? Despite the far-ranging topics that the letter addresses, its unifying theme is the sufficiency of Christ. Countering the Gnostics’ claims of having been initiated into extraordinary religious experience, the letter argues that Christ alone is sufficient. Note how Paul consistently brings the argument back to the sufficiency of Christ.
  • What literary qualities does the letter possess? The letter is written in exalted style — note the long, sweeping clauses and parallel constructions (the Christ hymn in 1:15-20 should be printed as poetry), the heightened language, and the frequent use of poetic imagery.

Even though the Epistles are topical, expository letters, they are written using a forceful and affective literary style, such as poetic language and rhetorical flourishes. As you explore the literary qualities of the Epistles, share your thoughts about them with your classmates on the Message Board.

Moving Forward

From proverbs to satire to epistles, this lesson has roamed over sprawling and diverse territory. In the next lesson, we will zero in on a single topic — the Gospels, the literary genre for which the New Testament is best known.

Assignment: Proverbs, Satire, and Epistles

The reading assignment for this lesson is Chapters 6, 9, and 10 in How to Read the Bible as Literature:

  • Proverbs: pages 121-129
  • Satire: pages 159-163
  • Epistles: pages 155-158

One response to “Lesson 5

  1. Lester Hall

    October 9, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Very informative lesson. One question I have though it may be a little premature in this study.Weren’t some of the writers prone to use a lot of poetic license that strayed a little from the truth? Not trying to start a debate.


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