Genres within the prophets

Ezekiel and the hand of God. Dura Europos synagogue wall painting (Public domain)

A ‘genre’ is a type or style of writing – a group of texts which share similar characteristics. Contemporary examples would include novels, scientific text books, fairy tales, insurance documents, poems, tweets, and so on. There are several main genres with the Bible, including historical narrative, poetry, letters, law/instruction, and prophecy. For helpful guidance on dealing with the Bible's different genres, see Fee, Gordon D., and Stuart, Douglas K. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 4th ed. (Zondervan, 2014)

We're interested in the prophets here, but there isn't one single type of prophetic writing in the Bible. There are several prophetic genres, or perhaps sub-genres may be a better term. Many of these are kinds of ‘oracles’. An oracle is a distinct section or unit within the longer message – an individual prophecy within the prophetic book. In the brief summaries below, I give the basic forms of these, but of course the writers of these books used many variations on their basic themes. Sometimes a couple of the genres overlap in a single oracle or unit.

A. Oracles

1. Messenger speech

e.g. Amos 7:14–17; Ezekiel 35:1–15

  • Prophetic word formula (the word of the Lord came to X)
  • Commissioning formula (Go and say . . . )
  • Messenger formula (This is what the Lord says . . . )
  • Message

2. Vision

e.g. Amos 7:1–9; 8:1ff; 9:1ff; Ezekiel 1:1 – 3:15; 8:1 – 11:25

  • Announcement of vision
  • Transition
  • Vision sequence

3. Judgment oracles

e.g. Amos 2:6–16; Ezekiel 7:1–27

  • Accusation
  • Link (logical connective)
  • Announcement of judgment

4. Covenant lawsuit (‘rîb’)

e.g. Hosea 4:1–19; Amos 3:1–15?; Ezekiel 20:1–44?

  • Summons
  • Charge
  • Evidence
  • Verdict

5. Woe oracle (‘hoy’)

e.g. Amos 5:18–27; 6:1–7(14?); Ezekiel 34:1–31

  • Announcement of distress
  • Reason for distress
  • Prediction of disaster

6. Salvation oracles

e.g. Amos 9:11–15; Ezekiel 36:16–38

  • Indication of situation
  • Reference to the future
  • Proclamation of radical change
  • Blessing

7. Lament

e.g. Amos 5:1–17; Ezekiel 19:1–14

8. Oracles against the nations

e.g. Amos 1:3 – 2:5

B. Narratives

1. Commissioning

e.g. Ezekiel 1:1 – 3:27

  • Divine confrontation
  • Introductory word
  • Commission
  • Objection(s)
  • Reassurances
  • Sign(s)

2. Vision

e.g. Ezekiel 37:1–14

3. Symbolic action

e.g. Ezekiel 4:1 – 5:17

C. Prayer

e.g. Jonah 2:1–10

D. Apocalyptic

e.g. Daniel 7:1 – 8:27; Ezekiel 38:1 – 39:29

E. Allegory

e.g. Ezekiel 15:1 – 17:24

F. Poetry

Most of the material by the prophets is written in poetic form. See ‘Hebrew Poetry'.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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