GENRE: Kinds of Literature

General Introduction: knowing the rules of the Game
Form: Standard Shapes of Texts
Formula: The Magic of Words in Patterns
Conventions: The Rules of the Game
Sitz im Leben: There's a Time & a Place for Everything
Deformation: Giving Old Forms a New Twist

General Introduction: Knowing the Rules of the Game

When studying a text it is important to know its kind, or genre, just as it helps to know what game you are playing. Cricket and baseball are both played with bat and ball. Both involve fielders and running. Yet if you try watching either game but know the rules only of the other, you will miss out on a lot!

In the nineteen-forties a radio version of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" was broadcast. It included material that sounded like the familiar newscasts and emergency broadcasts of the war years. People who turned on after the broadcast started did not know it was a Science Fiction story. Many panicked! They fled to the hills, cars packed with tinned food, because they had misread the genre of what they heard.

Usually we identify the genre (kind) of text we are dealing with automatically, and use the appropriate rules to produce or read it without noticing what we are doing. For example, imagine you have to write a letter to the Dean of the Faculty (Dr William Brown) to obtain permission to cross-credit some previous studies.

How will the text begin, and end?

How will you lay out the letter?

Now suppose that, in fact, you were at school some years ago with William Brown, and you are inviting him to a party you are organizing for old classmates.

How will it begin, and end?

How will this letter be laid out?

The two letters have followed different, though related rules. The rules were similar, since they are both of the genre "letters", but different, since they were different kinds (genres) of letter (that is different "sub-genres").

The common pattern of a particular genre (or sub-genre) is called its "form". The rules which its author obeyed (or broke) are called conventions. Notice too, each kind (genre) of letter has a particular situation typical of it.

Form: Standard Shapes of Texts

Different texts have different "shapes" or forms. The form of a letter is obvious - we even lay out the words in a pattern on the page. The address (in a business letter - addresses) is aligned with the margin and a greeting, followed by the body of the letter, with a closing salutation. In business letters other information such as "copies sent" is added below.

The greetings and conclusions are based on accepted formulae, which differ in different cultures since each can have its own conventions. Thus in French-speaking Africa some of the opening formulae of a letter will be much more "flowery" and full of polite phrases than the same letter written in English-speaking Western culture:

Republic Democratique du Congo:


 Monsieur le Directeur,  Dear Sir,
 I come before your exalted kindness  I am writing to ask...
  to request that...  
 Please accept, Monsieur le Directeur,  Yours faithfully,
 this expression of my very best wishes,  


Prophetic texts are creative rhetoric and so are flexible in their use of standard forms. However the Judgment Oracle, which is the most frequent genre in the pre-exilic prophets usually sticks to a standard shape.

The prophets also often borrow elements typical of genres belonging to other spheres of life (such as love songs, priestly instruction, funeral song). When they do this the result is usually ironic, for meaning can be deformed by a difference between the Sitz im Leben (sociological setting "natural" to the genre) and the actual setting of the speech.


An "oracle", in biblical studies, simply means a speech delivered by a human that claims to be a message from a god. The Canaanite gods and goddesses had prophets who spoke on their behalf, just as Adonai's prophets spoke in his name. Being spokesperson for God is the most important thing about prophets. Notice how frequent messenger formulae are in the prophets.

Judgment Oracles

These speeches have two major parts, a statement of the "CIRCUMSTANCES" (often this accuses the hearers) and the "JUDGMENT" which follows as consequence. These two are often linked by a particle that marks the logic of their connection. So the typical Judgment oracle looks like this:

  You have done this. You have done that... 




  I will do this, and that will happen to you.


Am 3:9-11 is a Judgment in this form and has an INTRODUCTION too. Judgments quite often have such introductions. Here unusually it has the style of a "call to witnesses" v.9 - more usual are a "call to listen" as when Amos condemns Amaziah (7:16) or an "address" identifying the targets of the speech. The closest to a pure example of address in Amos is 9:7. Often Amos both addresses and calls for attention in the same introduction as in Am 4:1.

The order of the elements in a Judgment oracle is not fixed like that of a letter. The reverse order is quite common:

     This will happen / I will do this to you...




     you have done this and that...


The elements of accusation or judgment are found separately, and it is possible (though rare) for the judgment to be positive rather like the promise of salvation in a salvation oracle as in Hos 2:13b-15 (MT 2:15b-17):


 She went after her lovers,
  and forgot me, 
   Oracle of the Lord. 


14 Therefore,


I will now allure her,
  and bring her into the wilderness,
   and speak tenderly to her. 
15 From there I will give her her vineyards,
  and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
   There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
    as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.


Warnings & Admonitions

A warning or an admonition presupposes a situation where disaster is still avoidable. This is unlike the rhetoric of judgment oracles, which appear to proclaim an already certain doom.

Warnings are signaled grammatically by conditional constructions. For example the terms:

Warnings, though rare in Amos, are found in 5:4-6 and 5:14-15. In the first, the chiastically organized exhortation to seek the LORD in contrast to the practice of going to cultic centers (presumably without really seeking him) is provided with motivation in two lines introduced by pen lest. Though in the previous verses (4-5) the Judgment is sure, here it is not seen as final:

    Seek the Lord and live:

      lest he hurry like fire. 

           O, House of Joseph. 

      And it consumes, with no one to quench it 

           for Bethel.

In 5:14-15 likewise he implores

Seek good, not evil,

     that you may live...

            that things may be as you have claimed

for Amos is only offering a "perhaps" 'ulay that God may be gracious, and that only to the remnant who will be left!

Salvation Oracles

Are a third kind of distinctively prophetic speech. They have few common formal features. Their content distinguishes them, and is unusual in the pre-exilic prophets! Often they are introduced by a messenger formula. They rarely provide a reason for the blessing announced (cf. the accusation in a judgment).

In the historical books they are directly embedded in their situation and the reasons are usually evident. In prophetic books they have been detached. Here they often become more eschatological in tone speaking of a distant and ideal future time.

Formulae like "days are coming" and "in that day" are typical. However, compare Am 8:9,11,13 where these formulae appear in the context of judgment.

Formula: The Magic of Words in Patterns

A formula (the plural is "formulae") is a collection of words that is repeated (almost) verbatim in several places with perhaps a small regular change e.g. the use of different proper names. A classic example is a will: "This is the last will and testament of me (PROPER NAME), of (GEOGRAPHICAL DESCRIPTION) (OCCUPATION) I hereby revoke all former wills....". They even sell forms with standard wording from which you can choose, and by cutting and pasting make up your own will. Wills, like other formal and legal texts, are usually full of formulae.

Ceremonies and other repeated events usually make use of formulae. Most cultures have formulae for greeting:
Person A: "Gidday!"
Person B: "Hi!"
Person A: "How's things?"
Person B: "Oh, fine. And you?"
Person A: "Uh, fine. Look, I wanted to ask you about..."

An example of a formula common in the psalms is "Bless the LORD..." followed by some personal description e.g. "O my soul" (e.g.: Ps 103:1,2,20,21,22; 104:1,35) Outside the book of Psalms it is only found at 1 Chron 29:20 and Neh 9:5. Clearly the Sitz im Leben of this formula is (public) worship.

Messenger Formulae

In the ancient world writing was not an everyday art, only the best educated could read or write. Writing materials were expensive. Most messages were sent by word of mouth. The messenger memorized the message and delivered it orally. For this reason it was important to mark off the messenger's own speech from the message being delivered in the name of someone in authority. Formulae were used to do this. Expressions like "Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia..." (Ezra 1:2); "Thus says Jepthah" (Judg 11:15) or "Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria!" (2 Kgs 18:28) were in common use.

In the prophetic books formulae like this are frequent. In each case God is identified as the source of the message. Typical formulae are:

When prophets use such formulae, they too are marking the speech as a message and themselves as messengers.

As we have seen these formulae are not unique to prophets nor to Israel. Such formulae are found among other peoples of the Ancient Near East and also in the context of secular messages. However their frequency is typical of prophetic speech. This illustrates the nature of Hebrew prophecy.

Conventions: The Rules of the Game

"Conventions" are the unwritten rules governing our production of texts. These rules are shared as part of our culture. The reason that different people would produce similar letters in the exercise above is that there are very strong conventions governing letters in our society.

The conventions which govern the production and reading of texts depend upon the setting. Different cultures may have different rules for similar texts. We show an awareness of conventions when we say something like: "She spoke well, but it wasn't a proper thank-you speech."

That conventions are shared knowledge, even if unconscious, is shown by jokes which work by breaking the rules:
A: What is the difference between an elephant and a postbox?
B: I don't know. What is the difference between an elephant and a postbox?
A: I'll not send you to post my letters!
Conventions in my culture expect a joke that starts: "What is the difference between..." to follow a form like:
A: What is the difference between a church bell and a burglar?
B: I don't know, what is the difference between a church bell and a burglar?
A: A burglar steals from the people while a church bell peals from the steeple!

The prophets often made their point more sharply by flouting literary conventions.

Sitz im Leben: There's a Time & a Place for Everything

Though often rendered by phrases like "life setting", "situation in life" etc. the German term Sitz im Leben is usually either translated by "sociological setting" or left untranslated. As a technical term, it refers to the typical setting of a genre.

Amos 4:4-5 is a short speech. In its shape it follows the pattern of a torah. However, Amos is not a priest and his instructions are evidently ironic. So one might speak of the Sitz im Leben of a torah "instruction" being: a priest at a sanctuary instructing worshipers in their duties and obligations. While the setting of the torah we recognize in Am 4:4-5 is rather different, a prophet condemns "de luxe" worship in an unjust society.

Deformation: Giving Old Forms a New Twist

The Hebrew prophets were inventive users of words, the tools of their trade. They often chose words for their sound. Sometimes their speech is onomatopoeic (the sound of the words echoing what they describe) and wordplay of various kinds is frequent. Among the ways prophets added zest and power to their words was by "borrowing" genres, for when a form of speech is taken out of its context (Sitz im Leben), and used it in another, its impact changes. Traditional themes, motifs and other material were often taken up and used in such a way that new meaning was produced. Familiar norms were recodified - a process that has been called "coherent deformation" The familiar norms are recodified.

Amos 5:13 is probably a proverb. Used by a wisdom teacher its impact would probably have been close to its surface meaning: "When injustice rules it is prudent to keep quiet!" However, on the lips of the sarcastic prophet, Amos, the intention is evidently different. The context has deformed the working of the genre "proverb", which is usually a memorable way of transmitting good advice, into an ironic attack on the nature of life in Jeroboam's Israel.

Such deformation of genre is common in the prophetic books, particularly when the genre is "borrowed" from another area of Israel's life. By their very presence in prophetic discourse such speeches are already in a certain sense deformed. The hymn of praise quoted in 4:13 for example, takes on a more ominous tone through its cotext. Following after the recitation of a series of ineffective warnings (4:6-11), the climactic instruction "So prepare to meet your God!" (4:12) turns the hymn into a description of the one who is coming to punish.

The lament (5:1-3) that follows the hymn, will also further deform its normal coloring in a threatening way. This gives the hymn in Amos an interesting and challenging ambiguity.

Sometimes the deformation is explicit in the wording of the unit. 4:4-5 has the form of a priestly instruction. A series of imperative clauses give instructions concerning cultic actions. These are concluded by a line giving the reason underlying them. The ironic deformation is already evident in the wording of the first line, "rebel". It is reinforced by the content of the last line. Where the typical use of this genre would contain a reason for the required actions based in the nature and acts of God, the reason here concerns the desires of the human listener.

  Enter Bethel - and rebel!
    Gilgal - and multiply rebellion!
  Each morning bring in your sacrifices,
    every three days your tithes!


  Present leavened bread as thank offering,
    call out [your] freewill offerings, proclaim them; 
      for that is what you love, O people of Israel!


                 Oracle of the Lord God.

Regularly the prophets recodified familiar norms. The use of the notion of exodus in the book of Amos provides a different sort of example. 

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.