Know Your Literary Devices

Know Your Literary Devices

This list doesn’t cover every possible literary device employed by biblical authors, but it contains what I have found to be the most common and directly useful ones when observing a passage. Again, you don’t need to memorize the list, but you should be able to spot these “children” in a sea of words when you buckle down to observe the text. It’s not sufficient to propose a main point for your passage based on what simply feels right. You should be able to defend that proposed main point from the text itself—primarily by enumerating the literary devices that directed you toward your main point.

Though your top priority when studying the Bible is to grasp the author’s main point, you will do well to develop a few skills to help you get there. One such skill is the ability to spot various literary devices. You don’t need to memorize a lengthy list of such devices, as long as you can recognize them when you see them. It’s sort of like being the father of a large number of children. Sometimes you mix up the names, but you can always point them out in a crowd when necessary.

Word Devices

Some literary devices have to do with the use of words. Identifying key words can help you grasp the author’s main point.

  • Repetition is perhaps the easiest device to observe. You would do well to begin any study by simply looking for, counting, and highlighting repeated words. For example, Genesis 14 repeats the word “king” more than 28 times, giving that word tremendous prominence in the author’s argument.
  • Continuity is similar to repetition, except it refers to repeated synonyms, thoughts, or ideas. So if a particular concept is repeated in a passage, even without repeating the identical word, it is worth taking note of. For example, Psalm 145 contains continuity of the ideas of “praise” for God’s “works,” even though the poem uses a variety of words (such as “bless,” “thanks,” etc.) to communicate those ideas.
  • Inclusio is a particular kind of continuity, where the same word, phrase, or idea is repeated at the beginning and end of a passage. In addition to marking structural boundaries, an inclusio often highlights the author’s thesis. For example, Psalm 8 begins and ends with “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth,” showing that the poem’s main idea has something to do with how God’s majesty is made visible on earth.

Logic Devices

Some literary devices reveal a text’s logic, which will help you to grasp the argument (main point) an author is making.

  • Comparison is when two or more things are shown to be similar to one another. For example, in 2 Timothy 2:3-6, Timothy on mission is compared to a soldier, and athlete, and a farmer. By figuring out what the points of comparison are, you’ll better understand why Paul gives the instructions of verses 1-2.
  • Contrast is when two or more things are shown to be different from one another.

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