The Old Testament stands before us today as literature, a virtual library of diverse literary types and compositions; but most of that literature arose as the spoken word and was first transmitted in the oral tradition. Because the Old Testament is literature, literary methods must be used in order to understand it: and since most of the Old Testament had a long oral or preliterary tradition, a full understanding of its literature requires an understanding of that oral tradition.
To speak of the Old Testament as literature is not, of course, to exhaust its meaning or the possibilities for its legitimate contemporary interpretation. We must recognize, however, that this book arose out of the rich life of a particular people. Any attempt to understand the Old Testament which does not begin with a knowledge of what its various parts meant in and to the life of that people is therefore destined to be incomplete and perhaps even false.
One of the methods of understanding the meaning and history of the Old Testament in the life of ancient Israel is form criticism. Form criticism is a method of analyzing and interpreting the literature of the Old Testament through a study of its literary types or genres. In particular, form criticism is a means of identifying the genres of that literature, their structures, intentions and settings in order to understand the oral stage of their development.
Before turning to the Old Testament itself we may begin to understand the nature of genres of speech and literature by