‘Genre’ means ‘kind’. The genre of a piece of literature is the kind of literature it is. For example, genres of fiction in English include science fiction, thrillers, and detective stories. Genres may be defined by their subject matter, their style or their formal features. We need to be aware of the genre of a text in order to understand it correctly, because that enables us to compare it with other works of the same genre. Knowing what they have in common is an important key to understanding. On the other hand, we cannot tell its genre without reading it. So there is a constant to-and-fro of interpretation as we come to understand what we are reading.
In the Old Testament, we find genres such as law, historical works, prophecy, psalms, and so forth. Whether ‘wisdom literature’ is a genre is disputed: it is supposed to cover Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. But Job has little in common with the other two books.
Not only whole books, but individual texts within books, may be distinguished according to genre. Thus we have different types of law in the Pentateuch: it is easy to see the difference between the impersonal regulations of (e.g.) Exod 21:28-32 (so-called ‘casuistic’ law) and the personal appeal of (e.g.) Exod 22:25-27 (sometimes called ‘apodictic law’). There are different types of psalms (see Psalms), and different genres in Proverbs: chiefly the ‘instruction’, personally addressed, in most of chapters 1-9 and the impersonal ‘wisdom sentences’ in chapters 10-29.
The discipline of ‘form criticism’ seeks to define genres originating in oral communication and determine the social situations in which they were at home.