Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 1 (Introduction)

storyastorahI bought this 2004 book at Logos.com on sale for $8.99 — because it was on my Logos wish list — although I can’t recall why. I must have seen a reference to it somewhere. Amazon sells the same book in paperback (not available for Kindle) for $19.20 (or much less used).

It’s only about 155 pages, and yet it’s chock full of rich insights into the nature of the Law of Moses and how it should be read in light of the teachings and life of Jesus. Excellent read — although a hair on the technical side. Nonetheless, it’s very readable if you have a decent knowledge of Genesis and Judges. You don’t have to know any Hebrew to profit from the book.

Wenham, the author of a number of commentaries on OT books in premier commentary series, focuses initially on Genesis and Judges to ascertain the best way to read these books, and then he draws conclusions from his analysis.

On the difficulty of discerning the author’s ethics

Early on, Wenham offers this disconcerting observation: 

But there are formidable difficulties. In narrative it is often unclear whether the writer is making an ethical comment at all: he may be describing an action because it happened, or because it was a link in a chain of events, which led to something significant. Furthermore, in those cases where narratives appear more than descriptive and seem to be offering ethical advice, it is often very difficult to be sure where the writer and his ‘implied reader’ stand ethically. We have difficulty determining their moral standpoint, so we often cannot be sure whether deeds recounted are meant to serve as examples to imitate or mistakes to avoid.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 1–2.

When Abram gives his wife into the harem of Pharaoh, we’re certain that this is a bad example, but should we emulate Abraham when he goes after the booty stolen from Sodom, Gomorrah, and other neighboring cities? Is Abraham a hero for engaging in war to defend a neighbor? And when Jacob deceives his father to gave Esau’s birthright, is that commendable conduct? Jacob is rewarded for his deceit — which seems very wrong. Abraham takes Hagar as concubine with Sarah’s consent, to have Ishmael as his son. Is that good or bad?

Those of us who grew up attending Sunday school know all the right answers, of course, but it wouldn’t be so easy if we didn’t bring a moral code with us as readers. If we read Genesis with no moral compass of our own, would we reach the same conclusions from the text? How would we know which stories are good examples and which are bad examples unless we already knew the moral principles before reading the text?

And it gets harder in Judges, where the morality of the judges is often even more ambiguous. I mean, Samson may have had super-hero strength, but was he a good judge? Did he lead Israel? Did he settle disputes?

Deborah was a prophetess and judge over Israel. Good example? We obviously decline to follow it. Why not?

Maybe these aren’t even the right questions! Some argue — and I think there’s a lot of truth in the argument — that the hero in all these stories is not the human protagonist — Abram, Samson, etc. — but YHWH. God himself is the hero and the person we should emulate is not the deeply flawed or even the heroic human but God as he deals with those deep flaws with grace, compassion, and covenant faithfulness — even when plainly undeserved.

Wenham argues,

Obviously the behaviour of the chief actors in many instances falls miserably short of the ideal, and they often suffer in some way for their mistakes. Yet it is clear too that they are not deserted by God despite their sinfulness. So there is a paradox in Old Testament narrative ethics: on the one hand God is terribly demanding, he looks for nothing less than godlike perfect behaviour, yet on the other, despite human failings, he does not forget his covenant loyalty to his people, and ultimately brings them through the suffering that their sin has brought about. Old Testament ethics are therefore as much about grace as about law: they declare that God, the all-holy, is also God, the all-merciful.

Thus in many ways the fundamental principles of Old Testament ethics are much closer to the New Testament than is often perceived. Both look for divine attributes to be replicated in humanity, but both realise that this rarely occurs and that the overwhelming need for the human race is divine mercy. In this way the incarnation fulfils the goals of the Old Testament system of ethics. 

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 4 (emphasis added).

So while the OT includes laws and other demands for truly holy behavior, in fact, God seems to tolerate behavior by his people that is far less than the ideal. God takes his covenant with Abraham so seriously that even pretty severe sin by the patriarchs, Israel, and the judges is forgiven. Then again, sometimes it goes too far and God punishes sin severely.

God is pictured as incredibly merciful, but also capable of severely punishing those who sin too severely. He is a God both of grace and of wrath — and yet he is always loyal to his covenant to his people. Individuals may lose their lives or be otherwise punished, but God is always faithful to Israel the nation.

If you think about it, the same is true of the NT.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 1 (Introduction)

  1. John F. says:

    “We have difficulty determining their moral standpoint, so we often cannot be sure whether deeds recounted are meant to serve as examples to imitate or mistakes to avoid.”

    With that understanding (just a postulation, not proven), should many OT proof texts be set aside? Clearly God disapproved “strange fire” and punished it with death, but perhaps other items leaned on as examples (“progressive” or “conservative” — the sword cuts both ways) are merely “tolerations” (to use Jay’s terminolgy) that God does not approve.

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