Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 3 (The Gen 1 Worldview)

storyastorah

Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

One challenge presented by Genesis is that chapters 1 – 12 are difficult to connect with the balance of the book. The Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph narratives clearly connect to each other and serve to make a number of key points. But why does someone telling us about Abraham need to tell the story of Babel? Or the Flood? Is it just because these events happened or is there a uniting purpose?

Establishing a worldview

One purpose of the early chapters is surely to distinguish the Jewish worldview from the worldviews of its surrounding neighbors.

The implied monotheism of Genesis 1 is one example of the persistent critique of Near Eastern theology that runs throughout Genesis 1–11 culminating in its trenchant attack on the religious pretensions of Babylon and its tower.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 24.

Indeed,

The acts of creation on the first five days have a polemical thrust in denying the divinity of the sun, moon, and sea monsters as much of the ancient Orient believed, but their chief purpose is preparing a world suitable for human habitation, for the whole story reaches a climax with the creation of mankind on the sixth day. However already the creation of the environment hints at concerns that run through Genesis: the plants and fruit trees bear ‘seed’ (a Genesis keyword), while the birds and fish are ‘blessed’ (another keyword) and commanded to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (1:11, 22).

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 25.

God exists outside of the heavens and the earth, but he does not remain outside. He not only creates the heavens and the earth, he works within them to prepare the world for human habitation. Man is the culmination — indeed the very point — of God’s creating. Man is no accident or afterthought. All that was made was made for man.

Though this critique of ancient Near Eastern thinking emerges most clearly in the flood story, it is already evident in 1:26–31. Here the creation of mankind is seen as the culmination of the six days’ work, and God pronounces all that he has made very good. Mankind is created in two sexes, male and female: he is blessed and commanded to be fruitful and multiply. God gives the plants to man for food; it is not man’s duty to supply the gods with food.

Finally and most significantly, man is made in God’s image. The nature of this image is elusive, but the function of the image is clear: it enables mankind to rule over the earth and the other creatures. In ancient oriental myth kings were made in the gods’ image, but Genesis democratises the idea; every human being is a king and responsible for managing the world on God’s behalf.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 25.

God creates man to rule the creation — contrary to the teaching of every surrounding nation. Mankind is given a dignity in Judaism found nowhere else. Therefore, the greatest of crimes against another human is murder. To kill someone is to destroy an image-bearer.

Creation as temple

Wenham wrote in 2004, and so did not have the benefit of Walton’s ground-breaking work showing that Gen 1 is the dedication of the cosmos as a temple for God. Fortunately, I just came across a marvelous summary of that teaching at the BioLogos website. The author, J. Richard Middleton, adds material in support of the interpretation I’ve not seen elsewhere. In fact, it seems that as more commentators study Walton’s work, they find more and more reasons to agree.

Middleton explains,

Not only does Genesis 1 challenge Israel’s temptation (and ours too) to trust in false gods, but this creation account portrays each stage of the creative process as “good,” the result of God generously calling into being a variety of creatures and blessing both animals and plants with fertility. That God deems this finite, contingent cosmos “very good” (Gen. 1:31) stands in contrast to other ancient accounts that portray creation as the outcome of a violent battle between vengeful deities.

Genesis 1 also emphasizes the dignity and high calling of human beings, to be God’s very own image in the world (the topic of my next blog post). This is in contrast to creation accounts that portray humans made from clay mixed with the blood of a demon god, destined to be slaves of the high gods and of the empire that controlled religion and temples in the ancient world. 

So we need to add Walton’s and Middleton’s work to Wenham’s to fully grasp the purpose of Gen 1. Gen 1 locates mankind’s relationship with God and the creation. It defines how the Jews (and now Christians) should see these things.

Mankind is the intended beneficiary of God’s good creation — not a purely accidental result of impersonal forces. Man does not labor to support God. Rather, God gives the good earth to man to allow him to support himself and to bless and reign over the Creation on God’s behalf.

And God designed the Creation as a place for man not only to worship God but to represent God as God’s own image. When Jesus says we are the “light of the world,” he harkens back not only to God’s covenant with Abraham to be a blessing to the nations, but to Gen 1:26-28 where man is given dominion over the Creation — surely to be a blessing to what God has made.

But a temple is not just a place where a god might be worshiped. It’s also a place where the god rests. It’s not that a temple can contain a god! Even the universe, as large as it is, cannot hold God. But a temple is a place where the god has a unique, special, powerful presence. It’s a place designed for man to encounter the god worshiped there. It’s a meeting place — a place of prayer and worship and devotion.

We don’t have to die or fly in a spaceship to encounter God. He is here. He has a special, intense, manifest presence — and we humans bear his image to show that this is a place where God may be found.

Now, looking a few centuries ahead, when the scripture say that the church is the temple for the Holy Spirit, we find that God must have departed from his temple in some sense — not entirely, of course, but he is not nearly as present as he once was and will one day be again.

Rather, the church is a beachhead, a foretaste, a down payment on the presence that we’re going to enjoy when Jesus returns.

While the Earth does not currently experience the fullness of God’s presence (due to human sin), the Bible promises that even this small portion of the cosmic temple will ultimately be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea (Num. 14:21; Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). When evil has been vanquished and the world becomes the kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15) so that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10), then, in the words of the Apostle Paul, God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Marriage

After Moses sets the stage in Gen 1, Moses begins a series of connected narratives. Gen 2 especially deals with marriage.

But in Genesis 2 it is the relationship of husband and wife that is central, not the procreation of children. In a narrative rich in symbolism a strikingly original view of the relationship of the sexes is set out. The writer also makes it quite plain at the end of the chapter that the story has universal relevance, for he appeals to it to explain a general principle: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (2:24). That this applies to every couple not just the Ur-couple is shown by the mention of father and mother, which neither Adam nor Eve had.

Some of the points Genesis makes about this primal relationship are not surprising in a patriarchal culture such as that of ancient Israel. The woman was created to meet the man’s need of companionship, and to be a helper matching him (ʿezer kenegdo). A helper is one who meets someone’s need; the relative strength of helped and helper is not at stake, simply that the helped is too weak on his own to achieve something. In other words a married couple can achieve what a single man cannot do on his own; in the context of 1:28 this obviously applies to having children, but the very generality of 2:18 implies much more than this. ‘Matching him’ implies a relationship of complementarity rather than identity, which would have been expressed by ‘like him’. Man and woman interlock, so that the strengths of the one complement the weaknesses of the other.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 30–31.

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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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5 Responses to Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 3 (The Gen 1 Worldview)

  1. A Trober says:

    Thanks.

    sidenote:

    Abraham wasn’t a Jew. Nor, was Isaac, Jacob or any of Jacob’s sons other than Judah.
    Only the descendants of Judah are Jews.

  2. Monty says:

    Jay,

    Great post. Could you shed some light(if you are aware) of these authors view of the creation account being a literal six days or something that took place over eons? Thanks.

  3. Ed Dodds says:

    On the meme of worldview, I first encountered some of Theo Gaster’s “stuff” (Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East) which started my appreciation of the importance of worldview narratives https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Gaster. fwiw, Star Trek occasionally ventured into this realm: Masks https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masks_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

  4. Dwight says:

    Jay, “Now, looking a few centuries ahead, when the scripture say that the church is the temple for the Holy Spirit,” implies that either the church as an institution is the temple of God or that the people as a group is a temple of God, but the scriptures point towards the person as the Temple in all cases. “Do not join yourself to a harlot…you are a temple of God”.
    His presence is here…in each of us.
    We don’t have to go anywhere to worship God or approach Him as we can do it wherever we are.
    God is not any more distant than we perceive him to be, meaning that if we perceive God to be close it is only because He is and vice-versa. We make God distant or far in how we approach Him or allow Him to approach us.

    An interesting thing about the church in the man and wife analogy is that the church is a bride betrothed, meaning bound and promised, but not yet delivered in marriage.

    Another interesting thing we often overlook is that Adam and Eve were in a garden, but when they were kicked out of the garden, they entered what we know today having to toil the ground. But this implies that there was a garden and then there was another existence parallel to the garden.
    The garden was where God held back the hard world for Adam and Eve and protected them. We often think that God was walking in their presence, but the Jews understood that they were in the presence of God…in His prepared territory. Reconciliation to God brings us back to Him and His territory, rather than reestablishing our territory.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    When we compare man and woman from the creation and desire to place a special emphasis upon the relationship between the two, we must not ignore the rest of creation from the equation which has the same counterparts. Explanation; every plant and every animal has counterparts of male and female. These were designed for a purpose, that purpose is reproduction. In some of the creation one male served many females (plants and animals).
    Gen 1:26-28 ESV Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (27) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (28) And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
    The companionship concept was not the purpose according to this account, he created man and woman in the same context as the all living creation.
    This message is an overview. Like someone starting to paint a picture, place the main objects then fill in the background or details which cannot be told or explained in a step by step order.
    Then we read of the creation of a man, a male. To not create a female to be a counterpart of man would have been foreign from the design of all of the rest of the creation. It is not possible to read Gen 1 in a chronological format unless you adjust the order of the message to compensate for one event being explained prior to one of the objects in that event being formed. You know Man was placed in the garden prior to the forming of woman according to this next text.
    Gen 2:18-22 ESV Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (19) Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (20) The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. (21) So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. (22) And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

    So how is it that we should attempt to explain that God performed this action with a specific order or goal in mind. Are we not adding a lot of assumptions?

    I see many leaning very heavy upon the remark of God in this passage.
    Gen 1:31 ESV And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
    Using this concept to attempt to sway minds that God would never totally destroy what he called “very good”. In a reference to The Earth. But, Keep that in mind and let’s look at what he did do to that “very good thing” the Earth (every living thing) that had the breath of life including all plant life, because men had become so sinful. The sinfulness of man was so disdainful to God that the “very good” received the same destruction as mankind who was living in the presence of the “very good”. Any one who would attempt to hold God to the concept of declaring the world as “very good” to bind him to not ever destroying the earth needs to study of the account of the flood and read or read again of the destruction which God performed to men of the earth through his chosen people. Wiped out complete nations of men, women and their possessions, to attempt to explain in example how serious he is about sin.

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