Reading the narratives like Torah
Wenham then asks whether we should read the narratives the same way: as pointing to an ideal beyond what the narrative itself describes. Sometimes it just might be the point that the hero of the story did NOT do right and so suffered for his error. Maybe the stories are meant to point beyond themselves toward God. Maybe …
In particular, in both Gen and Judges we read of God being motivated to do what he does for his people by his own righteousness — his loyalty to his covenants with Abraham and Israel.
This covenantal loyalty is also the attitude looked for within a family, between children and parents, and between spouses. Israel’s loyalty to and affection for her God should mirror his love for her. In the psalms there are glimpses of the human spirit reaching out towards this goal.
My soul longs, yea faints for the courts of the LORD,
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. (Ps 84:2)
Genesis implies that mankind was intended to enjoy such intimacy with God. In the garden of Eden story Adam and Eve and their creator seem to be on the friendliest terms until the serpent upsets it. The LORD worries about Adam’s loneliness. He brings the animals to him, and then having created Eve out of a rib, presents her to him as a benevolent father-in-law would. Their intimacy is perpetuated by them all walking together in the cool of the day. Expulsion from Eden ends this age of intimacy. Cain remarks that his sentence to be a perpetual nomad is unbearable, for ‘from thy face shall I be hidden’ (Gen 4:13–14). For him, like many a later psalmist, banishment from God’s presence was the ultimate calamity.
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 81–82.
So it’s not just God’s faithfulness, but man’s need to be in covenant relationship with God — to enjoy God’s very presence in an intimate, personal relationship — but not just personal. Adam and Eve walked with God together. God rescued the nation of Israel from Egypt. The judges were raised up to rescue tribes. God’s relationship is very much a corporate one — so it’s both personal and corporate — and we have to live in the tension. It’s both, and we mustn’t let ourselves get these out of balance.
By painting a picture of this intimacy between God and man in its opening chapters Genesis invites us to read all the subsequent stories, whether it be Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28:10–22) or Joseph in prison (Gen 39), with this picture in mind to guide our evaluation of the subsequent narrative. Within this framework the LORD’S appearances to the patriarchs become extraordinarily significant. The narrator is generally quite coy about what this meant in practice, but within the larger context it was clearly an immense privilege that was rarely granted.
Moses of course is described by the LORD in the following terms: ‘With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of God’ (Num 12:8; cf. Deut 34:10). Nevertheless even he is barred from the perfect vision of God, for though he met the LORD in the cloud on mount Sinai, he was not allowed to seek God’s face, but only his back (Exod 33:23).
Similarly in the later sanctuaries, where the LORD walked as in Eden (Gen 3:8; cf. Lev 26:12; 2 Sam 7:6–7), only the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies once a year wreathed in a cloud of incense lest he should see God (Lev 16:13). Yet to see God in his sanctuary remained the ultimate goal of every worshipper (cf. Ps 42).
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 82.
Christians can see this theme working itself out in the Gospels. YHWH comes to earth in the form of Jesus — to literally walk among his people — and they reject him. Just as God walked with Adam in the cool of the morning in the Garden, Jesus walked among his people, spoke with them, healed them, and tried to love them. They finally received the return of the God himself to his people — even to his very Temple — and yet they rejected him.
Among Christians, the Holy Spirit is the God-chosen means of dwelling among his people. The Spirit is both personal and corporate. Both our individual bodies and the church are called temples for the Spirit. The Spirit dwells within each individual Christian, but —
(Matt. 18:20 ESV) 20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Why “two or three”? Why not just one? Well, our individual relationship with God is real but it is not enough. Just as Adam needed Eve to be complete, we are not complete as individuals. It’s the church that completes us — by the power of the Spirit — but as part of a larger humanity.
Gen 1:26-28 declares that God made “man” — meaning “humankind” — in God’s image, and God is a plural and yet singular being. He is both three and one. And thus for us to be like God, we must live joined with other people. Most intimately with our spouses, of course, but it’s not just about human family. It’s about the uniting of the human species.
The NT emphasis on unity is not just one among several commands to obey to get to go to heaven. It’s about becoming like God. It’s undoing the separation that came with Babel. Indeed, it’s undoing the entry of sin in the world yet again after Noah — sin that separated man from God and man from man.
Judges tells story after story about what happens when a nation in covenant with God fractures and refuses to be united. The book ends on this poignant note —
(Jdg. 21:25 ESV) In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
The modern church suffers from disunity — perhaps even more so than the tribal disunity of the period of the judges. Ultimately, the solution for Israel was David. For us, it’s Jesus. But only if we all submit to his authority. And don’t tell me we do — not until you can tell me that your church lives the SOTM for all it’s worth.
‘You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exod 19:6) sums up the individual and corporate vision of Exodus. A collection of holy individuals makes a holy nation, which can serve as mediator between God and all the nations of the world. Or, as the promise to Abraham put it, ‘In you shall all the families of the earth find blessing’ (Gen 12:3). Thus the cultivation of individual virtues is only a means to creating holy people who in turn make up the holy nation. The stories of Genesis show how this process may start to happen, while the book of Judges shows how the neglect of virtue leads first individuals and then the whole nation into a moral nose-dive.
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 103–104.