God as hero
The motivation to act in certain ways because that is how God acts is thus found in a wide variety of legal collections within the Pentateuch, and it therefore seems likely that it is assumed within the narratives as well.
The importance of the imitation of God as a focus of Old Testament ethical thinking has been recognised by various scholars. ‘A person seeking a new way of life is called upon to take God as a model: “Good and straightforward is God, therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He guides the humble in justice and teaches the humble His way” (Ps 25:8–9).’ ‘For the Old Testament as we have it ethics is a matter of imitating the pattern of God’s own actions, in salvation and in creation, because these spring from a pattern which always exists in his own mind and by which he governs the world with justice and with mercy.’ ‘The Life of God models the moral life. God as experienced by Israel and mediated to subsequent generations through the canon is to be imitated as moral agent, in both character and conduct.’
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 104–105.
Of course, Jesus teaches exactly this in —
(Matt. 5:43-48 ESV) 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In fact, once you see it, you find references to this principle throughout the Bible. We are being restored by the Spirit into the image of God. We are becoming what we were always meant to be. As we worship God, we become like God.
And if this is true, then the Gospels aren’t just collections of great stories. We learn to live as Christians not just from the lessons taught but by emulating how Jesus lived and died.
Genesis thus sets out a very lofty ideal of human behaviour. It does not show its heroes simply keeping the law in their individual actions or illustrating typical human virtues. Rather it sets out a vision of human beings made in the image of God, his representatives on earth, and therefore obligated to try and imitate God in their dealings with one another and with other creatures.
Sometimes the stories of Genesis show the patriarchs acting in exemplary fashion: they not only keep the law, model virtue, but exhibit truly godly characteristics as those made in the image of God should. Sometimes though they fall very far short. Admittedly they rarely break the laws set out later in the Pentateuch, but some of their actions are a travesty of godliness. But most often their behaviour is mixed, neither outstandingly virtuous nor catastrophic, perhaps somewhat better than the typical ancient reader but not too much better: good enough to be an inspiration, but not such paragons as to discourage the implied reader from trying to emulate them.
Nevertheless their mixed ethical achievement does not generate a sense of complacency in the reader, rather it serves as a reminder that God still keeps his promises and is loyal to his people despite their shortcomings.
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 107.
I couldn’t agree more — and yet we rarely hear this taught. We focus our teaching on evaluating Abraham’s ethics and rarely ask what the story tells us about the true hero: God. And the lesson about God is invariably chesed, that is, covenant faithfulness and love. There are limits to God’s patience, but we nonetheless find ourselves astonished at how tolerant of bad behavior God was.
Abraham twice gives Sarah to a king’s harem. Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. These are not minor sins! And yet these are the patriarchs — for whose sake God is faithful to Israel. It’s truly an amazing story.