Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 6 (God as hero)


God as hero

Wenham concludes,

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. Continue reading

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Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 5


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. Continue reading

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On Vacation, But Not Exactly

destinbeach1So I’m at the beach in Destin with my wife, four sons, two daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren (four and two years old).

We arrived on Saturday, and by 5:30 PM on Sunday, I was in the Sacred Heart Hospital Emerald Coast, a newly built, two-floor hospital. By 4:00  a.m. Monday, I had been transferred to a room and connected to a Heparin drip. It seems that I had several pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lung) — which explained why I was struggling to breathe.

I’ve been seeing doctors for months now, knowing something was wrong with me but unable to get a diagnosis. Among the symptoms, a lack of stamina. Walking a block would leave me winded. So I’d been served up to the cardiologists, who were running a wide gamut of tests on my heart and finding nothing but a healthy heart.

sacredheartBut Sunday, shortness of breath became “can’t breathe,” became an ambulance ride to the hospital — which, by the way, is just like on TV. I wound up at Sacred Heart Hospital Emerald Coast, which is a small but very nice and very well-run hospital.

Well, the “can’t breathe” symptom was the clue that allowed for me to be diagnosed with a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot) behind the left knee and several blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolisms). Not sure why, but evidently the leg clot was throwing off smaller clots that were lodging in the lungs.

pulmonary-embolism-causesSo the good news is that my health problem had FINALLY been diagnosed, is treatable, and is being treated. I feel MUCH better.

The bad news is that the treatment will last most of the vacation, oh, and it’s a condition that could have killed me. I’m told that the danger of sudden death passes about 24 hours after treatment begins, and so it’s been long enough that I likely will live to the end of the week, just in time to pack to go home.

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Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 4


On interpreting Torah

I’m going to skip Wenham’s insightful analyses of Gen and Judges. If you ever find yourself studying or teaching these texts, you’ll want to read what Wenham has to say about their interpretation. Rather, I want to get to this point made in chapter 5:

The law sets a minimum standard of behaviour, which if transgressed attracts sanction. It regulates institutions like marriage or slavery, but it does not prescribe ideals of behaviour within marriage. Does the regulation of slavery or bigamy mean that the Old Testament endorses these institutions and regards them as ethically desirable? If the law punished adulterers with death only where the woman involved was married, does that mean affairs by husbands with unattached girls or prostitutes were permissible? If false testimony in court was subject to the lex talionis (Deut 19:16–21), does that mean that in other circumstances flexibility with truth was allowed: that slander, boasting, exaggeration, gossip could be indulged in with an easy conscience?

To pose the questions is to suggest their answer. In most societies what the law enforces is not the same as what upright members of that society feel is socially desirable let alone ideal. There is a link between moral ideals and law, but law tends to be a pragmatic compromise between the legislators’ ideals and what can be enforced in practice. The law enforces a minimum standard of behaviour. Those who fail to live up to this standard are punished. But though I may not have stolen my neighbour’s car or had an affair with his wife, I may be far from being a model citizen. I may have kept every law of the land to the letter yet be an obnoxious person to live with. To put it another way, ethics is much more than keeping the law. Or to put it in biblical terms righteousness involves more than living by the decalogue and the other laws in the Pentateuch.

On reflection these points seem self-evident. What legislators and judges tolerate may not be what they approve. Laws generally set a floor for behaviour within society, they do not prescribe an ethical ceiling. Thus a study of the legal codes within the Bible is unlikely to disclose the ideals of the law-givers, but only the limits of their tolerance: if you do such and such, you will be punished. The laws thus tend to express the limits of socially acceptable behaviour: they do not describe ideal behaviour. 

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 80.

Wenham, of course, knows that the Torah often speaks of the heart and ethical conduct generally. It’s not just civil law. But much of it really is.

And, of course, the Prophet who most clearly agrees with Wenham is Jesus of Nazareth. In the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) Jesus is saying that meeting the “floor” requirements of Torah is not good enough. It’s not enough to refrain from murder. True Torah is to flee from hatred and instrumentalizing (treating as less than fully human) other people.

(Matt. 5:21-22 ESV)  21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Jesus is not legislating new laws. He’s not disagreeing with Moses. He’s telling us how to read Moses correctly.

(Matt. 5:17-20 ESV)  17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So, yes, Wenham is exactly right. Jesus says so.

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


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. Continue reading

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Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 2 (On source criticism)

storyastorahI’ve found that most OT commentaries spend every other word speculating on the source documents behind the canonical text. It’s a waste of perfectly good shelf space, if you ask me. And Wenham argues with considerable force that —

Source criticism is also marginal to a study of narrative ethics. It goes without saying that all but the shortest narrative works, from Genesis to Chronicles, drew on a variety of longer or shorter sources. Sometimes these sources can be specified with some degree of probability, at others it appears to be mere speculation. But very rarely does it matter. Whether the author of Genesis was working with three major sources, J, E and P, or with umpteen independent short stories, or with just one oral tradition which he committed to writing, the message of the book is the same, and we can still study the book in the same way to elucidate the author’s ethical stance.

If we were confident that we could distinguish one of the sources of Genesis in its entirety by dissecting the present text, we could theoretically study the ethics of that source. But this is easier said than done. We do not know what the author of Genesis has omitted from the source, but we do know that what he has preserved is refracted through his own ethical lens. This makes the attempt to discuss the stance of a source very problematic. It is also regarded by most readers of the Old Testament as unimportant.

For both Jews and Christians it is the present books of the Hebrew Bible that are canonical, not their putative sources. They read the life of David as it is told in the books of Samuel and Kings, not in the so-called Succession Narrative (2 Sam 9–1 Kgs 2). The pious reader wants to know what the canonical author thought about the deeds of David and his entourage, not what the author of the Succession Narrative thought. This popular focus on the final form of the story is one that is shared by most modern scholarly narrative studies of these books.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 7 (emphasis and paragraphing added). Continue reading

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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:  Continue reading

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