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).

I mean, if you read the OT, the authors sometimes refer very plainly to earlier source documents that we no longer have (e.g., 2 Chr 35:26-27). There are several mentioned. It doesn’t threaten inspiration to suggest that a text might be based on an earlier source. Even Luke assures us that his Gospel is well sourced.

(Lk. 1:1-4 NIV) Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,  2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. 

In short, when I read Genesis, even if I knew to a certainty that Moses edited the text from earlier sources, the text I believe should guide my understanding of God is the canonical text. Speculating on which verse comes from which source does nothing to tell me what Moses intended because the intent of his sources is irrelevant.

If my preacher borrows a story from Mark Twain and edits Twain to make a different point from what Twain originally made, I don’t understand the sermon better by studying Twain. In fact, I’ll probably miss the sermon’s point entirely.

It’s been pointed out that Gen 1:1-2:3 would have fit nicely on a single tablet in cuneiform. Maybe so. Might the Jews have had an earlier version that Moses worked from? Why not? But it doesn’t matter. If he edited J, E, and P manuscripts to create the Torah that God inspired him to write, the intentions of the earlier authors are not the intentions of Moses.


Dealing with moral ambiguity

Next, Wenham comments on the moral ambiguity of the characters in Genesis. For example,

In the Isaac deathbed blessing episode in Genesis 27, the first scene has just Esau and Isaac on stage (vv. 1–4), the next has Rebekah and Jacob plotting to deceive Isaac (vv. 5–17), then comes the central scene when Jacob goes in to Isaac, persuades him that he is Esau, and then receives the first-born’s blessing (vv. 18–29), and finally we are back with Isaac and Esau to hear the bitter cry ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’ (v. 34). By switching viewpoints the narrator makes us understand and sympathise with each party’s outlook. We are made to realise that no one in this incident is without blame. Our last glimpse of Isaac is of an old blind man, ‘ill at ease with every single member of his family, all (like himself) sinning and sinned against as a result of his folly’.

This episode is most revealing in the way it brings out the viewpoints of the different actors. It is also one of many in the Old Testament which show the depth of its moral insight and its avoidance of simple black-and-white judgements. It deals with a world where there are few perfect saints and few unredeemable sinners: most of its heroes and heroines have both virtues and vices, they mix obedience and unbelief. Their behaviour and attitudes must parallel those of the ancient Israelite readers in so many ways that they could identify with them quite easily. But can one be more specific? What ethical ideals are these authors implying in their narratives to which they hope their readers will aspire?

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 15.

Wenham seeks to read the books of the Bible through the lens of “rhetorical criticism.”

On the one hand, literary criticism illuminates the compositional techniques of the biblical writers, e.g. their use of parallelism, repetition, chiasmus, metaphor and paronomasia, and seeks to elucidate the structure of texts with a view to understanding the writer’s message. On the other hand, historical criticism aims to explain the date and circumstances of the composition of different books. Rhetorical criticism, however, uses the insights of literary criticism to shed light, not simply on the writer’s literary genius and artistic skills, but on the argument that the writer is developing in a work. What kind of a work are we dealing with? How does one section of a work lead logically into the next? How does each part contribute to the argument of the whole work? These are the primary questions asked by the rhetorical critic.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 17–18.

Now, at last, this is a far more helpful approach than what we read in many modern commentaries — in that it seeks to interpret the meaning of the canonical text regardless of what source materials may have been used by Moses to compose it. But it’s also a better approach than what we see in many older, very conservative commentaries, as it doesn’t assume that the OT is a series of moral lessons about heroes. The OT is not nearly so naive — nor should we be.

Rather, to understand the point being made by the author, we have to do our homework, reading in context and understanding the overarching theme of the book. We can’t just read verse by verse and apply our post-Enlightenment, evangelical, Western ethics to the text. We need to determine what the author himself intended.

Wenham then undertakes to re-interpret Genesis and Judges in light of the principles of rhetorical criticism.

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

  1. Christopher says:

    “It goes without saying that all but the shortest narrative works, from Genesis to Chronicles, drew on a variety of longer or shorter sources.”

    Well…so much for inspiration of the Holy Spirit then (as Jesus clearly indicates was behind David’s psalms).

  2. Bob Bliss says:

    This Is Brevard Childs’ approach as well. He also claims we must deal with the final form of the canon. I find his approach quite helpful as well. However, it appears that Wenham’s book would also be a good addition to my library. Thanks for this detailed review.

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