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.

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

  1. Fantastic post! (It agrees with what I have thought for years – but is expressed more clearly and eloquently than I ever have.) Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  2. Dwight says:

    Some thoughts:
    1.) The RP fails because it is limited to worship and in that it seeks to impose a strictness of only. As noted God was involved in more than just worship to the Jews, but He was involved in all their lives. And even in worship God while legislating some of their actions in worship didn’t regulate all of their actions of worship. They would worship in the Temple, but they could also worship at home. They would do the Passover feast at the appointed time, but as Hezekiah showed the Passover could be extended out for an other week.
    2. Often we ask the least of what we can do, meaning that we will do just enough thinking that fulfills the law. If we worship where God tells us and no more, then we have fulfilled the law. True, but we haven’t fulfilled the concept that God request all our lives as worship.
    3. It is sad to go life thinking that we are limited by God, when we are really just limiting ourselves and judging others based on this.
    In Matthew 5 “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” which argues that just because you have done what you asked doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t do more. God never says to us we can’t do more of what he has asked in another way. We just can’t replace or not do what He has asked.

  3. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. Wenham makes a lot of sense, but I’d never heard it stately so clearly before. And this really helps us see why the Law of Moses so often sets lower standards than Jesus. It was a book of civil law to be enforced by the government.

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