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.

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.

Jay’s thoughts

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.

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

  1. John F. says:

    Perhaps this “moral ambiguity” in the texts is summarized by Hosea 13:11 I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath. ESV

    In asking for a king, Israel turned away from the true king. So He “tolerated” their request, giving it tacit approval — but was it BEST for the people? Of course not. So Paul likely refers to such
    Acts 17:30 — The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.. . . ESV

    So perhaps His tolerance for deviancy in now not so great as it once was. . . . The time has fully come in the incarnation . . . and a day is fixed for judgment.

    So allow me to state once again, perhaps some favorite “proof texts” should be understood in God’s faithfulness to His covenant (the two edged sword cutting both directions).

  2. Larry Cheek says:

    As I was reading and noticed that you had identified the beginning of your thoughts then read to the bottom of the text, I then noticed the identifier of the author of the book. How do I determine where your thoughts stopped and where you pasted again from the author? An assumption of mine would be only the last paragraph is the authors, it may only be my problem but I still have to re-read and consider the text to make a decision whether you are speaking or the author and in some cases I just cannot decide.

  3. Jay Guin says:


    The Wenham material is a direct quote, indented and set off. I checked the mobile version and it seems pretty clear to me on my iPhone and on my Windows laptop, but a different browser might not make it clear enough. Let me know what you’re viewing on and I’ll see what I can do.

  4. Dwight says:

    Jay, I don’t think “(Matt. 18:20 ESV) 20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” can be used to argue that the church completes us.
    This verse rather harkens back to the concept of witnesses where two or three are needed to argue a case, especially so within this context of vs.15-19 leading to vs.19 ” “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.”
    There is a transition from vs.15-17 of bringing an accusation against another which required witnesses, to what we do in agreement on earth, to vs.20 where two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus in agreement.
    The witness of Jesus is completed in a gathering or two or more, just as a witness of sin would be completed by two or more. Jesus is there with those who agree on Jesus and witness Him.

    I agree with Wenham in general. The story of Jonah has really nothing to do with Jonah, but with God. Jonah is a minor player in God’s narrative. It is God’s mission of compassion, not Jonah’s mission or compassion that is at play. If it were up to Jonah Nineveh wouldn’t have been saved.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    The Hosea passage is from centuries after Saul and David. I’m not familiar with the passage and so I did some looking into the commentaries. Some take it as a reference back to Samuel and Saul, but I found this comment very interesting —

    Almost all scholars and translations take the verbs of v. 11 to be past tense, notwithstanding the fact that the grammatical forms imply future tense. The Vulgate is a notable exception.244 Many argue that the story of the anointing of Saul is in view here or that more generally the text describes the whole history of the Israelite monarchy. Against this, besides the grammar of the text, v. 10 implies that Yahweh here describes the present desperation of the people for leadership and not some event from the distant past. That being the case, it is best to follow the Vulgate and render the verbs in the future tense as the answer to the prayer of v. 10. The sense of Yahweh’s answer, however, is ironic. “I will give you a king—in my wrath” means that God will indeed send them a king but not the king that they expect. The king God will send is the ruler of Assyria, who comes as their conqueror. “And I will take (a king)—in my rage” means that God will remove the sitting Israelite monarch from his throne.

    Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 19A:261.

    Then again, the NET Bible translator notes say,

    The prefix-conjugation verb ‌אֶתֶּן‎‏‎ (‘eten, “I gave”) refers to past-time action, specifying a definite past event (the enthronement of Saul); therefore, this should be classified as a preterite. While imperfects are occasionally used in reference to past-time events, they depict repeated action in the past. See IBHS 502–4 §31.2 and 510–14 §31.6.

    And K&D say,

    The saying, “Give me a king and princes,” reminds us very forcibly of the demand of the people in the time of Samuel; but they really refer simply to the desire of the ten tribes for a king of their own, which manifested itself in their dissatisfaction with the rule of the house of David, and their consequent secession, and to their persistence in this secession amidst all the subsequent changes of the government. We cannot therefore take the imperfects אֶתֶּן and אֶקַּח in v. 11 as pure preterites, i.e., we cannot understand them as referring simply to the choice of Jeroboam as king, and to his death. The imperfects denote an action that is repeated again and again, for which we should use the present, and refer to all the kings that the kingdom of the ten tribes had received and was receiving still, and to their removal. God in His wrath gives the sinful nation kings and takes them away, in order to punish the nation through its kings. This applies not merely to the kings who followed one another so rapidly through conspiracy and murder, although through these the kingdom was gradually broken up and its dissolution accelerated, but to the rulers of the ten tribes as a whole. God gave the tribes who were discontented with the theocratical government of David and Solomon a king of their own, that He might punish them for their resistance to His government, which came to light in the rebellion against Rehoboam. He suspended the division of the kingdom not only over Solomon, as a punishment for his idolatry, but also over the rebellious ten tribes, who, when they separated themselves from the royal house to which the promise had been given of everlasting duration, were also separated from the divinely appointed worship and altar, and given up into the power of their kings, who hurled one another from the throne; and God took away this government from them to chastise them for their sins, by giving them into the power of the heathen, and by driving them away from His face. It is to this last thought, that what follows is attached. The removal of the king in wrath would occur, because the sin of Ephraim was reserved for punishment.

    Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 10:103.

    My Hebrew is pretty weak, so I have no idea which one is right – a reference to the past, to what God is about to do, or to what God has been doing and will continue to do among the Northern tribes.

    But the point you make is surely right — we aren’t to take the tribes’ desire for a king as an example to follow. The constant coup d’états in the north indicated God’s displeasure with their attitude.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    I opened the post on my android through google and it is identifiable as you say there. Then I went back to my laptop where I usually read the blog and found that it was also like you have explained. Then I remembered that the text was full page when I was reading it, sometimes it opens that way. When it does there is no columns on the right. The only way I can get out of that mode is to go back to (home) in the heading, then the columns reappear. Sorry for thinking you were not clarifying the text.

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