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.

Jay’s thoughts

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.

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

  1. The law itself, even while establishing a minimum standard of behavior, calls on people to be like God. Cf. Leviticus 19 where there is a list of laws with ‘I am Yaweh your God’ following each. This could be taken as a mere assertion of authority – but this would overlook a key statement in the chapter: ‘Be holy, for Yaweh your God is holy.’

  2. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. That’s the point exactly.

  3. Mark says:

    There are plenty of instance besides Exodus 20:2 where additional language was added to “I am the LORD thy God” such as “which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Isaiah adds “and there is none other.”

    Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote a book about 20 years ago, “How Good Do We have to Be?” which according to the Amazon.com description is about “how human life is too complex for anyone to live it without making mistakes, and why we need not fear the loss of God’s love when we are less than perfect.”

  4. Monty says:

    I know I wouldn’t want the “bad stuff” of my life written down for countless millions to read about til the end of the age, but theirs was and it was for “our learning.” But I guess if it pointed the way to God as my hero(which he is) and made manifest his glory, it’d be just fine.

  5. Dwight says:

    We often point to certain points in the OT where Nadab and Abihu were struck down in order to put fear into ourselves, which I do think the recording of it was probably supposed to do, well…maybe more fear/respect. But Nadab and Abihu didn’t just sin, they did so with no respect for God and His presence, who they were burning the fire before. David sinned, but he didn’t lose respect for God. The point of Nadab and Abihu wasn’t if you sin you will get struck by lightning, but rather have respect for God, especially so when you are within His presence.

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