I like to find books about the Bible and take notes of interesting insights. A few years ago I attended a religious studies meeting of some sort and purchased Gordon J. Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000). As the title suggests, Old Testament stories do function as “torah” (instruction) about ethics and ethical choices, as do of course the legal codes of the Pentateuch. He highlights Genesis and Judges as narratives that give positive and negative insights into human choices and behavior.
He makes many fascinating points. Just a few:
1. Wenham identifies virtues illustrated in the Genesis stories, such as piety (prayerfulness and dependence upon God), strength but without meanness and aggression, generosity, loyalty, truthfulness. A righteous person does express a range of emotions but also is ready to forgive. Also, the righteous person isn’t necessarily ascetic (p. 100).
2. Another aspect of the Genesis account: Wenham notes that, “[i]n modern popular thought piety is often associated with gentleness, if not weakness or even effeminacy,” but the stories of Jacob wrestling with the angel, as well as Abram’s routing of the four northern kings (Gen. 14) link the relationship with God to a certain amount of strength and fortitude, and a lack of timidity. Nevertheless, the narratives condemn wanton violence, such as Jacob’s condemnation of Levi and Simeon (Gen. 49:6), as well as the violent nature of Lamech in Gen. 4:23-27. (pp. 90-91)
3. A unifying theme of these virtues in the biblical stories is blessing. Wenham notes that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy describe the blessings of righteousness such as good crops, many children, peace, and well being (Lev. 26, Deut. 28:1-4, and also Ps. 15, 24, 42, 122, 127, 128, Job 31, Prov. 31). The concept of peace in Genesis has to do with “the blessings of the nations through Abraham’s offspring,” while Deuteronomy describes peace as the defeat of Israel’s enemies (p. 102).
4. Still another unifying theme in biblical narratives----an integrating ethnical principle---is “the imitation of God.” Discussing again the virtues communicated implicitly in the stories of the biblical people, Wenham notes, “[t]hese virtues...cannot be defined by law: rather the stories offer paradigms of behaviour that apply in various situations. They certainly imply that usually the patriarchs acted much better than merely abiding by the letter of the law” (p. 104).
What are divine qualities which we should imitate? Wenham quotes several writers to show that God’s actions and God’s very life are models for human conduct, in creation, in justice, and mercy. Citing passages like Deut. 10:17-19, 14:28-29, Job 29:12-17 and Ps. 72 that call upon monarchs and common people alike to care and seek justice for the poor, Wenham writes, “Fidelity, love, generosity, and forgiveness and displayed in God’s dealings with mankind, and men should treat their fellow human beings in similar fashion” (p. 105).
Of course, the law Leviticus 19:18 stipulates love of neighbor and forgiveness of others, which is reflected in God’s own actions toward human beings. A narrative that illustrates this virtue is Gen. 32, where Esau displays God-like forgiveness and generosity in forgiving Jacob. Another example is Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers (p. 106).
5. If written during the years of the Israelite kingdom, Genesis provides a model of Israel’s life in Canaan. “Genesis is not simply a justification for Israel’s occupation of Canaan, it embodies a practical appeal as well. It urges brothers to make peace with each other and to forgive past wrongs. It insists that Israelites should live peaceably with their relatives, with fellow countrymen of different ethnic origins, and implies that as a nation it should not be afraid to make agreements with surrounding nations when they seek peace.” (p. 39) Thus Wenham finds evidence of the origin of the Genesis account during the united monarchy (p. 42).
7. In some of my earlier posts when I thought about the books of my professor, Brevard Childs, and I found interesting the speculation that passages in 1 and 2 Samuel showed evident of “pro-monarchical” and “anti-monarchical” sources. Wenham sees evidence of “anti-Saul” and “pro-David” writings. For instance, chapters 19-21 are sharply critical of the Benjaminites, in particular the towns of Gibeah and Jabesh-Gilead. But according to 1 Sam. 11:4, 31:11-13, these are Saul’s hometown and burial place, respectively. He notes that other places in Judges could be “anti-Saul polemic,” and the more praising depiction of the tribe of Judah as well as the story of Othniel seem more pro-David (p. 70). And the horrifying brutality and with which Judges ends can be read as an illustration of why Israel needs a new kind of leadership and a new way of life in Canaan (p. 69).
8. The author considers how the Old Testament stories ethics continue into the New Testament (p. 134). He spends some time discussing the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness in the Torah laws, and the distinctions made. For instance, you’re not supposed to eat a camel, because it is unclean to eat, but you can touch a camel, whereas you shouldn’t touch a corpse. When we get to the New Testament, Jesus shifts the emphasis of uncleanness to the heart (Mark 7:15, 20-23), as well as the epistles (Eph. 5:3, etc.), and Jesus‘ interactions with lepers, corpses, and other sources of uncleanness are actions that reflect his words. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is the next step in the abolition of food laws for Gentile Christians (p. 143).
These, plus Jesus‘ attitudes toward marriage and divorce, illustrate how Jesus goes back before the legal codes to the creation stories of Genesis, and in turn “The kingdom of God inaugurates a new era in which God’s intentions for his creation will be realized” (p 145).
The author argues “that where the New Testament is apparently abrogating Old Testament laws on impurity and marriage, it is more accurately read as affirming the creator’s ideals or his creation” (p. 147). The same can be said for Jesus‘ (and the early Christians‘) attitudes toward violence. In fact, he says, Deuteronomy---”the most militant book of the law”----contains such a vision of God’s desire for peace and wholeness, rooted in God’s original actions and will in creation (Deut. 33:28-29).