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Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically

, 2000
ISBN: 9780567084910

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Does narrative in the books of the law contain ethical guidelines for today's Christian?

Renowned scholar Gordon J. Wenham says yes.

In his book Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Wenham says understanding the implied author's ethical message in Old Testament narratives will help modern Bible readers understand the moral issue behind the story and apply it to their own life.

In Story as Torah, Wenham acknowledges that for centuries, Jews have drawn moral and legal principles from narrative in the Bible to guide their daily life. Since the time of Jesus, Christian teachers and preachers have done the same, using the stories found in New Testament books to install ethical principles in their hearers on the teaching of Jesus and Paul.

But Wenham says there's a wide gap between when the original Old Testament authors penned their stories and modern readers, muddying the original sense of the message: Was the author making an ethical comment or just communicating facts? Because the answer is often unclear, it has been challenging for people to determine Old Testament authors' moral standpoints.

The result? Bible readers, preachers, and teachers often avoid Old Testament narratives and focus instead on direct ethical teaching where there's no confusion—found in books of the Bible that discuss legal codes and in Wisdom Literature and the prophets. Unfortunately, this has led to interpreting books like Genesis, which is primarily about ethics, as simply the story of creation.

Wenham untangles this issue to prove the Old Testament narratives can function as "Torah" and inform a person's moral choices even today. The end result is an accessible book that will help seminarians, pastors, and other students and scholars of the Bible use Old Testament narratives more responsibly.

Save more when you purchase this book as part of the Old Testament Studies Series Collection (8 Vols.)!

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Top Highlights

“Notwithstanding the critical problems of potentially different ethical standards in different periods, it emerges that throughout the Old Testament much more is expected of the righteous than merely keeping the letter of the law. Its writers hoped that in some way man, made in the image of God, would in some measure imitate God, his creator, in maintaining creation and in loving his fellow man. ‘Be holy, for I am holy’, the motto of Leviticus, sums up this aspect of Old Testament ethics.” (Page 4)

“I shall argue that the Bible storytellers are not advocating a minimalist conformity to the demands of the law in their storytelling, rather that they have an ideal of godly behaviour that they hoped their heroes and heroines would typify.6 But the attainment of these ideals seems to be erratic, and this has important implications for the theology of the storytellers: they appear to relate a story of success despite the frequent moral failings of the principal actors in the story.” (Page 3)

“Another term used more often in Genesis than in any other biblical book is ‘bless, blessing’ (Hebrew berek, berakah).” (Page 20)

“In dealing with biblical texts we are always dealing with the implied author not the real author, because all our knowledge of the author and his mind is derived from the texts themselves.” (Page 9)

“These observations are pertinent to a reading of Old Testament narratives, which seldom contain explicit moral judgements, but much more often leave the events to speak for themselves, thereby encouraging the reader to reflect on and relate past events to him- or herself in the present.” (Page 14)

Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically by Gordon J. Wenham proves that Old Testament narratives can inform a person's moral choices even today. The author begins his argument by explaining the insights and terminology literary critics have brought to understand texts. Next, he introduces the concept of the "implied author" and explores the ethics of biblical storytellers. He then draws attention to some of these techniques at work in the Bible.

Readers will then consider critical methodology and why it's imperative to interpret individual stories within the context of complete books. Wenham unpacks this by exploring the rhetorical function of Genesis and Judges, two vastly different narrative works, to show how this method of interpretation can elucidate the message and establish principles that may help readers more accurately understand other Old Testament books—according to what their original authors intended.

He then moves from general principles of the ethical interpretation of narrative to considering the broad concerns of Genesis and Judges. And his final chapter sketches some continuities and differences between the two testaments.

Wenham takes a unique view toward Bible interpretation. He believes that to be entirely subjective is misguided, and though the reader makes an indispensable contribution to interpretation, all Bible readers and interpreters need to employ historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism methods to investigate what the original author of a given book of the Bible was trying to communicate to his readers

Readers will consider how narrative phenomena—such as the repetition of key words or themes, the overall rhetorical purpose of a book, intertextual correspondence, and critical contextual indictors of mood—provide clues to the ethical message of the implied author. Anyone who reads Story as Torah will come away with a framework for handling Old Testament narratives more responsibly.

In Gordon J. Wenham's Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, readers will learn why understanding the implied author's ethical message in Old Testament narratives is so critical for proper Bible interpretation and understanding the moral issue behind the biblical narratives the original author was communicating so they can apply it to their own life.

Through his easy-to-read-and-follow book, readers will dig deep with Wenham as he proves how the Old Testament narratives can function as "Torah"—moral and ethical guidelines for life—using historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism to investigate what the original author of a biblical book was trying to communicate to his first readers. Doing so, according to Wenham, will inform a person's moral choices even today.

They'll also learn:

  • Why the Bible elevates the ethical expectations of the Old Testament higher than legal rules
  • Why Bible readers must distinguish between the implied author's ethical stance from that of the characters within the story
  • Why it's sometimes difficult to establish the author's standpoints
  • Why Genesis 1–2 paints a picture of the author's vision of God's purposes for humanity and, in particular, of relationships between the sexes
  • How Genesis sets out a lofty goal of human behavior not necessarily through keeping the law but simply by being made in God's image—trying to act in a good and right way but often falling short—a reminder that God keeps his promises and is loyal to his people despite their imperfections
  • How the law cannot define ethical virtues like courage, honesty, family loyalty, generosity, eloquence, toughness in the face of wrong, and a readiness to forgive, but the biblical narrative can—by offering paradigms of behavior that apply in various situations.
  • And more.

Ultimately, through Story as Torah, readers will discover and be affirmed that God's character—as it emerges in the stories of the Old Testament—is "preeminently marked by tolerance and faithfulness."

  • Title: Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically
  • Author: Gordon J. Wenham
  • Publisher: T&T Clark
  • Print Publication Date: 2000
  • Logos Release Date: 2009
  • Pages: 192
  • Era: era:Contemporary
  • Language: English
  • Resources: 1
  • Format: Digital › Logos Research Edition
  • Subjects: Bible. O.T. Genesis › Criticism, interpretation, etc; Bible. O.T. Judges › Criticism, interpretation, etc; Ethics in the Bible
  • ISBNs: 9780567084910, 0567084914
  • Resource Type: Monograph
  • Metadata Last Updated: 2022-09-30T03:11:44Z
Gordon J. Wenham

Gordon J. Wenham (1943–) is recognized as an expert on the Pentateuch. He studied theology at Cambridge University and went on to do Old Testament research at King’s College, London. He also spent time at Harvard University and in Jerusalem at the Ecole Biblique and the Hebrew University. Along with currently teaching Old Testament at Trinity College, Wenham leads Trinity’s pilgrimages and study tours to the Holy Land. He has held teaching positions and served as visiting lecturer at several institutions around the world.

From 1995 to 2005, Wenham was Professor of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, where he now holds the title Professor Emeritis. Wenham also taught Old Testament at Queen’s University in Belfast.

Some of Wenham’s publications include the volume on Genesis in Word Biblical Commentary, the Numbers volume in the Tyndale Commentaries, the Pentatech volume of Exploring the Old Testament, and the volume on Leviticus in The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament.


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  1. Richard Aaron Thomas
  2. darksweet102



  3. Neji Ouni

    Neji Ouni


  4. Allen Browne

    Allen Browne


    This is a book I've had for years and keep returning to. You probably know Wenham as a good OT commentator. In this book he addresses the broader question of how we approach narrative in the OT and in what way it guides us. Chapter 4 on Judges is worth the price of the book.
  5. Faithlife User


Digital list price: $69.24
Save $34.25 (49%)