good books This week's Good Book is G.J. Wenham, Story as Torah. Reading the Old Testament Ethically (T. & T. Clark, 2000).
      Wenham begins by noting that while a fair amount has been written on OT ethics in recent years, these works tend to focus on the law-codes of the Pentateuch, the wisdom writings, and the prophets. OT narrative has been comparatively neglected. This is not surprising, for the narrative books are difficult to interpret with certainty: events and actions are often narrated without explicit comment, and it not always clear how the narrator evaluates the things he describes. Yet these books are part of our Scriptures: how are we to apply them?

Two brief opening chapters address the question of method, and consider the ways in which narrative in general (a category so broad that it can include modern fiction and even films) affects us: how does the author convey his viewpoint? What shared values does he presuppose? And so on.

Wenham then focuses on two OT books, Genesis and Judges, and inquires first of all as to their 'rhetorical function': what are the main themes and overall messages of these books? There is no point in trying to interpret individual episodes until we understand what the books as a whole are getting at. The next two chapters, accordingly, survey the main themes of Genesis and Judges, showing how both books can be interpreted as coherent literary entities. Genesis is about creation, the spoiling of creation through human disobedience, and God's plan to restore his creation through the family of one man, Abra(ha)m, whose family will bring blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen. 12:1-3). Judges, set at a later period of history, is about how Abraham's descendants, now become the nation Israel, fared in the Promised Land in the generations after the conquest under Joshua. It is a story of gradual decline, each generation falling further into sin than the previous one, with Israel's leaders, the judges after whom the book is named, also becoming progressively more compromised and wayward. Readers will learn a lot about Genesis and Judges from these two surveys, which address numerous interpretative issues in a clear and helpful way.

The next chapter moves the focus more squarely onto ethics. Wenham notes that it is not enough to consider individual episodes by themselves: we must ask how the context affects our interpretation. Thus, while the reader seems to offer little explicit comment on Jacob's deception of Esau in Gen. 27, which might seem to suggest that he has no problem with Rachel's and Jacob's behaviour, implicit comment comes in Gen. 29, where Laban deceives Jacob in an episode relating to the rights of the first-born, and in Gen. 37, where Jacob's sons deceive him into believing that Joseph is dead, using a dead goat to do so (v. 31), just as Jacob did in relation to Esau (27:16). Jacob is in effect paid back for his deceit, and in ways that remind us of his earlier deceit. And so the wider context makes clear the author's view of Jacob's earlier action: Jacob was wrong to deceive his father. 

It is also not enough, Wenham argues, to use the Pentateuchal law as the sole guideline for interpreting OT narrative. The laws in the Pentateuch were meant to 'set a floor' for Israel's behaviour, a minimum standard below which they should not slip; but the legislators surely hoped that Israelites would aim to do better than the legal minimum. Thus false testimony in court is prohibited (Deut. 19:16-21), but that surely does not mean that 'in other circumstances flexibility with the truth was allowed; that slander, boasting, exaggeration, gossip could be indulged in with an easy conscience' (p. 80). Divorce and polygamy were permitted, but the ideal expressed in Gen. 2 is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. Israel was required not merely to keep rules, but to be loyal to God, to love the LORD with all her heart, soul and strength, displaying attitudes which go beyond anything enforceable by law.

How, then, can we deduce the underlying values of OT narrative? Wenham offers three principles: (1) A type of behaviour that the author considers virtuous is likely to be repeated more than once, so we should look for repeated patterns in the narrative. (2) Virtuous behaviour is more likely to occur in a positive context. On this basis Genesis is more likely to provide examples of positive behaviour than Judges. (3) Other parts of the OT may give us some guidelines, particularly the wisdom books.

On this basis Wenham sketches some of the virtues that Genesis seems to commend, an picture of a righteous person: 'He or she is pious, that is prayerful and dependent on God. Strong and courageous, but not aggressive or mean. He or she is generous, truthful and loyal, particularly to other family members. The righteous person is not afraid to express emotions of  of joy, grief or anger, but the last should not spill over into excessive revenge, rather he should be ready to forgive. Finally righteousness does not require asceticism: the pleasures of life are to be enjoyed without becoming a slave to them' (p. 100). The overarching principle which seems to sum all these virtues up is the imitation of God: to pursue these patterns of behaviour is to model one's own character on God's. And this is not a surprising conclusion: human beings are made in God's image.

There follows a useful chapter exploring two difficult tales in some detail: the account of Dinah's rape and its aftermath (Gen. 34), and the account of Gideon (Judges 6-8). These two episodes have both been interpreted in considerably different ways, and it is helpful that Wenham makes them the basis of a couple of 'worked examples': how do we proceed in the case of morally problematic narratives where the author does not make his opinion plain and more than one interpretation seems defensible?

A final chapter considers NT perspectives, stressing how the NT writers saw Jesus and the church as the continuation of Israel's story described in the OT and, in the light of this, examining how the NT handles such topics as food laws, marriage and divorce, and violence, where it has often been thought that the NT simply sets aside OT teaching. The truth, as Wenham shows, is more complex than that: we must reckon with a considerable degree of continuity between OT and NT ethics, while giving due weight to the great transformation that Jesus has brought about by fulfilling the OT promises.

This is a rich and helpful book, full of insights that repay further reflection. I conclude with Wenham's final paragraph: 'God's character as it emerges in the stories of the Old Testament is… marked by tolerance and faithfulness. That is why St Paul could assure his readers that "whatever was written in former days was written… that by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope' (Rom 15:4). Read sensitively they may still do the same today' (p. 154).                            [PES]

CHAPEL

Chapel on July 30 was taken by Dr Quek Swee Hwa. Using the theme, "My Utmost For His Highest" (taken from the musical based on the book by Oswald Chambers), Dr Quek began by pointing out that Isaiah 35 records the vivid imagery of the transformation of a hostile, unyielding desert into a land of veritable beauty, brimming with life and songs. He reminisced about bringing Bible Lands Study Tour participants to the Ben Gurion Hut at Sde Boker in the Negev. Lying on the study desk  in the humble quarters of that remarkable, visionary former Prime Minister of the State of Israel was a heavily underlined Hebrew Bible opened to Isa. 35. Today Ben Gurion University, named after David Ben Gurion, leads the world in advances in agronomy focussing on conservation of water and energy, rearing fish in subterranean reservoirs in the desert (!), coaxing the parched but rich desert soil to produce a special quality of grape, and other scientific advances. Similarly God can take the desert of our life and bring joy out of it. As a testimony of that, Dr  Quek showed slides and video recording of his recent visit to the Philippines, with ten others from his church. They  visited a drug rehabilitation facility, the House of Hope, in Cebu, and two ministries based in Bacolod, the Student Missionary Outreach, which has an outreach to 300 school campuses from Luzon to Mindanao, and the Afterglow Singers, a music ministry dedicated to evangelism and ministry to the sick and needy. The Philippines is a country rich in natural resources, talents, and beauty. Singapore can do more than employ workers: we have a Gospel debt to pay and it is hoped that we can take up every mission challenge God sends and respond to that as we look out on the ripening harvest fields.   

Chapel on August 6 will be taken by Dr Philip Satterthwaite.

NEWS BITS

  1. DR QUEK will be away from Aug 6-16 on a family holiday in Vancouver, Canada. We wish him God's blessings as his entire immediate family gathers for a time of reunion.

  2. BGST LIBRARY WILL BE CLOSED this Saturday (9 Aug) since it is National Day.

A BLESSED BIRTHDAY TO ... 

Mr Arthur Lee Chong Hui 5/8

Mdm Winnie Chia 6/8

Dr Ang Hui Kheng 8/8

Mrs Susan Lim 8/8

Ms Esther Ong 8/8

Ms Joyce Wee Siew Keow 9/8

flower pot

Ms Teoh Cheng Ping 9/8

Mr Aquila Lee Hyun II 10/8

Mr David Leong Wai Yin 10/8

Mr Lim Song Huat 10/8

Mr Ong Teck Chye 10/8

Ms Ysip Godiva 10/8

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This page is updated on 8 Aug 2003 by Leong Kok Weng
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