Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Review: Story as Torah, by Gordon J. Wenham

Over the next several posts, I will post a book review of a book entitled Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, by Gordon J. Wenham (Baker Academic, 2004). The entire review is available in a PDF file.

Wenham’s Essential Premise

“Old Testament books do have a didactic purpose, that is, they are trying to instill [sic] both theological truths and ethical ideals into their readers … Bible storytellers are not advocating a minimalist conformity to the demands of the law in their storytelling, rather than they have an ideal of godly behavior that they hoped their heroes and heroines would typify” (p. 3).

For Wenham, “story” contains “Torah,” or instruction that is to be discerned and then followed. To demonstrate this thesis, he draws on historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism to understand the text. He uses Genesis and Judges as test cases to demonstrate that his thesis works in the text.

Evaluation: Wenham has rightly understood that biblical narrative is not simply story for the sake of story or entertainment. Nor is the biblical author merely writing to convey information. He is writing to convey a theological story, a story in which God is portrayed at work with a definite purpose in the world. The stories included in the text are stories which God has inspired in order to best communicate his story to the world, both the “implied reader” and all others who will read the Bible.

Wenham’s Basic Foundation of Communication

Author > (Implied Author) > Text > (Implied Reader) > Reader

This approach inserts two “fictional” people into the equation.

1. The implied author “projects an image of himself and his attitudes that may differ considerably from what he is like in real life. Usually one suspects that the implied author is better than the real author” (p. 9). With respect to this implied author, Wenham states, “In most Old Testament narrative the narrator is apparently omniscient. He informs the reader what people think, what they do in secret, and most importantly what God thinks” (p. 10). Wenham seems to highlight the implied author over the implied audience when he states, “The central critical problem is to discover the implied author and his outlook” (p. 9).

2. The implied reader is the one that the author has in mind from whom he desires to elicit a response: “A text is essentially a message from an author to its first readers, which the author hoped would be understood and acted on. Because both readers and author shared a common language and culture, there was a reasonable chance that the writer’s intentions would be realised and the message understood correctly. Our distance in time and space from the author and first readers makes it much more difficult to pick up the original sense of the message” (p. 1). Wenham later states, “The writer makes a guess at his reader’s knowledge, experience, and outlook and pitches his presentation to appeal to this implied reader. If a real reader is to grasp accurately what the writer is saying, he must approximate to this implied reader, otherwise he is likely top pick up the wrong end of the stick” (p. 9).

Evaluation: Though this structure has some theoretical merit, it is not altogether necessary since it is normally assumed that the author was writing without revealing everything about himself to an assumed or intended audience without knowing everything about them. Furthermore, it does not seem to further his thesis in any meaningful way since the distinction between the real author and the implied author is indistinguishable. That this implied author has a moral or ethical viewpoint, presumably received or directed by God, is without dispute. The challenge is to determine when the author is inserting his view into the lives or words of the characters as opposed to when the author is letting them speak for themselves.[1]

Wenham is here defending what is essentially the idea of attempting to understand the story in its original context, or trying to understand what the original author would have intended his original audience to understand. The distance and time that separates the modern reader, along with his cultural biases and perspectives make it difficult to become completely objective or completely involved in the story. The implied author and implied reader is the one that we glean from our own background as we come to the text. So Wenham is mostly correct in asserting that we need to understand what the original author (implied or actual) intended his original audience (implied or actual) to understand and to do based on his message to them.

[1] Wenham discusses this on p. 10 with respect to the various speeches in Job.

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