Ethical Ideals in Genesis
Wenham points out the admiration for physical and mental toughness (Jacob at Jabbok, Jacob going ahead to meet his family, Abram’s defeat of the four kings, Jacob blessing his sons and their descendants by comparing them to animals that represent strength), but notes that violence and savagery is condemned (Jacob condemning Simeon and Levi, story of Lamech). At the same time, Genesis disapproves of fear, noting that “hardly ever is fear justified and very often it leads to wrong” (citing Abram lying about Sarai, Isaac lying about Rebekah, Lot offering his daughters to Sodom, Lot living in a cave rather than in Zoar). The only two approvals of fear are Jacob at Bethel, and fear of Adam when he sinned (p. 90-91).
He notes that prosperity and generosity are presented positively, though not a virtue, but “grasping at wealth or meanness towards God and man is implicitly criticised” (p. 91-92). Family relationships are held out both positively and negatively (pp. 95-96).
He argues that the long speeches of narratives such as Abraham’s servant to Laban, Judah in Genesis 44, Joseph as an advisor to Pharoah, or Abraham as “an effective and persistent negotiator” indicate that “eloquence and persuasiveness in speech are here being celebrated” (p. 93). Misuse of speech on the other hand is hard to condemn because of the lack of knowledge of cultural conventions and voice inflection (p. 94). In conflict, blame is usually attached to both sides “so that the reader does not come down too firmly on one side or the other. Nevertheless it does implicitly advocate a pacific approach to problems” (p. 95).
He argues that the stories of Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Joseph’s brothers, Abraham and Lot, and Abraham and Abimelech mean that “Genesis is surely suggesting to its readers that they too should forgive even their long-term enemies, if they show sincere contrition” (p. 38). He then argues, “Thus 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 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).
And then, “There are multiple thrusts to the book of Genesis. It is a claim to the land. It is a plea for peace and reconciliation between the tribes. It justifies peaceable relations with the Canaanites in the land, Egyptians, Arameans, Edomites, and others beyond Israel’s borders. It predicts a Judaean royal dynasty, and justifies God’s passing over older brothers in favor of the younger by many examples” (p. 41).
As a result of his view of the polemical and ethical thrust of Genesis, Wenham dates the writing of Genesis to the united monarchy. He rejects the Mosaic period (13th century for Wenham) and thus Mosaic authorship because Israel did not treat the Canaanites with the peace he sees being promoted, and because the land boundaries of Genesis are most closely matched during the Solomonic reign (pp. 41-42). He uses the stories to argue for a claim to the land, peace with fellow Israelites as well as surrounding nations including forgiveness in the wake of the division of the kingdom after the death of Saul, the right of tribe of Judah to leadership, and the passing of older brothers in favor of younger brothers (cf. pp. 38, 39, 41. 73). He argues that “Genesis breathes a spirit of peace and reconciliation” in response to “issues that were alive in the period of the united monarchy, intertribal jealousies, particularly the right of the tribe to Judah to leadership, and relationship with the Canaanites and the surrounding nations” (p. 73).
Evaluation: While he admits that “the message of Genesis does not depend on finding an appropriate setting for it [but] … must emerge from a close reading of the book itself” (p. 43), he depends too heavily on his ethical conclusions and thus dates the book far later than it should be dated. In addition, some of his conclusions, such as the celebration of eloquence in speech, hardly seem to have any merit in the text. Others of his conclusions, such as the call to live in peace with the Canaanite are completely contradicted by later portions of the Pentateuch.