Thursday, April 03, 2008

Book Review of Story as Torah by Wenham - Part 4

Ethical Ideals in Judges

His discussion of Judges focuses on the negativity of the period of the judges. “Most of the stories in Judges seem to be told to shock the reader or at least make the reader ask him- or herself about what the character in the tales ought to have done. In other words the narrative embodies a set of values and ethical norms that the reader must somehow tune into if he or she is not to read the stories against the grain, i.e. in ways that are contrary to the message that the author intended to convey” (p. 45). He here argues that while it may be difficult to tell what the author is disapproving of in a book like Judges, it was assumed that the community was close knit enough to share common values about religion and ethics so that spelling out these authorial ideals was less necessary since the reader would likely already share them.

From Othniel, the only judge not criticized, he traces a line of judges from bad to worse to non-existent (“there was no king in Israel”). He therefore asserts that the implicit argument of Judges is about the kind of leadership that would be necessary in the community.

“The book [Judges] therefore poses the question: what kind of leader is required to keep Israel faithful to the Lord, and to give her victory over her enemies? The partial success of different judges in these areas offers glimpses of what a future leader ought to be like, but the book as a whole invites the reader to think about these issues and does not offer pat answers…From its accounts of the various leaders, it would appear that the book of Judges is advocating a leadership with the dual function of military leadership and enforcing justice. But who does the book think may assume such a role? First and foremost they must be divinely appointed” (p. 53).

His conclusion on Judges is certainly justified:

“As in Genesis human sinfulness does not nullify God’s graciousness. Israel may break the covenant, and suffer for it, but God will still hear their prayer when they repent. God’s readiness to answer prayer runs through the book of Judges and relives its otherwise gloomy message. Nevertheless the abysmal state of the nation portrayed in the closing chapters is unresolved. It leaves the readers asking what can be done to put the nation on to a better footing. The last verse of the book, while underlining the critical situation, also hints at a way forward: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (21:25) …

“As a whole the book of Judges appears to be implicitly commending a different kind of leadership: through its portrayal of the inadequacies of the judges it is implying that a king could lead to more fidelity to the covenant within the nation and offer more security from external threats. Nowhere does it give its perfect model for kingship; rather by painting a variety of judges it encourages its readers to reflect for themselves on what the best kind of leader would be” (pp. 58-59).

Evaluation: His treatment of Judges is more cogent than his treatment of Genesis.

Ethical Ideals in the Law Code

Wenham’s third section covers the Law and argues that there is a gap between law and ideal. “A study of the legal codes within the Bible is unlikely to disclose the ideals of the law-givers, but only the limits of their tolerance … The laws thus tend to express the limits of socially acceptable behaviour: they do not describe ideal behavior” (p. 80). In this he notes that what God tolerates is very different than what he desires. The Law merely set a floor for behavior, while the ethical stories raise the bar. At the heart of it was the idea of the imitation of that “held together the network of virtues and ethical ideals that the biblical writers were implicitly promoting through these texts” (p. 109).

“Genesis sets out a very lofty ideal of human behaviour. It does not show its heroes simply keeping the law in their individual actions or illustrating typical human virtues. Rather it sets out a vision of human beings made in the image of God, his representatives on earth, and therefore obligated to try and imitate God in their dealing with one another and with other creatures” (p. 107).

The characters of Genesis both excel and fall short of this ideal, giving a pattern to follow that does not discourage imitation.

Evaluation: One wonders if the Law is really the “floor” of God’s expectations. The NT bears witness to the perfection of the Law, which seems to speak of more than simply a floor beyond which one should not sink. The fact that imitation of God in holiness is a key part of the Law (Lev 11:44), and the casuistic laws do address life in the community of a fallen world seems to warrant a higher view of the ethical codes than Wenham seems to give it.


Jon from Bucksport said...

Interesting. This just struck me. There are certainly some "floor" laws, right? Polygamy and slavery come to mind. It seems that God says, "This is not ideal but if you are going to do A you will not go beyond this." But there is, as you have said, a perfection in the law. A perfection that allows us to talk of Jesus Christ keeping all the law and thus demonstrating his righteousness and exhibiting his right to be the perfect sacrifice. How do we reconcile that? Do we need to try? Food for thought.

Larry said...

I think you are right in a sense Jon. But as I read Wenham, I think he is setting the Law as a whole against the idealized narratives. He is saying, in essence, that the narratives tell us what God really likes or dislikes. The Law simply provides a minimum standard.