The Contribution of Narrative to Old Testament Ethics

BibleGordon Wenham, June 2006

It is of course standard practice among preachers and commentators to draw ethical teaching from biblical narrative. It goes back to pre-Christian practice, and we find examples of it in 1 Corinthians 10, Hebrews 11 and James 5 to mention some of the more obvious NT examples. Older commentaries, as well as popular modern ones, constantly draw moral lessons in discussing these stories.

But in scholarly circles such an approach has been highly unfashionable for the last two centuries: the emphasis on historical criticism focussed attention to the events behind the text, and the genesis of the text, rather than the meaning of the text itself. This meant that the didactic purpose of the texts, including their teaching about ethics, was neglected too. Indeed one popular introduction to biblical interpretation went so far as to declare that readers should not even try to draw moral teaching from the biblical text. [1]

The main issue that confronts the reader of the biblical stories is: who is the reader meant to identify with? Is it with the actors in the story, or with the narrator or more precisely the implied author of the story?

Certain acts in the narrative are so contrary to basic humane principles, let alone biblical principles that it is very difficult to suppose that everything related in Scripture is meant to be positive instruction. Some must be there as a shocking warning. In other words we must discover the outlook of the narrator on the events he is relating, which may be different from that of the actors involved.

Discerning the author’s viewpoint

The beginning and end of a text are often vital to pick up the author’s standpoint. Rimmon-Kenan has written: ‘information and attitudes presented at an early stage of the text tend to encourage the reader to interpret everything in their light.’ [2] Thus the first two chapters of Genesis present a picture of the world as God created it and by implication how he would like it to be. It is a world characterised by intimacy between God and man: he walks in the garden with Adam and Eve. There is no violence between the animals, or between them and humans: they are all vegetarian. Adam is perfectly happy with one Eve: God did not provide him with several Eves or Adams to make him even more content. Heterosexual life-long monogamy is God’s purpose for the human race.

The subsequent chapters of Genesis demonstrate the misery caused when these principles are flouted. Violence between man and beast is an immediate consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring.’ [3] (Genesis 3:15). Their first child Cain turns out to be a murderer. His descendant Lamech boasts of being even more vicious than his forefather Cain. It is the violence of ‘all flesh’, that is of man and beast, that precipitates the flood. Lamech the violent is also Lamech, the first bigamist. The association of bigamy with Lamech does not commend it. Nor does the tragic life-history of Jacob and his sons: the tension between the sons of Leah on the one hand and the sons of Rachel on the other dominates the second half of Genesis.

Likewise the opening chapter of Judges, despite its clipped annalistic style, casts a shadow over the rest of the book. After recording some initial successes by the tribe of Judah, the chapter recounts failure after failure of different tribes in driving out the indigenous inhabitants. Then follows a chapter lamenting Israel’s forgetfulness of the covenant and her embrace of the Baals instead of the Lord. Consequently Israel is oppressed by her enemies and the judges are raised up in response to their cries for help. Thus the sterling deeds of the judges are overshadowed by the message that if Israel had only been faithful to the Lord, their exploits would not have been necessary.

Another place where the implied author’s assumptions often surface according to Rimmon-Kenan is towards the end of a work. ‘The recency effect encourages the reader to assimilate all previous information to the item presented last.’ [4] Thus the book of Genesis comes to a glorious climax in the blessing of Jacob with his vision of the tribes prospering in the peaceful land of promise. The book of Deuteronomy brings the whole Pentateuch to an end with Moses’ vision of the tribes in the land. Canaan is not painted in quite the same colours as Eden, but it is clear that Israel could enjoy the security and bounty that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall as well as God’s continuing presence.

Thus through the opening and closing chapters of Genesis we are given a glimpse of the ideals that inform the writing of the book. Similarly the book of Judges closes, as it began with disappointment, with anarchy degenerating into civil war: the tribes who should be fighting the Canaanites are destroying each other. This book is no triumphalist account of Israel’s progress, but a series of bright moments in an ever-darkening downward spiral. A recognition of this gloomy context of the heroic deeds of the judges should profoundly affect the reader’s attitude to them.

What standard?

But where are the narrators of Genesis or Judges coming from? What are their fundamental moral and theological assumptions that they bring to the telling? Are they, as Sternberg supposes, viewing the events they describe through the lens of the penal law, [5] or are they judging their characters by some other standard?

A close reading of the biblical text suggests that the authors’ ethical standpoint is not just that of the penal law, but a higher standard. The penal law sets a minimum standard of behaviour, which if transgressed attracts sanctions. It regulates slavery and bigamy, but that does not imply that these relationships are seen as ethically desirable. The narrow definition of adultery to which the death penalty applied, sexual intercourse with a married woman by someone other than her husband, does not mean the Old Testament saw nothing wrong with married men having affairs with prostitutes or single women. False testimony in court was punished by the law talionically: the false accuser received the punishment his victim would have received had the false charge stuck. But this does not mean that other kinds of slander, gossip, boasting and so on were approved of. According to Deuteronomy 13, if someone turns to other gods or encourages others to do so, he must be put to death. Idolatry cannot be tolerated in Israel. But clearly the Old Testament hopes that the average Israelite will do more than refrain from idolatry. The Shema urges ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). This is the attitude that is really looked for.

The author’s goal

The Garden of Eden experience was one of human intimacy with God. Genesis mentions that Noah and Enoch walked with God, and Abraham was urged to (5:22, 24; 6:9; 17:1). At their best Noah and Abraham are described as doing exactly what God demanded whatever the cost (6:22; 7:5, 9; 22:16–18). This was the target or ideal that the author hoped his readers would admire and seek to emulate. To encourage such behaviour was one of the purposes of Genesis.

Clearly in the realm of divine–human relationships there is a big gap between the ethical ideals entertained by the writers and the minimum standard set by the penal law. I have already alluded to the gap between the laws governing marriage and the author’s vision of marriage as it ought to be as portrayed in Genesis 2. Clearly marriage is meant to be monogamous and enduring: ‘the man shall hold fast to his wife.’ But even more striking is the preceding clause, ‘a man shall leave his father and mother.’ (Genesis 2: 24) In a world where the fundamental duty of everyone was to honour (that is look after or care for) their father and mother, to leave them and hold fast to one’s wife is a revolutionary statement. This text is not abrogating filial duty towards parents, but it is stating that for the married man caring for his wife is even more important than caring for his parents. It is likely that the author hoped his readers would bear this in mind as they read the story of Abraham abandoning Sarah to the Pharaoh of Egypt and later to the king of Gerar (Genesis 12:10–20; 20).

The grace of God

In these ways Old Testament narratives invite their readers to pursue an ethic that is much more than legal casuistry. Love for God and love of neighbour are key virtues that these narratives inculcate. Yet at the same time these stories show their heroes often fall short of these ideals: in Genesis this often seems to slow down the fulfilment of the promises. But the promises themselves are not nullified by the faults of the patriarchs: The Lord is forgiving and faithful. Similarly in the book of Judges the faults of the judge-deliverers are not overlooked, but these men and women are still used by God. Samson’s disregard for his Nazirite vow lands him in many a strait, yet his final prayer does not go unanswered. Thus it seems to me that recognition of the demanding ethic presupposed by the OT writers has as its corollary that they also believe and teach the grace of God.

Comparisons between Old and New Testament ethics have often been unfair, because it has not been a comparison of like with like. NT ethical ideals have been compared with OT penal laws rather than with the ethical ideals taught by the narratives. The penal laws spell out the floor of acceptable behaviour not its ceiling.

Institutions like slavery, or punishments like the death penalty, are reminders of the fallenness of the world: a world where crops fail and some people commit appalling crimes. But that the Old Testament envisages and provides laws for such situations does not mean that it approves such situations: its goal is still a society where everyone loves the Lord with all his heart and his neighbour as himself.

[1] D. K. Stuart and G. D. Fee, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth.

[2] S. Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, London: Routledge, 1983, p.120.

[3] All Bible quotations from the ESV.

[4] Ibid p.120.

[5] I am referring to those penal regulations, case law, ‘if a man does x, his punishment shall be y’, rather than the ethical injunctions, such as ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.


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Category: News and Reviews

June, 2006

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