Puzzling Portraits: A Review

While I was in Baltimore for this past year’s SBL/AAR conference, I met A.J. Culp at the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar dinner. A.J. is currently serving as the Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at a startup seminary, Yellowstone Theological Institute. During the course of our conversation, I learned the topic of his Masters thesis: Understanding biblical ethics through Old Testament narrative and the complex characters it presents. Since teach Old Testament narrative at church, and since I was asked to give a series of Q&A sessions on how to read the Old Testament along with my co-teacher, Nathaniel Cooley, I jumped at the opportunity to pick up his book Puzzling Portraits, published by Wipf and Stock. Below is a review of the book.

Puzzling Portraits: Seeing the Old Testament’s Confusing Characters as Ethical Models, by A.J. Culp. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013, 125 p., $16.20.


Handling narrative and the characters they depict is a chronic issue for students of the Old Testament. How should we understand their actions? The easy solution is to write the complexity off by saying, “Old Testament narratives are descriptive not prescriptive.”  We must move away from narrative to imperative to know what God desires from us. After all, the biblical narrator rarely tells his reader whether a character should be viewed as acting righteously or unrighteously. This solution, however, is highly reductionistic. It eliminates, a priori, large swaths of the biblical texts from consideration. Culp, however, looks for the place where narrative and ethics overlap. He suggests the place they meet is character portrayal. Culp writes, “The Old Testament’s portrayal of characters holds the key to unlocking their ethical meaning” (xvii). In the pages that follow, Culp surveys the state of scholarship regarding Old Testament ethics (ch. 1), the “role and significance of narrative in Old Testament ethics” (ch. 2), how to discover the ethical import of individual narratives (ch. 3), identify the tools necessary for conducting the task (ch. 4), an analysis of Judges 7:15-8:33 (ch. 5), and an integration of the methodical and exegetical findings into an ethical interpretation of Judges 7:15-8:33 (ch. 6).

Chapter 1: The Landscape of Old Testament Ethics

Culp analyses the work of four prominent scholars that routinely contribute to the field of Old Testament Ethics: Walter Kaiser, John Rogerson, Christopher Wright, and Waldemar Janzen. Culp’s interaction with these scholars centers around three questions: what is their method, what is the locus of study (narrative, imperative, prophetic oracles, etc.), and how do they bridge the ancient and contemporary worlds?

Walter Kaiser

  • Method: Focuses on the “express commands of God” (3). Kaiser upholds the classic moral, civil, ceremonial divisions of the law.
  • Locus of study: Pentateuchal legal texts.
  • Bridge: Generalizes the principles discovered in the legal texts of the Old Testament.

John Rogerson

  • Method:

    • Contextual nature of law: All cultures have an understanding of what is right and wrong. They do not always agree on these points. The first task is to understand the contextual nature of Israel’s law.
    • The imperative of redemption: Rogerson recognizes that redemption serves as Israel’s motivation to live the good life.
    • Structures of grace: Since Israel was in slavery in Egypt, she is to treat the foreigner and sojourner in her land justly. Culp writes, “Though people of faith today should not mimc Israel’s moral system, they ought to be guided by the central Old Testament imperative of redemption: to emulate God’s deliverance of the oppressed and needy” (6).
  • Locus of study: He utilizes narrative, legal texts, and prophetic oracles.
  • Bridge: Implement formal structures that reflect the grace and redemption God showed us.

Christopher Wright

  • Method: The Old Testament should be understood through the paradigm of God (theological), Israel (social), and land (economical). Of these three points, God is unchanging and fixed point; Israel and the land are intermediate points that reflect God’s purposes at a specific point in history (7).
  • Locus of study: The whole Old Testament, though in practice he uses very few narratives.
  • Bridge: Find the principles and imperatives embodied in the paradigm (God, Israel, land), strip them of their conditional elements, and recontextualize.

Waldemar Janzen

  • Method: OT narrative offers ideal ethical paradigms for living in 5 realms: family, priest, sage, king, and prophet.
  • Locus of study: All of the OT, though focus is give to Gen 13, Num 25, 1 Sam 25, 1 Sam 24, and 1 Ki 21.
  • Bridge: Principles cannot be isolated. They are embedded in the narrative. To remove the context is to lose the baby with the bath water. In learning these paradigmatic ideals, we subconsciously learn what it means to live ethically.

As Culp moves forward, he claims that Wright and Janzen have the best frameworks for approaching Old Testament ethics based on two factors: they both draw broadly from the whole corpus of the OT, and they present the OT in a manner the permits its application to modern believers. Wright and Janzen, though, have certain shortcomings. Janzen fails to bridge the gap to the modern day; Wright neglects OT narrative.

Chapter 2: The Role and Significance of Narrative

Drawing heavily from the works of Gordon Wenham and Robin Parry, Culp asserts two foundational truths in this chapter: 1) “narrative is necessary to biblical ethics” and 2) narrative offers a unique contribution to biblical ethics (13).

Narrative is essential. A large portion of Scripture is written in the form of narrative. Often, even when law is present within the Old Testament, it is framed by narrative. Recall Exodus 20. Before Israel is given the Ten Commandments, God reminds her of his act of redemption on her behalf. Even certain elements of the Ten Words are contingent upon narrative. The command to remember the Sabbath is rooted in the creation account (Ex 20) and in the exodus event (Deut 5). Narrative cannot be so easily discarded as some scholars might like.

Narrative also provides unique elements not present in the law. Borrowing from Parry, Culp writes, “Narrative contributes uniquely to ethics namely in the ways it shapes readers. Four ways have been suggested: (1) by exemplifying virtues or general principles of action; (2) by raising the particularity of specific situations to new heights; (3) by training in emotional perception, which is essential to ethical wisdom; and (4) by refining the very concept of a virtue or duty” (25). Of these four contributes, Culp focuses on the first throughout the rest of the monograph.

For me, the most striking concept of the chapter is Parry’s belief that the law only reveals what the law would tolerate, not what it aspired to. Wenham furthers the thought claiming that the law reveals the floor, narrative reveals the ceiling. That is not to say that in narrative we find perfection. Instead, in narrative we find the outworking of what the law would tolerate in lesser or greater forms. If they are right, and I believe they are, this makes Old Testament ethics a complicated and messy process. Yet, I think this is what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount: The law will tolerate hatred of one’s brother; it will not tolerate murder of one’s brother. Though it will tolerate hatred, it points to something more: the elimination of hatred, which is replaced by love of one’s brother.

Chapter 3: The Use of Individual Stories

Chapter three moves from the importance of narrative to how one assesses individual narratives. Again, Culp uses the work of Wenham and Parry. Wenham’s understanding of virtue ethics, virtue criteria, and rhetorical criticism are of particular importance. Culp joins Wenham’s method with Parry’s concerns for literary method: analysis of scene division and peak. To this, Culp adds dramatic tension, movement, turning point, resolution, character development, theme and characterization. A proper incorporation of literary criticism, rhetorical criticism, and virtue ethics allows the reader to rightly understand the author’s own assessment of his narrative’s characters, and, by extension, how the reader should conduct his or her own life.

Chapter 4: Theme and Characterization

Theme and characterization are essential for understanding biblical narrative. Theme functions as an interpretative guide for readers. Culp writes, “Theme is helpful in that it establishes a center for a wide array of character qualities. It is the common thread that binds together the many strands” (54). After the reader has a firm grasp of a narrative’s theme(s), close attention must be given to the way an author presents characters. This can happen in direct or indirect ways. Direct characterization occurs when the narrator provides a qualitative assessment of the character’s actions. Indirect characterization, the dominant form in biblical narrative, demands a close reading. From what point of view is the story told? Are there interpretive gaps in the narrative? How is dialogue used within the narrative? These are some of the essential factors that must be taken into account when reading biblical narrative.

Chapter 5: Judges 7:15-8:33: An Exegetical Study

Culp begins chapter five with a survey of Robert O’Connell and Yairah Amit’s work on the book of Judges. He then provides his own analysis of the book, drawing heavily from Gordon McConville. Israel was to be a society founded upon the rule of Yahweh and obedience to that rule. Judges chronicles the degradation of the society. The Gideon story serves as a hinge within the book. He is the first judge to be portrayed as complicit in the people’s sins. What follows from this overview is a detailed analysis of Judges 7:15-8:33 using the criteria he developed in the chapter four (rhetorical analysis, literary analysis, etc.). Having analyzed Gideon’s character, he moves to elucidate the ethics of Judges 7:15-8:33.

Chapter 6: The Ethics of Judges 7:15-8:33

Chapter six treats the topics of ethics in Judges, virtue and vice, and how Gideon fails to live the good life. Though Gideon is primarily a negative character, readers are able to reconstruct  an understanding of virtue by closely analyzing Gideon’s vice and how it has led to a corruption of virtue and his ability to live the good life. It is not enough, however, to analyze the act alone in terms of virtue and vice. The individual’s motive also plays a substantial role in the ultimate determination of whether an individual acted virtuously. Culp’s assessment of Gideon’s character centers around these virtues and their counterparts: courage, eloquence, justice, and piety. Courage is the happy mean between cowardice and ruthlessness. The first half of Judges 7:15-8:33 portrays Gideon as a coward. He fears for his life, and he is unconvinced by the word and promises of God (consider the fleece ). The second half of that passage portrays Gideon as ruthless. He seeks vengeance for slights committed against him. He turns the sword upon the tribes of Israel. On the one hand, fear is a symptom of an underlying problem, unbelief. On the other hand, Gideon’s boldness, or ruthlessness, is a symptom of a motive that is driven by worship of self more than worship of God. This was one example Culp provides for how one integrates literary and rhetorical criticism with virtue ethics in assessing a biblical narrative.

Some Thoughts

First, I was a bit surprised that Culp offered little justification for using virtue ethics as an interpretive paradigm for Old Testament narrative. Are there other options? If so, what are textual reasons support virtue ethics over another paradigm? That is not to say I disagree. My own understanding of the Old and New Testaments resonates with virtue ethics. Simply put, I would have liked to see a bit more detail at this point.

Second, Culp’s presentation of Gideon is wholly negative. Much of the book discussed the difficulty of understanding complex characters; characters that are marked by both virtue and vice. These characters pose particular difficulties for biblical interpreters. Why, then, choose one that lacks those complexities? Why not choose David or Solomon? In David’s case, we find the narrator making direct qualitative assessments of his character; we also see David’s life marred by great vice. Wouldn’t he, or a character like him, serve as a better test case?

Otherwise, I found the book to be an enjoyable and informative read. Books like Culp’s constantly force me to reevaluate my understanding of the Old Testament, the message it teaches, and the manner in which I find and make application in the teaching/preaching context.

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1 Response to Puzzling Portraits: A Review

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival XCIV: December 2013 | Cataclysmic

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