The Meaning of the Pentateuch:
Revelation, Composition and Interpretation
John Sailhamer (IVP, 2009)Blurb Review by Paige Britton
Review by Paige Britton
This significant volume represents a lifetime of research and writing on the Pentateuch (and the Tanak as a whole), and readers familiar with Sailhamer's earlier works will recognize many of his characteristic themes and theories. Here they are developed and defended in more detail, as the author elaborates on his observations of what he calls the "compositional seams" of the text of the Old Testament. According to Sailhamer, these "compositional seams" communicate a theological and eschatological message about a coming King from the tribe of Judah, and the importance of faith for salvation. In this review, I will describe the features of this fascinating book, Sailhamer's major conclusions, and the challenges his views raise for contemporary Christian scholarship.
Sailhamer's 610-page volume is divided into three major sections and eleven chapters, framed by a significant introduction and conclusion. In Part One, "Approaching the Text as Revelation," the author locates his approach historically among representatives of biblical and evangelical scholarship, identifying himself with those who hold to the inspiration of the biblical text but distancing himself from those who-even in evangelical circles-feel the need to go outside the text (to historical events and/or an ANE literary context) to determine a human authors' meaning. Part Two explores the compositional structure of the Pentateuch and places it within the compositional context of the Tanak. Part Three delves into specific biblical defenses of themes such as covenant and blessing, the "biblical Jesus" of the Pentateuch, salvation, and the purpose of the Mosaic Law in the Pentateuch.
The Meaning of the Pentateuch gained sudden popularity with evangelicals soon after its publication when pastors Mark Driscoll and John Piper both enthusiastically endorsed it, although they came to different conclusions about its reading level. Driscoll identified it as a book custom made for "theology geeks," while Piper insisted that anyone with at least a high school education could (and should) profit from it. I have to side with Driscoll on this evaluation: although Sailhamer writes in a reader-friendly style, frequently illustrating his ideas with apt and appropriate analogies, this book is quite dense with thoughtful material, often slow in its progress to a given point, and sometimes downright tedious in a wandering, academic way. If you have the time and the motivation to stick it out, it is a highly rewarding read-but I imagine many a quickly-purchased copy is now quietly resting on a shelf with a bookmark at about page 235.
Though I can't hope to do justice here to all of Sailhamer's salient points, three stand out from the beginning as particularly important:
(1) The significance of "compositional seams." Sailhamer's insistence on a "textually immanent" approach to the Old Testament narrows his focus to a discussion of how historical events were recorded, rather than stopping at the historical events themselves. That is to say, without denying the historicity of the events recorded, he is interested in the text of the Pentateuch as a made thing, a product of literary craftsmanship and decision-making on the part of an author (and perhaps a like-minded later editor). Sailhamer is thus most excited about finding evidence of "intelligent design" in the structure of the book, especially at the junctures where major sections of narrative or law are joined together. He observes that at these "compositional seams" the author has frequently employed poetry to point the reader to significant themes and specific theological interpretations of events (more on this below). Careful readers who have themselves been shaped by the structure of the Pentateuch will read its content in light of these highlighted meanings.
(2) The OT as a "searchlight." Those of us who are drawn to biblical-theological approaches to the Bible are familiar with the idea of progressive revelation, and the concept of "reading the Old Testament with New Testament eyes." On this view, the New Testament is like a searchlight that illuminates the typological figures and events in the Old Testament so that one can at last see where all those odd details of God's plan were heading. In fact, without the New Testament's retrospective illuminating function, the Old Testament remains mysterious, its deeper meaning essentially inaccessible and obscure.
Not so, says Sailhamer! For those readers who paid attention to those "compositional seams," the Old Testament taught the very same theology and soteriology as the New-so much so that for the early church the Old Testament was for a while the its Bible, supplemented only by the specifics of Jesus' life and ministry. Tracing in the Pentateuch and the Prophets themes such as justification by faith, the failure of the Mosaic Law, and salvation via a representative sacrifice, Sailhamer recasts the Old Testament as the searchlight that makes sense of God's new move in the Messiah Jesus. First-century readers such as Anna, Simeon, and Paul were able to recognize and (in Paul's case) elaborate on events precisely because their expectations had been shaped by the meanings already available to them in the Tanak.
(3) Justification by faith (and the object of that faith). Which brings us to the matter of the content of the Pentateuch's theological message, and the specific meaning that is available to the careful reader. Unsurprisingly, Sailhamer draws a wealth of wise insights from the first five books of the Bible; but chief among them is the idea that the author of the Pentateuch wishes us to learn that we are saved by faith, not works. The "hero" of the Pentateuch is Abraham, not Moses; and the lengthy legal passages are part of an authorial strategy to present the Law as definitively having failed in light of Israel's sin. The material found in the "compositional seams" directs our attention again and again to the Abrahamic covenant-the "blessing to the nations" -as well as to an eschatological King from the tribe of Judah, who is, ultimately, the object of this saving faith. In essence, the meaning of the Pentateuch is "Pauline"-not, Sailhamer says, because we read Paul back into the Old Testament, but because his gospel message was already there to begin with.
Some Challenges and Concluding Thoughts
As contemporary evangelical theologians begin to interact with Sailhamer's latest work, one would hope that they would give exacting attention to the unique proposals he offers in this book. Do the so-called "compositional seams" exist, and do they convey the consistent meaning that Sailhamer identifies-or is this just wishful thinking and eisegesis on his part? Is his account of the presence of legal material as an authorial strategy that showcases the Law's failure satisfactory, or does it fall short of explaining the sheer volume of statutes and ordinances? Is Abraham the hero of the Pentateuch, and is the meaning of the Pentateuch "Pauline" -or is Sailhamer unconsciously reading Paul back into the OT?
John Sailhamer's obvious love and respect for the biblical text and its Author, coupled with his diligent attention to detail and his scholarly investment in this lifelong project, compel us, I believe, to take seriously his ideas and test them thoroughly. If he is correct in the majority of his claims, he has offered the believing community an exciting exhortation to study the books of the Tanak with new eyes. Even if his proposals are shown in the future to be unsatisfactory in one way or another, his continual reminder to attend to the text should echo within us in our own times of study. Like the elderly scholar depicted by Rembrandt in the painting on the book's cover, Sailhamer invites us to ask, "What do the words say? Why are they arranged just so? What was the author up to?" -these are indeed worthy questions for all times.
Conference Speaker, Writer, Christ-Follower
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature