Select Page

Rev. Justin Lee Marple, Niagara Presbyterian Church, purchase this book from
Sailhamer, John H. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Brief Overview of the Book (Theme, Perspective, Approach):

This 612 page (plus indexes) magnum opus has several concerns. One is to make sure that we do not relegate the Old Testament to a substandard status in comparison with the New Testament. He even goes so far as to say that the Old Testament was the early church’s New Testament. Unlike the factions within Judaism, Christianity did not create its own form of the “Hebrew” (portions in Aramaic) Scriptures but accepted it as their Scriptures and added more books to it. This complements his argument that the Old Testament is about a coming Messiah King from the tribe of Judah and the New Testament identifies that Messiah as Jesus. He does not want to read the New Testament back into the Old Testament but rather to read the Old Testament into the New Testament. This means includes seeing how the Old Testament interprets itself before moving to the New Testament. And it is worth noting (as he has a whole chapter about it) that when we are talking about meaning we are speaking about the meaning of the words of Scripture. His focus on the words of Scripture complements the focus of the words of Scripture on the words of Scripture (i.e. Joshua 1 and Psalm 1, cf. Neh 8:8).

As you can already tell, the book is about much more than the meaning of the Pentateuch. Sailhamer discusses the way the prophets and Psalms interpret the Pentateuch. This leads him to describe the compositional strategy and seams of Jeremiah (see pages 404ff and 494ff) and the Psalms (Psalms 1-2, 72, and 145) as he earlier had done the same with the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. The seams of the Hebrew Scriptures even led him to highlight Daniel and the end of Chronicles (two of the last three books in the Hebrew canonical order with Ezra-Nehemiah in between).

The book has one major thesis: the canonical Pentateuch is actually the Second Edition or Pentateuch 2.0 that highlights themes already present in the First Edition. And many sub-theses concerning its interpretation in light of the strategy of the authors. One concerning the theme of faith is that the Pentateuch employs the same strategy as the lament pattern to highlight the importance of faith: emergency, promise, faith, certainty (Gen 15, Exo 3-4 and in reverse as Num 14, and highlighting unbelief in Num 20). One concerning the theme of law is that the various written laws were added after major transgressions. The covenant at Sinai was originally to resemble the one with Abraham — living by faith one would walk according to the stipulations written on the heart. Throughout the discussion Sailhamer looks to the intertextual “learned quotations” and these patterns to see the “intelligent design” of the human author.

Critique (strengths and weaknesses):

Sailhamer offers a very well thought out approach to understanding the Pentateuch. No one can accuse him of shortcutting to easy answers to the complicated issues. And he has clearly wrestled extensively with the approaches of others to the issues (including learned interaction with Vos, Coccejus, Calvin, and Augustine). It would help the average scholar-pastor if he had translated many of the sources he quotes in Latin, German, and etc. But it is obvious that this book is the product of years of study and reflection where he does not hesitate to articulate how his approach disagrees with others.

I appreciate his metaphors for describing the canonical Pentateuch as “the Pentateuch, 2nd Edition” or “Pentateuch 2.0.” The point being that the additions of comments in the narrative, language explaining obscure poetic texts (you can identify them often by seeing the breaks in the parallelism), the additional poem and epilogue at the end of Deuteronomy, and other texts were not random updates but reflect the “intelligent design” of an anonymous author. The purpose of these updates was to accent the relevance of the text for a later generation. Sailhamer is not very clear on the extent of the updating he believes was done, and every time it seems like he is going to make such a conclusion he stops short, instead stressing that his approach is to interpret the present text.

Sailhamer makes lots of interesting observations about the Hebrew Scriptures and reads many of these observations into the New Testament. He believes that the Gospels and Paul, in particular, understand the Pentateuch and how it has been interpreted in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Sailhamer argues that Gal 3:19 and Matt 19:8 understand correctly the strategy of the Pentateuch adding laws after transgressions. And likewise, Matt 2:15 understands Hosea 11:1 correctly in the strategy of that book. These things have been a matter of great debate in scholarly circles and there are many who would beg to differ with his conclusions because their approach to the text is different.

It is definitely a strength that Sailhamer spends so much time on the major poems of the Pentateuch and their learned quotations of the “promise narratives” was an interesting observation. But I am not persuaded by his argument that the Second Edition is a prophetic edition. If this was a major part of the thesis statement (which it appeared to be at the beginning, but I left out above because it did not seem to be in the end) he did not demonstrate thoroughly enough why it would be a prophetic edition rather than a wisdom edition, especially since some of his other writings suggest the latter.

Application (specific, shows just how valuable & relevant the book is):

I found the faith pattern helpful in explaining questions that I myself had about the Genesis narrative. How he suggests that the Pentateuch (which I would call the Torah) compares and contrasts Abraham and Moses is particularly helpful. But the greatest value of this book lies in its tracing of biblical-theological themes and allusions throughout the Scriptures. Pastors need to know their Bibles and need to meditate day and night on the word of God. I found it particularly interesting that the theme seems to be private meditation on the word rather than public. As a pastor, I find myself stressing public meditation on the word in Sunday worship. This is somewhat to correct the belief among many today that one can go it alone in the walk of faith (i.e., without the church). But the text of the Hebrew Scriptures does stress at its very seams, as Sailhamer points out, the importance of individuals studying the word of God day and night. This reminds me that both need to take place and that individual meditation on the word is vital. This is why this book is valuable — it got me to ponder on the word of God and to think about my own presuppositions as I approach the Scriptures.

Representative Quote:

Although the Sinai covenant began as an extension of God’s covenant with Abraham, the Pentateuch is clear that Sinai was to be replaced by another covenant and assigned a new purpose as law for a people tainted by the sin of the golden calf. To be sure, the Pentateuch was not assigned the status of being Israel’s law code. That was a role to be taken over by the laws of the Sinai covenant. The Pentateuch, itself an expression of the hope for a new covenant, was set over against the Mosaic law of the Sinai covenant. This shifting role of the Sinai covenant in the theology of the Pentateuch can be seen already in the beginning stages of the Sinai covenant (Ex 19-24).

When viewed from the perspective of the strategy of its composition and its treatment of the various collections of laws, such as the Decalogue, the pentateuchal narratives present themselves as an extended treatise on the nature and purpose of the Sinai covenant. The author of the Pentateuch is intent on showing that Israel’s immediate fall into idolatry with the golden calf brought with it a fundamental shift in the nature of their covenant with God. At the outset of the covenant, the text portrays the nature of the covenant in much the same light as that of the religion of the patriarchs. Like Abraham, Israel was to obey God (Ex 19:5; cf. Gen 26:5), keep his covenant (Ex 19:5; cf. Gen 17:1-14) and exercise faith (Ex 19:9; cf. Gen 15:6). Though they immediately agreed to the terms of this covenant (Ex 19:8), Israel quickly proved unable to keep it (Ex 19:16-17). In fear, they pleaded with Moses to go into God’s presence for them while they themselves stood “afar off” (Ex 19:18-20; 20:18-21). In response to the people’s fear and disobedience, God wrote out for them the Decalogue, as well as the Covenant Code and the plans for building a tabernacle. As depicted in the Decalogue and Covenant Code, Israel’s relationship with God was based on the absolute prohibition of idolatry and the simple offering of praise and sacrifice. The covenant was still very much like that of the patriarchal period, except that now it had clearly defined stipulations (“the ten words”).

[As Sailhamer continues, he notes that the golden calf incident marks the decisive change to a law with a multitude of stipulations, then the people’s sacrifices to goat idols (Lev 17:1-9)leads to the addition of the Holiness Code. Deuteronomy adds more laws, but then begins to talk of a different kind of covenant (see Deut 29).]

%d bloggers like this: