The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation
Best 600 page theology book I ever read!
Few 600 page books on theology are intended to help the average Bible student as much as the learned theologian. Even fewer succeed in that aim. But I figured something was special about this book when John Piper encouraged everyone who cared about "meaning" to get this book, because it will "rock your world". Rock my world, it did! And more.
I can't claim this book is an easy read. I had to work my way through parts of it. But the effort was worth it. Sprinkled throughout the book are the kinds of takeaways that can truly change one's life. John Sailhamer unpacks the meaning of texts and shows the relationship between various parts of the Old Testament. I came away with an enhanced understanding of OT Scripture and a greater appreciation for the unity of the testaments. In the following review, I will walk through the book, then I'll focus on Sailhamer's emphasis on authorial intent, the final shape of the canon, the poems of the Pentateuch and some of his conclusions about the meaning of the Pentateuch.
The book begins with a 46-page introduction setting the stage for what will be covered. The scope of what Sailhamer sets out to accomplish with this book is impressive. He is all about "meaning", and showing us how we can go about finding the meaning of something as large as the first five books of the Bible - considered as one cohesive unit, the Pentateuch. Along the way, he offers thoughts on OT theology, and traces a history of biblical interpretation. This sets the stage for his discussions of authorial intent, verbal meaning, and the place of "historical meaning" in biblical texts. Ultimately he is pushing toward discovering the "big idea" of the Pentateuch, as expressed by the biblical author.
Once he introduces us to his stress on finding the author's intent in the final shape of the canonical Pentateuch, he goes about doing fantastic exegesis of the Pentateuch itself. He explores how the Pentateuch was put together and composed, and shows how poetry frames the Pentateuch, offering textual clues to finding the author's emphasis. He then goes on to trace several themes in the Pentateuch, finding corroboration in how the prophets and later authors of Scripture themselves interpreted Moses' foundational books. That's the book in a nutshell, but there's so much more that could be said about it!
Sailhamer sees incredible importance in finding the author of the Pentateuch's intent. He sees both conservative and liberal theologians as having erred in focusing too much on the questions of historicity. To this point, Sailhamer explains:
"The Pentateuch may be compared to a Rembrandt painting of real persons or events. We do not understand a Rembrandt painting by taking a photography of the "thing" that Rembrandt painted and comparing it with the painting itself. That may help us understand the "thing" that Rembrandt painted, his subject matter, but it will not help us understand the painting itself. To understand Rembrandt's painting, we must look at it and see its colors, shapes and textures. In the same way, to understand the Pentateuch, one must look at its colors, contours and textures." (pg. 19)
Sailhamer's history of biblical interpretation focuses on the increased attention paid to the historical background to the OT text. There was an attack on the historicity of Scripture, and Sailhamer acknowledges the apologetic value of historical studies. But they have served to distract OT scholars from their real mission. "Filling in the biblical narratives with additional historical material may teach us things about the events of which the biblical writers were speaking, but the evangelical's goal in interpretation and biblical theology is not an understanding of those events as such. The goal, as evangelicals must see it, is the biblical author's understanding of those events in the inspired text of the Bible (OT)." (pg. 104)
Questions of authorial intent, when it comes to the Pentateuch, inevitably run into the various source theories. This is where Sailhamer parts course and advocates a "compositional approach". Some have read Sailhamer and conclude he rejects a Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, my understanding is different. I'll let Sailhamer explain at some length.
"...an evangelical compositional approach to biblical authorship identifies Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and seeks to uncover his strategy in putting the book together.... As far as we know, the Mosaic Pentateuch is identical with the canonical Pentateuch with only few exceptions.... Two notable examples are the account of the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34 and Moses' final words in Deuteronomy 33. Such comments, though possibly spoken by Moses, were added late in Israel's history, likely as part of a "new edition" of the Pentateuch ("Pentateuch 2.0," in the lingo of today's computer world). Contrary to the prevailing view of biblical authorship, both critical and evangelical, the compositional approach suggests that the Pentateuch was not the product of a long and complicated process of literary growth, but comes to us more or less as an updated edition of a single earlier Mosaic composition. The present canonical Pentateuch is thus an updated version of the Mosaic Pentateuch produced, perhaps, by the "author" of the OT as a whole (Tanak)." (pg. 48)
Such a focus on the "final shape" of the canonical Pentateuch is best suited to a vigorous pursuit of the author's intended meaning given to us through the text. To that end, Sailhamer sees an importance in the poems which frame the narrative sections of the Pentateuch. Gen. 49, Ex. 15, Numb. 23-24, and Deut. 32-33 are all large poems which function as a frame for the stage upon which the narratives of the Pentateuch are played out. These and other poems in the Pentateuch "serve a didactic purpose without being didactic." Sailhamer explains further:
"They are intended as commentary, although, being poetry, what they add to the narrative is not merely commentary, but also the opportunity of thoughtful reflection. The poems, as such, slow readers down and challenge them to reflect on the narrative through the eyes of a poet. Ultimately, the reader is left not with a narrative meaning, but with a poetic one. The reader joins the narrator in filling in the sense of the story. Although this may challenge the patience of modern readers, it adds an essential feature to the meaning of biblical narrative." (pg. 319)
When one looks at these four chief poems, an emphasis on a kingly messiah figure is apparent. Furthermore, three of the four poems are specifically said to be related to "the last days". Sailhamer explores the intertextuality of these poems and other sections of the Pentateuch and even with the Hebrew OT as a whole. He then offers a decisive verdict: the Pentateuch is decidedly messianic in focus. The laws given on Sinai are not central, rather the new covenant Moses foretells and the coming of a kingly Messiah - they are the focal point of the books of Moses.
Following the lead of the poems, Sailhamer finds several important themes in the Pentateuch itself. Some of them sound very much like ideas we find in the New Testament. He sees a stress on a singular "seed" rather than a collective "seed" as the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (and Gen. 3:15), the importance of faith as opposed to a mere law-keeping perspective, and the idea of salvation coming to those who believe and hope in God. Along the way, Sailhamer also explains the Messianic structure in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon (the Tanak) and within the psalter. Three additional points from Sailhamer's book were especially helpful to me.
First, was the discussion of Matthew's use of Hosea 11:1. Sailhamer shows how Matthew's use of the text in Hosea is not entirely novel, as many interpreters believe. Rather, Hosea himself is reading the Pentateuch in a messianic way. Hosea quotes Numb. 24:8, one of the messianic poems which frame the Pentateuch. So he has in mind a messianic application in his use of the text. Matthew is merely following suit. Second, was the discussion of how Gen. 49 and the surrounding chapters about Joseph's story, actually serve to use Joseph as an example of the future kingly Messiah. In other words, the very structure of the Genesis account of Joseph is designed intentionally to see Joseph's life as a kind of type of the future messianic kingly leader who was to come from Judah's line.
Third, was Sailhamer's discussion of the law as being given successively over time and in response to the sin of the Israelites. He revives the earlier teaching of John Calvin and Johann Coccejus based in large part on both Gal. 3:19 and a careful reading of the Pentateuch itself. The golden calf as well as Israelite sacrifices to goat idols (Lev. 17:1-9) are narrative sections that frame different collections of laws. Sailhamer also points out that there were laws mentioned as operative prior to the account of the giving of the 10 commandments even. This perspective merits further study especially as it doesn't fit the mold of either covenant theology or dispensationalism's teaching on the laws of Sinai.
Time prevents me from offering a fuller discussion of these matters. One must get the book and hear Sailhamer out. Even if one differs with some of Sailhamer's conclusions, he must appreciate Sailhamer's exegetical insight and the great care he has to listen to the text itself. Like John Piper implied, Sailhamer cares about "meaning", and so should we. If you do, you will benefit from studying what John Sailhamer has to say on the Pentateuch. You may never look at the Old Testament in the same way again.
This book was provided by Inter-Varsity Press for review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
May 28, 2011
John H. Sailhamer is a well-loved thinker and professor of Old Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary who has already taught and written several books on Old Testament theology and the writing of the Pentateuch. In his newest book, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, he continues his insightful and valuable examination of the Pentateuch. His purpose is the study of the theology of the Pentateuch through exploring the authorship, author's intent and audience, the literary composition of the Pentateuch as a whole, it's theology and revelation of God, and how we may understand and apply the meaning of it as Christians living today; he completely achieves his goal of writing and provides clear understanding to the reader. The book is thick (600 pages) with smaller print and multiple notes to pour over (but not necessary to understand the flow and meaning of the book); it is well-suited as an academic book. It is a thorough and technical analysis (yet personal in style) that requires careful and concentrated reading, but the rewards are well worth the effort. The reader will discover a freshness and richness in Professor Sailhamer's ideas and approach that is made possible through his logically thought out and well-presented thesis. This is a valuable book that provides new perspectives for those already familiar with the topic and good introductory material for those approaching the Pentateuch for the first time.
January 7, 2010