Review Article: “The Meaning of the Pentateuch” by John H. Sailhamer (Pt.1)

Review of John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, 632 pp., pbk.

John Sailhamer has been writing on the Pentateuch for many years.  He is the author of The Pentateuch as Narrative, Genesis Unbound, and the EBC entry on “Genesis”.  He is held in high regard by his evangelical peers, especially for his work in this area, and this book was eagerly awaited.

It is hard to know where to start with a work like The Meaning of the Pentateuch.  It is unmistakably a notable publication.  There is so much creative thinking in the book that it really could be argued that it has the power to create a shift in biblical studies if taken as seriously as it should be.

Having said that, it needs to be recognized that this is the sort of book which some scholars are not going to like.  One reason for this is because Sailhamer interacts a good deal with older OT scholars, especially from the Continent.  Another reason is because he does not interact with them.

What we have here is an important book, albeit a flawed masterpiece.  A bit of a chore to read, but worth every effort.

1. Initial Remarks

The book is comprised of an Introduction and then eleven chapters in three Parts.  The Introduction cannot be skipped.  In it the author surveys the territory to be covered and provides useful methodological clues.  It does its job of anchoring the body of the work well.
What is refreshing about this book is the way Sailhamer keeps coming back to the text instead of deferring to the academy.  This in fact, is a little disorienting for those of us used to plowing through footnotes for interaction with the latest scholarly proposals.  Sailhamer doesn’t do much of that in this book, being content to make rather broad-brush statements about evangelical trends in general.  As such this work presents an interesting paradigm.  That Sailhamer knows his contemporaries is quite clear from his other published work.  It is sobering then that he felt no compunction about arriving at his conclusions using another method.  This was a bold thing to do.

The author’s concern is to understand the Pentateuch, and its importance for the rest of the Bible, but he does not feel constrained to follow the “new is true” tack which so often ignores the great works of the past.  How good it was to encounter a modern OT scholar who reads Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Hengstenberg and Havernick and Delitzsch!  How nice is it to be presented with some of the funds from Cocceius and Vitringa.  One wonders, for instance, how many scholars of today have trawled through Hengstenberg’s huge Christology of the Old Testament?  Well, this author has, and he uses the 19th Century German conservative effectively in helping him in making his case.

2.  Part One: Approaching the Text as Revelation (pp. 59-218)

Sailhamer begins this section by stating that he is going to present a “classical view of revelation” (62) which gives an affirmative answer to the question of whether the OT speaks as something much more than a historical book for today.  He writes,

To speak about the OT as revelation is not merely to speak in the past tense.  If God has spoken and his voice is heard in the text of Scripture, there is no reason why that Word should be limited to the past…  It is in this sense that the OT continues to be a revelation of God’s will.  This kind of theology of the OT thus seeks to present and proclaim God’s Word “as it is written.”  The task of OT theology implied in such a definition is inherently normative because it takes up the idea of revelation as an act initiated by God though it continues to seek to be a theology like any other.

Because it focuses on the text of Scripture, the aim of this kind of OT theology is not Israel’s ancient religion as grounded in the Sinai Covenant.  It’s aim is Israel’s “new covenant” with God as grounded in the message of the OT prophetic writings. (66).

The import of this understanding of what he is doing is often asserted in the book, and the reader is often reminded that Sailhamer is presenting a theology which grows out of an insistence that we have God’s Word first and foremost, and only secondarily a set of historical reports.  Thus, the words of Scripture must be allowed to mean what the Author (and the authors) meant when they wrote them (87).  This part of the book is challenging to say the least.  One feels a bit like Sailhamer is hammering away furiously at a point but not really arriving at it.  He spends the better part of a hundred pages surveying the fortunes of the grammatical-historical method.  We run into Ernesti (not surprisingly for those acquainted with Sailhamer, though reoriented via Moses Stuart), Schleiermacher, and the conservatives who responded to his attack on the OT (while being tainted by it to some degree according to our author, 131, 139-140, 143), then Geiger and others.  

It would have helped greatly if Sailhamer would have proposed his thesis about differentiating the author’s meaning from the meaning of the historical events themselves in a clear and unambiguous manner, but that is not his strong suit.  When a fairly straightforward explanation does appear (in chapter 4), one is almost too exhausted to attend to it. His point about the importance of distinguishing the biblical author’s meaning as found in his own words, and the situation (“things”) to which he was referring serves as his apologetic for his approach.  The events themselves bear a meaning which, while not unimportant, are not primary (e.g. 88, 92, 98, 100, 138, 149).

Some people might feel a little hard-done-by by being included in the number of those who, “understand the biblical narratives by viewing them as if they were the “historical” events themselves.” (100, cf. 550).  However, the author does not specify modern examples (perhaps to keep things less personal), so all ought to at least try to digest the criticism and either try to avoid the error or else explain why it is not an error.  What he wishes for is simply to “keep our eye on the author and follow him throughout his work.” (154).  He illustrates what he means by noting that the author of the Pentateuch “writes for more than sixty chapters before making any mention of or reference to the Mosaic law.”  With due respect to our Sabbatarian brothers I think he has a good point (see also 298ff.).  We should not be so quick to equate the Pentateuch with the Law of Moses.  They are not the same thing.

To jump ahead a little, one of the writer’s main emphases is that while the original Mosaic Pentateuch might have been oriented more towards the Law, the revised Pentateuch (he calls it “Pentateuch 2.0”) was “recast” after “most, if not all, of the [OT] Scriptures were complete.” (202. Cf. also 292f.).  If true this has important implications for questions of OT canon formation (203); a subject in which evangelicals have not made many recent contributions.  Thus,

In the OT canon, the Mosaic Pentateuch has become the canonical Pentateuch.  The OT canon does not aim merely to provide us with a Mosaic Pentateuch to satisfy our curiosity.  The canonical Pentateuch is the Mosaic Pentateuch to the extent that it is by means of the canonical Pentateuch that the original Mosaic Pentateuch has been preserved and interpreted. (206. My emphasis).

Not everyone will be convinced with Sailhamer’s “Pentateuch 2.0” position on “compositional strategy”, but this reader thought it answered a lot of questions for him and is a notable hypothesis. 

Even so, – returning to the earlier point, the writer says, “the big idea of “faith” helps us to see what is most important to the author.” (156).  And the author includes the vital note (of real interest to readers like myself):

In writing the Pentateuch, its author explains God’s world to the readers.  Without the Pentateuch, we would know the world only as we see it.  By means of the narrative of the Pentateuch, we see the world as God sees it, and we are invited to live our lives in that world.” (158). 

Then come some critical observations on the way evangelicals like G. Vos and W. Kaiser have assumed that Moses wrote down the Pentateuch rather than composed it.  This assumption runs into difficulty when one introduces the matter of source material from which Moses selected and around which he wrote his narratives. (e.g. 185-189).  From here he introduces Hengstenberg as a foil.  His influence led evangelicals generally to overlook the question of composition and concentrate on the fact that Moses wrote the first five books (196).  Sailhamer is a strong proponent of Mosaic authorship (e.g. 200), but he stresses that it is important not simply to view Moses as a kind of secretary, writing down facts which were always known the way they appear in the Torah, but as an author in the real sense of the word.  When this is done one is more inclined to search for thematic clues in the narrative.  This leads him into a detailed exploration of final composition.

Part Two: Rediscovering the Composition of the Pentateuch within the Tanak (221-415)

I shall not dwell on this section for long.  For one thing I think I have already provided a sense of the direction of the author’s reasoning.  For another, this review would grow too long and I am eager to comment on Part Three of the book.

This section includes studies of many verbal links between passages in the Pentateuch and the prophets.  He notes that this intertextuality was actively discussed in OT times.  Further, the Messianic applications of prophetic writings are shown to be a deliberate result of “text and commentary” (238, cf. 245f.).  Many examples are given; a particularly interesting one being Hannah (254).  Then comes a long discussion of the “making” (crafting?) of biblical books.  After that a terrific discussion of “The Structure of the Pentateuch” which actually concerns itself primarily with Genesis 1-11, noting the deliberate pattern of using “interpretive poems” with “blocks” of narrative.  Once he is confident that he has made his case for the first eleven chapters he extends it to the entire Pentateuch.  This leads to him introducing his findings of the four main poems in the Pentateuch (324ff.).          

Sailhamer places a lot of stress on the four Pentateuchal poems (in Gen. 49; Exod. 15 (less so); Num. 24; Deut. 33).  His contention is that these poems take up the thread of hope in the coming Seed and thus point beyond the Mosaic Law and to the New covenant.  If this thesis is to have any traction it has to be theorized that some kind of informed steering process was undertaken at the close of the OT period to make the whole thing point to this hope.  This is the “compositional strategy” which Sailhamer argues for.

I have a lot on my plate right now, but I shall endeavor to have the next part of this review up soon.

Part Two here


9 thoughts on “Review Article: “The Meaning of the Pentateuch” by John H. Sailhamer (Pt.1)”

  1. Thanks for the review Paul. I received The kindle edition of this work for Christmas, but have not had time to dig into it yet. I must venture to say however, being near the end of working through Blombrrg’s work on ‘The Reliability of the Gospels’ that I have grown both weary and leery of various composition theories which place a large degree of crafting motivation with the human author. I would seem, especially in the case of New Testament studies, that the more various academics study the books, the more inspiration takes a back seat to their understanding of how he material came about. Too often, I’m convinced, the motivation of the Spirit is denied in favor of human ingenuity. Especially in regard to the Book of Revelation where all sorts of strange notions abound concerning the notions which John ‘purposed’ in crafting the work. This is simply at odds with the statements concerning the origin and purpose of the book itself. One wonders what these same academics would attribute for the sources and design of passages like Isaiah 53 or Ezekiel 10!

  2. Tony,

    You are right to be wary of composition theories in the Gospels. They are often built upon speculations which were unknown for 1,800 years. But the Pentateuch is different in this regard, as I shall try to show in Part Two. I have my reflections to follow,


  3. Then there’s John Frame’s idea of inspiration, which is more Biblical (i.e. Calvinistic) than the Arminian construction. He doesn’t envision Author A as necessarily walking along, minding his own business, when suddenly the Spirit grabs him and impels him to write something he otherwise never would have written. Rather, in God’s eternal perspective, sovereignty and wisdom, in creating, electing and redeeming Author A, he formed the exact person who would write the exact words that He wanted written, under His ongoing confluent work in that prophet’s life. (Not that this rules out experiences such as recorded by Ezekiel and John “the Revelator,” for instance.

    Oh, and BTW, I labored through the book as well. That is the correct verb: “labored.” I studied some under Sailhamer, loved him, loved the class. But wow, was this book a chore to read.

    1. Dan,

      I think Frame’s view has real merit. But as you say, one cannot neglect the Spirit’s “confluent work.”

      I do hope your good wife is improving btw. May God bless her with health and strength.

      Your brother,


    1. Hello bibchr,

      Thanks for your clarification, although I didn’t take your comments in that light at all. My comments regarding inspiration probably came across as unbalanced — partly because I was reacting the the nearly constant stream of academic assessments of how passages came down to us which are, in my view, quite a way apart from what the Bible itself reveals in that they attribute most to human ingenuity and design devoid of the leading of the Spirit. I found your description (relating to Frame) very close to how I see it too. And of course we would all agree that different texts will have different amounts of human ‘planning’ (e.g., Luke, Acts) in the mix than others (e.g., the more prophetic portions which contain much that the author had know way of knowing and probably never considered ahead of time).

      1. (One of these days I’ll learn to take the time to proof my comments before hitting ‘post’ … ‘know way of knowing’ should be, of course, ‘no way of knowing’. Sigh.

  4. There you go, yes. I always bristle a bit when someone flatly denies dictation, and want to point out that some parts are just exactly that;and others almost seem to want to deny the human element, to which your allusion to Luke 1:1-4 is a perfect response. Inspiration is like Scripture itself, isn’t it? Not just one big blue featureless canvas, but an intricate and varied mural.

    1. Yes indeed, and this characteristic of intricacy and variation (with simplicity) is the hallmark of God in every area of life; i.e. in all His works, whether one is speaking of dictation in part to Moses or Habakkuk or John (I fully agree there), and in all the other examples of the way special revelation has been inscripturated, but most if not all the manifestations of His working.

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