Review Article: “The Meaning of the Pentateuch” by John H. Sailhamer (Pt.3)

This is the third and final part of this review article.  Here are the links to Parts One and Two.

I have not bothered to write out a list of errata as they can be found in other people’s reviews and I wanted to get this review done today.  At several places I thought I had read the same material before.  This feeling of deja vu has the author to blame for it.  Suffice it to say, the editing could have been more thorough!

Part Three: Interpreting the Theology of the Pentateuch (419-612)

This final section of the book is, for me, the most impressive part of Sailhamer’s study.  It is comprised of four chapters and a brief conclusion.  Chapter 8 is on, “The Nature of Covenant and Blessing in the Pentateuch”; chapter 9 asks, “Is There a “Biblical Jesus” of the Pentateuch?”; chapter 10 revisits “The Purpose of the Mosaic Law in the Pentateuch”; and chapter 11 is about “The Theme of Salvation in the Pentateuch.”  Every one of these chapters contains great insights into their subjects.

To my mind chapters 8 and 9, which make up one hundred and seventeen pages of text, are a tour de force of evangelical scholarship.  As my students know well, I am convinced of the centrality of the covenants found within the pages of Scripture for an accurate understanding of God’s program in history.  Sadly, most works on the covenants fail either to address the covenants as revelation, or else minimize their influence, often because other theological agendas would be threatened.  One recent work of biblical theology hardly pays any attention to the covenants at all (the works of C.H.H. Scobie and Eugene Merrill are an exception).

The chapter begins by reviewing types of “Promise” theology; namely those of Gerhaardus Vos and Walter Kaiser.  This approach emphasizes the “promise – fulfillment” motif as a way to unify the Testaments.  Although usually not stated in Kaiser’s explicit terms, this way of looking at things is common in evangelical theology.   Sailhamer demonstrates that attempts to forge a promise and fulfillment theology between the Testaments is unworkable, chiefly because the NT concept of “promise” has no counterpart in the OT (421-423).

In Vos’s theology the NT promise themes are read back into the OT, with the OT texts succumbing to the dictates of an inappropriate mold resulting in Vos’s opinion that the lack of literal fulfillment of the OT in the NT ought to lead readers to expect “something more” than “objective fulfillment.”  In short, “Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of [objective] fulfillment.” (425).

A fuller, appreciative (430f.) treatment of Kaiser’s work follows in which the discontinuity of “promise” terminology and themes is highlighted.  Thus, where snatches of such continuance are glimpsed, these are stressed only at the cost of more glaringly prominent terms like “blessing” and “covenant.”  What results is a prescriptive eschatology sustained by reading the Bible backwards (see 605) from New Testament to Old.  Hence,

“the promise that Kaiser has read from the NT back into the OT and of which he has found traces in the OT is one the leads to (NT) fulfillment – a sort of time bomb set to go off at a particular time.  Kaiser does not consider, as Baumgartel does, the possibility of other kinds of biblical promises.  Hence, he, unlike Baumgartel, finds none.” (430).

So the author gives a quick survey of the pertinent parts of Friedrich Baumgartel’s view that “promise” in the OT context involves covenant relationship, rather like marriage vows (431-432).  This presses the oft repeated formula “I will be your God, and you will be my people” into “the covenantal notion of “actualization.”‘ (433).   The center of OT theology is not “promise” but rather “covenant and blessing.”   The NT conception of promise and fulfillment fits within this broad framework without overrunning it.  What Sailhamer sees is this more personal and relational covenantal motif.  

Then the author carries out a lengthy exploration of the key covenantal passage in Genesis 15.  This entails an interaction with Galatians 3:16.  Albertus Pieters is the chosen foil in this discussion, and Sailhamer criticizes him (and those like him) for trying to make the “seed” of Galatians 3 into the Church (442), when Paul says it is Christ, although both singular and collective senses of “seed” are important to Paul (cf. 480).  Within his study of Genesis 15 Sailhamer notices the unique verbal similarities between chapters 14 and 15, which serve, he contends, “to widen the thematic structure of Genesis 15 in the direction of Genesis 1-11.” (451).  This links the promises of Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 15:1-3 together (Sailhamer repeatedly stresses the connection between creation and salvation in the Pentateuch).  I cannot imagine a replacement theologian, if he/she is reading with attention, having an easy time of it in this chapter.  

The follow up chapter picks up on the topic of “the Seed” and looks for “the Biblical Jesus” in the first five books.  Sailhamer notes that,

“The only Bible of the  early church was the OT, and there is little or no indication from the NT that the early church felt shorthanded without the NT.” (462 n.3)  

This observation, coming as it does on the back of a number of assertions by the author about the impropriety of reading the OT through the lens of the NT (e.g. 233, 238, 322, 420, 423, 434, 436.  Also 522-523, 554-555), badly damages the claims of covenant theologians that the NT is needed to correctly interpret the OT!  In line with his previous insistence upon the OT having its own messianic integrity, Sailhamer returns to the four Pentateuchal Poems.  These poems, which refer to “the king” (Gen. 49; Num. 24 [noting the singular pronouns in 24:9]; Deut. 33) who will reign in “the last days” (468), are interpreted thus by the prophets (e.g. Jeremiah, see e.g., 486).  There follows a long exegetical section which tries to demonstrate further connections in the OT with these poetic themes.  Among these is an enlightening examination of Hosea 11:1 and Matthew’s understanding of “Son” in his citation of it in his Gospel (510ff.).  With help from Brevard Childs’s “literal” interpretation of Hosea 11:1 (511-514), he concludes that, “If a messianic eschatology is already thematized by the exodus event in the Pentateuch, then in drawing on that image, the prophet Hosea most likely had a future event in mind much like that of Matthew 2.” (515). 

The length of this review means that I can only give slight mention to Sailhamer’s use of Calvin and his conclusion that Jesus is the true Israel (526, 535).  In saying this he does not make the mistake of discounting the national significance of Israel and its covenant promises.  He believes,

In the OT, membership in the collective “seed” is not established by being engrafted into the collective “seed,” the church as a new Israel, or by being engrafted into biblical Israel.  The church does not replace Israel, but joins alongside Israel as the physical and visible community of those who have put their faith in the individual “seed of Abraham.”  The two entities, Israel and the church, are distinct from each other, yet they are united in the one individual “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:28) by virtue of their common experience of faith and blessing “in him” (cf. Jer. 4:2). (535-536).

From these two chapters (as well as much that has gone before) one wonders how a covenant theologian can possibly endorse The Meaning of the Pentateuch without raising the alarm about Sailhamer’s near explosion of its whole presumptive underpinnings.  That they have done so persuades me that they have not read the book very carefully!  

In chapter 10 the writer turns again to the place of the Law, and starts by critiquing both covenant and dispensational theologies.  He says both approaches have not come to terms with the question of  “identifying the central message of the Pentateuch and the OT as a whole.” (550).  I would agree.  I would also fully agree with Sailhamer’s opinion that “By means of the Mosaic law Israel was preserved until the days of the new covenant.” (561).

The final chapter, on salvation in the Pentateuch, again takes to task both covenant theology (especially) and dispensational theology (less so).  He then revisits a number of important covenant themes to show the role of faith in the Pentateuch.  The Conclusion rehearses some of the author’s major points.  

My general conclusion is that the message of the Pentateuch is not so much about the Mosaic law and Sinai covenant as it is about the prophetic hope of the new covenant… Christians are obliged to read the OT as the OT writers understood it and only then ask how it relates to the NT and the church. (603).

The reader must pay attention to what OT says.  “The biblical authors knew what they wanted to say, and they followed the rules of their language to say it.” (604).  He then refers back to some of his high points.  In his last paragraph he stresses the “twin themes of “creation” and “salvation” [as being] inseparably linked” (612). 

This review has been largely appreciative, and for good reason.  I believe what Sailhamer has accomplished in this work is of great significance.  This does not mean I endorse everything in the book.  I have questions about a number of things.  I would like to know more about the textual status of Jeremiah before following Sailhamer’s line.  I think the promise – fulfillment scheme has some merit, even though I endorse Sailhamer’s basic criticisms.  His graduated Law theory (Decalogue/initial code; Priestly code; holiness code) may or may not be true, but that is for others to decide; and the interpretation of Galatians 3 based on that (“the law was added because of transgressions” = the successive stages as just mentioned) may seem strained to some.  But I’ll let other men argue about those things.  I think that this book is, as I have already said, a flawed masterpiece,  By the end of the book one is left with a hundred ideas swirling around ones head.  Each of them, whether they turn out to be true insights or not, contribute to an expanded awareness and greater appreciation of the genius of the first five books of the Bible.




10 thoughts on “Review Article: “The Meaning of the Pentateuch” by John H. Sailhamer (Pt.3)”

  1. It’s a small world. I’ve been reading “The Messianic Hope – Is The Hebrew Bible Really Messianic?” by Michael Rydelnik where Sailhamer is often referenced. Thanks for the review, Paul.

  2. Dr. Henebury, you said in parts 1 and 3 that it is a “flawed masterpiece”. Aside from the editing concerns and possible disagreements you mentioned above, what were the flaws that you saw? I am just starting to read said volume and would like to know the main weaknesses you picked up. I read all three parts (I think carefully) but I didn’t see any place where you listed the flaws. Thanks for your review.

    1. Michael,

      In the main I was referring just to the poor editing. I strongly recommend the book. Disagreements, are not, of course, flaws. I think this book been neglected because Sailhamer does not leave much room for typology and theological hermeneutics. Instead his work on intertextuality tends to defend a continuity in meaning.

      1. Thank you Dr. Henebury. I am enjoying it so far. I appreciate the recommendation!

        The modern infatuation with types, shadows, etc. is growing tiresome. But as I have begun to read Peters Theocratic Kingdom, Volume 1, it becomes clear that this is nothing new. Sadly, the men who provide the most light often seem to end up left in the shadows of what is popular.

        I wish that people would read, consider, and apply Peters’ exhortation for humble and charitable engagement with opposing views. If it was rare in his day, it is almost extinct in ours!

  3. Dr. Henebury,

    Thank you for your recommendation and review of this important work.

    Forgive me if I put words in your mouth, but it seems that you, Dan Philips, Tony Garland, and many other have expressed that it is a chore to read. Especially with the critical and repetitive parts

    Would you recommend reading the whole thing through, or just specific parts of it?

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