Tribute to John Sailhamer: Review of His Meaning of the Pentateuch

The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John Sailhamer (IVP, 2009, 632 pp.) was the most stimulating and insightful book on the Bible that I read in the decade of 2000-2010. Sailhamer boldly went where most fear to tread in his proposal about the textual composition of the Pentateuch and the entire Hebrew Bible – as well as their implications for a theology of the OT. He argues for a two stage composition of the Torah (styled Pentateuch and “Pentateuch 2.0”), with Moses the arranger/author of the vast part and an unnamed prophet/author at the end of the OT period who brings the Pentateuch into the realities of the time that had elapsed since Moses. This author provided the textual updating needed for some anachronistic place names (“Dan” in Gen. 14) but goes much further by the arranging of key poems at significant seams in the Torah (Gen. 49; Deut. 33) which explain previous poems and make Messianic connections clear. Not only does Deut. 34 describe the end of Moses’ life, but the later author acknowledges that the promise of a Messianic prophet in Deut.18:15-18 had not yet been fulfilled at the end of the “OT era” (Deut. 34:10-12).

Sailhamer argues that the three fold division of the Hebrew Bible into the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (Torah/Nevi’im/Ketuvim) was theologically intentional rather than simply reflecting a historic development. The author latched onto the references to meditating on the Torah day and night in Josh. 1:8 and Ps. 1:2 as appropriate locations in the seams between the first and second and between the second and third divisions. Furthermore, all three sections end on a Messianic note with the hope of a prophet unfulfilled in Deut. 34:10, the promise of the Messiah’s forerunner Elijah in Mal. 4:5 and the lack of a final fulfillment of Cyrus’ decree in 2Chron. 36:23. Readers should remember that the Hebrew Bible ends with Chronicles.

In my opinion, Meaning was Sailhamer’s magnum opus. His argument for an intentional compositional strategy by the “author-maker” of Pentateuch 2.0 will challenge any evangelical to come up with a better explanation of the textual phenomena.

Another of Sailhamer’s contributions is his recognition of a creative intertextuality between the authors of the Prophets (Nevi’im)/Writings (Ketuvim) and the Pentatuech. He offers some very persuasive evidence that later Biblical authors engaged in serious reflection on the Pentateuch in their prophetic books and psalms. Sailhamer points out far more literary links than we often have recognized. He also points out the many innertexual links within the Pentateuch (some traced to Moses and others to that intentional later “author”). He also uses the term intextuality to indicate the links within an extended passage (30, 336, 444, 492, 499). The intertextual connections that he discovers between Balaam’s poem (Num. 24) and Noah’s poem (Gen. 9) leading to the Table of Nations (Gen. 10) is simply a brilliant analysis (337-41). The same can be said for his creative explanation of Matthew’s (2:15) use of Hosea’s (11:1) statement about God calling his son out of Egypt. He settles for neither an “out of context” explanation nor for a “typical” explanation, but defends the idea that Hosea intended to convey what Matthew saw him conveying – a Messianic meaning in the text. This is only one of Sailhamer’s arguments for a thorough Messianic theology that also drove the Biblical authors in “making” their books (Eccl. 12:12).

In this regard, I personally was also very pleased that Sailhamer expounds such texts as Gen. 49:8-12; Num. 24:7-9; Psa. 2:2; 1Sam. 2:10, and Dan. 9:26 as undoubtedly Messianic and not just “Davidic” as is often the case with many modern evangelical scholars. Some study Bible notes authored by those who affirm the possibility of predictive prophecy often ignore or deny the Messianic significance of these passages. There is no hesitation in that regard with Sailhamer! He even shows how these Messianic texts reveal a compositional “Messianic strategy” by the authors.

Our author also stresses the priority of a textually based canonical reading of the Pentateuch over a historically based reading. This is one area where he will be misunderstood , but Sailhamer is not attempting to cast doubt on the historicity of the underlying events in the text. Rather he is calling for more attention to how the Biblical author conveys that event, because that is what later authors are concerned about. We should not be as concerned with the history behind the text as with how the author conveys those events through his text. There are echoes of agreement here with Brevard Childs’ canonical criticism, but Sailhamer advances Childs’ arguments with an evangelical thrust.

It is Sailhamer’s treatment of the role of the Mosaic law that will probably be his most lasting contribution. Although hinted at early on and explained over and over, he finally devotes an entire chapter (537-62) to this subject. He revives the view of Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho that Trypho’s ancestors brought upon themselves the burden of the Mosaic law by their sin with the golden calf (Exo. 32). God’s intent at Sinai was not to impose a set of laws, but to covenant together with His people on the basis of their Abrahamic faith (Gen. 15:6; Exo. 14:31; 19:8). When they at first hesitated in fear before the mount and later apostatized, He added the Book of the Law and the Law for the Tabernacle-Priests (Exo. 34 – Lev.16). When they sacrificed to goat demons (Lev. 17:7), He added the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26). Deuteronomy actually anticipates the New Covenant. He makes much of Deut. 29:1: “These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.” He finds justification for this approach in the thought of Justin, Irenaeus, John Calvin and Johann Coccejus. His Biblical argument is based on later passages in the Prophets (Jer. 7:22-23 and Eze. 20:19-25) as well as in the NT: Gal. 3:19 (“the law was added because of transgressions”) and Heb.12:18-25.

There is much more, especially some interesting comments on the significance of the two versions of Jeremiah reflected in the Masoretic text and in the shorter Hebrew vorlage of the LXX (162-71). Readers should also resonate with his proposal that the “Big Idea” in the Pentateuch is living by faith and not obeying codes of laws (563-601).

I am hesitant to mention my biggest concern about the book. In my opinion, the book is simply too long because of its many repetitions. Sadly this may discourage some readers from profiting from what Sailhamer writes, because he does have something very important to tell us. It is a brilliant clarion call for a fresh approach not only to the Pentateuch but to the entire Hebrew Bible. I recommend that you read a book that will make you think and also re-think some traditional ideas about the Book. We will be better off if we heed his call rather than reject it out of hand simply because it is different.

William Varner




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