Volume 36 - Issue 1

Review Article: Magnum Opus and Magna Carta: The Meaning of the Pentateuch

By Stephen Dempster


John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch is clearly the magnum opus of this great scholar’s accomplishments over the last three decades and perhaps a Magna Carta for evangelical interpretation. The book’s title succinctly expresses the thesis. It is about the essential meaning of the Pentateuch, which is not just ancient historical literature but divine revelation.

John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch1 is clearly the magnum opus of this great scholar’s accomplishments over the last three decades and perhaps a Magna Carta for evangelical interpretation.2 The book’s title succinctly expresses the thesis. It is about the essential meaning of the Pentateuch, which is not just ancient historical literature but divine revelation. The meaning of the revelation is determined by the distinctive compositional structure of this central biblical text, a meaning that is reinforced and clarified by later prophetic editors and interpreters who integrated it into the completed canon of Scripture. Thus, the Pentateuch is divine revelation, which bears the marks of careful literary craftsmanship and later prophetic interpretation and canonical adaptation.

There is a gold mine of information in this book, which is the result of the author’s many years of painstaking and fruitful study of this part of the Bible. In some ways this book is a compendium for much of the author’s distinctive themes and terminology: text versus event, literary strategy versus literary strata, Pentateuch versus Mosaic Law, Abraham versus Moses, poetic commentary versus narrative progression, Pentateuch 2.0 versus Pentateuch 1.0, big idea versus smaller details. Whatever one thinks of this book, it needs to be part of the conversation of Pentateuchal studies in the future, particularly among evangelicals. Personally, I have found it refreshing to read a volume on the Pentateuch concerned with the final form of the text’s surface structure rather than the layers of literary strata beneath it.

1. The Big Idea of the Meaning of the Pentateuch

The book consists of three major sections: Approaching the Text as Revelation, Rediscovering the Composition of the Pentateuch within the Tanak, and Interpreting the Theology of the Pentateuch. But rather than showing how the thesis is developed in each section, I would like to consider the big idea of The Meaning of the Pentateuch, to which all other themes are subordinate. Sailhamer argues that the central, controlling idea of the Pentateuch is soteriological: human beings are made righteous before God by faith and not by the works of the Law. Thus Paul was not reading justification by faith into the Torah but reading it out. Similarly, his belief that Jesus was the seed of Abraham who would bless the world was not imposed on the OT data but emerged from a careful study of the Pentateuch. According to Sailhamer, a close reading of the text reveals a complex literary strategy that was used to convey an eschatological hope in a future king from the line of David who would someday bless the world. The larger structure of the Tanak itself and at least one particular arrangement of the Writings consolidated and confirmed this big idea. Thus, Sinaitic Law and the Mosaic Covenant should not be confused with the meaning of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch points out the failure of these and shows the need for a new covenant in which faith is operative.

How does Sailhamer arrive at this big idea? It is not “rocket science.” He argues that a close reading and rereading of the text, a meditation on the Torah day and night, will yield a picture that stresses the importance of faith and the failure of the Sinai project of law. This idea provides “the best explanation of what is actually there in the text of the Pentateuch” (p. 29). If one imagines that the Pentateuch is a stereogram, it is almost as if the three-dimensional figure of faith emerges from a patient observation of the surface features of the text. The resultant picture shows the relation of the major sections to each other and the clear purpose for their specific arrangements. Also emerging are structural patterns in which larger and smaller sections of narrative are followed by poems, which function like songs in a Hollywood musical, providing commentary on the unfolding drama. Key texts become visible, and they serve as hermeneutical signposts in the text pointing to the larger meaning that is developing. The results are arresting. If the Pentateuch is supposed to be all about the giving of the law as is often popularly understood, why is there no mention of the law for the first sixty or so chapters? Why does Moses, whose name is virtually synonymous with Law, never enter the land of promise, while Abraham, whose name is synonymous with faith, walks freely throughout the same land? Why is a whole generation excluded from the land except two individuals who demonstrate faith in God’s promise? Why do major sections of the law appear after major transgressions of the people? Why is there such a coincidence of law and sin and faith and righteousness? Any explanation of the final form of the Pentateuch has to provide explanations for questions like these, and for Sailhamer the soteriological explanation is the one that works the best.

If faith is the big idea, in what particular promise were the Israelites to place their faith? Again, key poems placed in strategic locations in the Torah indicate that the Israelites expected a king from the line of Judah who would defeat the powers of chaos and restore creation. Later editors confirmed this understanding and inserted the eschatological term “in the latter days” before these poems to indicate that this was the eschatological hope of the prophets.3 Thus, this would happen when a new covenant would be made, a covenant that is expected in the book of Deuteronomy (chs. 29–30).

One of the main points that Sailhamer makes is the distinction between an original composition and a later edition that was revised, interpreted, and updated by prophetic editors working at the end of the OT period, who thus provided the original Pentateuch (1.0) with a “retrofit” (2.0) with the rest of canonical Scripture. This retrofit amplified the intentions of Pentateuch 1.0. Sailhamer does not clarify the extent of this “upgrade” of the original pentateuchal “software.” Such editors acted much like the scribes in Ezra’s time by providing a number of pivotal chapters and numerous glosses and comments to ensure that the original spirit of the Pentateuch was preserved and integrated with the canon. In this new Pentateuch, original themes are emphasized and underlined by “learned quotations” as well as editorial design. This is very different from the traditional conservative position on the Pentateuch that suggests that an original Pentateuch has been updated randomly by post-Mosaic glosses at various times, with no thought of its relation to the rest of the canon of Scripture. For Sailhamer such additions are neither random nor minor but part of an intentional strategy to enhance and highlight the original meaning of the Pentateuch for a much later audience.

Why, then, has there been a failure of scholars to see this intelligent design? The author believes a major reason has been the lenses that scholars, particularly evangelical scholars, have used to look at the data. Evangelicals have unwittingly exchanged one set of lenses for another. The Enlightenment, with its use of critical reason and its subjection of every historical claim to verification, put evangelicals on the defensive so that they became more and more interested in verifying and proving the historical facts of the Bible to skeptics and unbelievers. Consequently, these facts became detached from their overall narrative framework and lost any comprehensive significance. It was as if evangelicals unknowingly threw out the textual baby in the interest of preserving the historical bath water, as they exchanged narrative lenses for historical ones. This had a profound impact on the text, as it became simply a means to recover and prove an event. The real locus of authority had thus moved from the certainty of the Word of God to the contingent events of history. But what was also lost was a real sense of the big picture of the Bible. While the systematic theologian Robert Jensen has analyzed how the West evolved from premodernism to postmodernism and lost its fundamental story,4 theologian Hans Frei, on whom Sailhamer relies so much, has shown how a hermeneutical shift among Christian scholars themselves has accelerated an eclipse of the biblical story for Western culture.5 Thus, any concern for a big idea of the Pentateuch would be off the scholarly radar.

2. Evaluation

2.1. Strengths

Let me first applaud this massive undertaking by this leading evangelical scholar. It is very rare to see an evangelical scholar seek to make the Pentateuch the goal of so much research because of the difficulty of ever being taken seriously by the wider academic guild. Sailhamer has done the church a great service with his volume that seeks to look for the big picture of the central core of the OT. I particularly have been stimulated by his research on the distinction between Pentateuch 1.0 and Pentateuch 2.0 with the final revision being a retrofit for the OT canon. Sailhamer has been involved in groundbreaking research in his work on showing that the major canonical divisions are glued together by seams that integrate the Scriptures together into a completed whole and stamp them with an air of authority and expectancy. His observation of key poems prefaced by the later eschatological expression “in the latter days” is arresting and hardly accidental. The arrangement of the independent texts of Gen 1–11 into a text that begins with creation and ends in Babylon before the call of Abram is hardly an editorial accident and betrays an exilic or post-exilic hand. This is certainly gospel to an exilic community languishing in Babylon far from its homeland. Their call to leave is based on an ancient biblical precedent. The fact that a return from this exile is found at the end of Deuteronomy with a new generation about to enter the land can also hardly be fortuitous. Much here is creative and stimulating and seems to breathe new life into old Scriptures.

Second, Sailhamer has a way of communicating his views relevantly. Thus his comparison of Pentateuch 1.0 and 2.0 uses computer terminology to drive a point home; or his comparison of poetical commentaries to theme songs in a Hollywood musical; or the analogy of a design on the cover of a jig-saw puzzle with the big-picture idea for a large text. His use of painting to communicate the importance of the text versus the event is extremely helpful. To put such time and effort into historical reconstruction of the event behind the text would be like trying to bring to light what is behind the shadows in one of Rembrandt’s paintings. While it may be possible, it ruins the picture. Third, Sailhamer shows that the NT writers were not just “proof-texters” but dealt seriously with the content of the OT. They saw the big picture. Thus, Sailhamer gives the church back the OT. It is not just a book that can be dispensed with once the NT has come, but it contains the gospel; the Messiah is not just an incidental theme, but the key theme, the thread that holds it all together. Particularly significant is the use of the term “gapping,” borrowed from Meir Sternberg as a way to understand seminal texts (pp. 320–21). Frequently, such early texts are fraught with ambiguity, but intentionally so from a literary perspective. They are like empty vessels that are gradually filled out as the larger text unfolds. The semantic lacunae are gradually filled. This is a particularly effective way to understand the identity of the seed in Gen 3:15, which could be understood collectively or individually. As the text develops the two are played off one against the other, but neither is one sacrificed for the other. By the time the end of Genesis appears, there is a hope in a future king who will bless the people and the world.

2.2. Weaknesses

While having profited immensely from this study, I have a few criticisms. It is clear to me that Sailhamer “over-reads” significant texts. For example, I wonder if his belief that faith and law are so opposed leads him to conclude that the insertion of the major blocks of law at Sinai are the result of sin and were not originally intended. He argues that the Ten Commands in Exod 20 and the Covenant Code are placed after the offer of a covenant to Israel because Israel was afraid at Sinai and would not go up the holy mountain to worship God. Similarly, the main Levitical priestly laws were given because of the sin with the golden calf (Exod 32–34), while the Holiness Code is added because of the people sacrificing to goat-demons in the wilderness in Lev 17. Thus, Israel exchanged “a personal face-to-face relationship with God for a priesthood” (p. 392), the unmediated presence of God for a tabernacle and temple, and a life lived by faith for a law code. For Sailhamer, this explains more clearly Paul’s statement in Galatians that the Law was added because of transgressions (Gal 3:19). Each Israelite transgression led to more and more law.

I find such a reading unconvincing. Later texts show that the people were commended by God for their fear at Sinai. Reflecting on the people’s response of fear to God at Sinai, Yahweh remarks, “I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken” (Deut 5:28). Surely the author in Exod 19 did not envision all the people going up the mountain—it could never have physically happened! And as Exod 24 reiterates and expands this text, seventy elders representing all the people ascend the mountain along with Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons. From a structural point of view, the entire Exodus project culminates in the legislation given to Moses regarding the building of the tabernacle so that Yahweh can finally live with his people in order to make them distinct from all the peoples of the world. Here God finally “touches down” on planet earth. This legislation is before the sin of the Golden Calf (Exod 25–31), and the sin threatens this relationship; but because of the intercession of Moses and the mercy of God, the tabernacle becomes a reality—hardly a retrograde step (Exod 35–40). God’s original intention to dwell with the people can now be carried out because of the intercession of Moses and the divine grace and mercy. While it is creative to link this understanding with a statement that the law was added because of transgressions in Paul, it is a stretch to think that Paul or any other Jewish thinker of the time is thinking of an exchange of an original covenant based on faith, to one regulated by the works of the law. Paul is rather thinking of the big picture of the Law: it was added 430 years after the promise to drive home the revelation of sin into the hearts of the Israelites and thus by inference to the world in order that both would be able to trust in the mercy of God and thus be able to keep the law (Gal 3:17). The problem is not with the law but its need to be transplanted into the heart. Similarly, statements in the prophets that deal with cultic abuse employ hyperbolic language to stress that the ultimate intent of the law was not ritual but relationship. In no way were they criticizing the cult and the law—just a perversion of them.

I am also left pondering at times the difference between Pentateuch 1.0 and Pentateuch 2.0. At times I feel that Sailhamer believes that there is a minimal difference and at other times a large difference. While he speaks of a definite difference, he mentions, “it is impossible to determine how different the two editions were” (p. 24). Yet at times he can clearly separate texts like Deut 33–34 and various interpolations from the original. But it may be the case that Pentateuch 2.0 is such a thorough revision of Pentateuch 1.0 that one cannot identify it anymore—perhaps just its lineaments. Take, for example, Gen 1–11, which consists of a number of independent texts that have been creatively spliced and edited together to form an introduction to the Pentateuch. What would be the difference between Gen 1–11 in the two versions? With its climax in the Tower of Babel and the call of Abram, it seems to reflect the exile and thus 2.0.6 Would Gen 1–11 even have been in 1.0? And yet a similar literary strategy that is used in this text is used throughout the Pentateuch, which is largely the work of Moses, we are told, but only updated and revised. Presumably the difference is not large, but according to Sailhamer, version 2.0 represents a huge difference because without 2.0 the Sinai covenant would have kept the focus on Sinai and law and not on grace and the answer of the new covenant and the message of faith (pp. 200–206). The whole matter needs to be rethought.

When Sailhamer uses metrical constraints to show that texts within poems are later interpolations from learned prophetic editors, it seems to me to be rather subjective. While critical scholars see these as simply interpolations by a later hand with no real meaning, Sailhamer sees them as telltale signs of a later prophetic hand that is ensuring that the meaning of the text is clarified within the bounds of the canon. Thus, duplication in a later poem is intended to pick up a line from an earlier poem to show its relevance. This may well be the case, but it is hard to prove. Similarly, to suggest that Judah’s poem in Gen 49 has been expanded because of a later kingship motif may well be true, but it is difficult to prove. Sailhamer is largely accepting the critical conclusions of biblical scholars but using these critical conclusions to point out their exegetical relevance for his understanding (pp. 326–28).

His conclusion that significant poetic commentary comes at the ending of major sections should be balanced by the fact that major speeches that are often poetic stand at the beginning of major sections as well. Thus, Gen 12:1–3 sets the agenda for Abram; the oracle about Jacob and Esau in the womb in Gen 25:23 sets the framework for the Jacob narrative; and the poetic dreams of Joseph in Gen 37:6–7 are the ignition that turns on the narrative engine in the Joseph story. But there are examples that are omitted in his analysis such as Gen 8:21 and 9:5. Sometimes I am also left wondering how one can distinguish between simple direct speech and poetry. For example Gen 3:14–19 is three separate speeches—direct discourse—and is quite different from Gen 49, but both are classed as poetry.

Also, the concern with event and text, while important, should not be pressed too far. The uniqueness of Israelite and Christian faith is marked by its relation to history. While I appreciate the analogy of the painting that Sailhamer uses to stress the importance of the painting as opposed to its background (pp. 19–20), it would seem to me that the more historical background uncovered for the Bible would tend to enhance the picture rather than take away from it—as long as the canonical foreground remains in focus. Thus, the knowledge of ancient polytheism in the ancient world points to the radicality of the demand in Deut 6:4. That human beings were basically considered as afterthoughts in the ancient world’s creation stories shows the stunning magnificence of the creation of humanity in Gen 1. In other words, the canonical text’s foreground shines brighter with the enhanced historical background.

Finally, in a book about the Pentateuch in which there is a lot of repetition, it is perhaps suitable that there is an inordinate amount of repetition in this book. There are many times when the same material is repeatedly mentioned. As one of many examples, there is a lengthy quote from Jamieson, Fawcett, and Brown that occurs about half a dozen times in the text (pp. 54–55, 196, 206–7, 280, 356, 464). How many times does Hans Frei’s basic hermeneutical point have to be told (pp. 86, 90–91, 110, 128–29, 178–79)?7 Undoubtedly, such repetition is due to the independence of some of the essays at an earlier time, and it is very clear that earlier studies by the author have been given a second life within this volume. But this feature becomes downright annoying for any reader of the text, and it should be the task of any editor to smooth out such literary inconcinnities unless these were intentional and part of the literary strategy of The Meaning of the Pentateuch 2.0. But my guess is that these survived as strata of 1.0 that were missed by those on the editorial team responsible for 2.0 because of haste. If there is an edition 3.0—and I think that there should be—it could be substantially reduced in the interests of concision.

3. Conclusion

As far as I am concerned, John Sailhamer has distinguished himself as a servant of the Word in his work since that has been the object of his investigation, not some reconstructed source behind the Word. He has not followed the way of trendy scholarly fads, but has taken his cue from the Word. While I may disagree with him over various interpretations, his call to ponder the Torah day and night is nothing but the faithful transmission of a message from the big picture of the Tanak itself. That is a call that needs to be heard, and when it is heard it will no doubt become a Magna Carta for biblical studies.

  1. ^The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 632 pp.
  2. ^Personal communication from Joshua Williams, one of Sailhamer’s students (November 21, 2010).
  3. ^E.g., Gen 49:1; Num 24:14; Deut 31:29; cf. Deut 4:30.
  4. ^Robert W. Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things 36 (1993): 19–24.
  5. ^Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
  6. ^E.g., Sailhamer argues that Gen 11:1–9 is about the fall of the kingdom of Babylon and not the fall of Babel and that Moses can hardly be responsible for this section (p. 288).
  7. ^For a more thorough list of these stylistic issues, see James M. Hamilton Jr., “John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14:2 (2010) 64–65.

Stephen Dempster

Stephen Dempster is professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

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