Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Two

(Posted by Paige Britton)

In this post I will begin an ongoing summary review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP, 2009). (My earlier posts regarding John Sailhamer and this volume of his works can be read here and here.) I am intending each time to focus on one chapter of the book, though truly this will mean that I highlight only part of each chapter, as they are very dense and do not easily lend themselves to thorough summaries in 800 words or less. So you can assume there is always more that could be said. These notes are just appetizers.

Introduction (On the “compositional approach” and the themes of Law and Faith)

John Sailhamer seems to be a “whole-parts-whole” sort of thinker. That is to say, when he reads a unit of text, be it Genesis, the Pentateuch, or the Tanakh*, he first receives a general impression of the text’s meaning from the patterns of its composition (a macro-view), then dives down to the micro-level to discover the details that led to that impression, and finally recreates the probable path that the author took, building those details back into the whole structure. It’s certainly possible that someone could begin with a mistaken “macro-” impression and then hunt about for conveniently supportive details, finally reproducing a worthlessly speculative authorial strategy and a meaning that has been forced onto the text rather than derived from it. This is not the impression that I get from Sailhamer, who strikes me as a capable and very careful reader (although I am not a competent judge of some of his claims, being unable to verify his understanding of German, Hebrew, and Latin sources). We’ll look at some of his “macro” observations in these reviews.

Among the many points he raises in the Introduction, two stand out as basic to his approach to, and his conclusions about, the ultimate meaning of the Pentateuch: first, a hermeneutical approach that takes into account the compositional shape of large units of text; and second, the contrasting themes of Law and Faith in the Pentateuch. I’ll address each of these in turn.

Sailhamer’s Compositional Approach.
Sailhamer’s insistence that we attend closely and primarily to the text of the Pentateuch is a welcome contrast to the views of those who would have us speculate about multiple authors with various religio-political agendas, or those who would tether the meaning of the Pentateuch to its ANE literary neighbors. History and archaeology have their place in biblical studies, Sailhamer concedes, “but they sometimes get in the way of understanding the ‘words’ of Scripture” (19). For Sailhamer, “understanding the words” is much more than a grammatical or lexical task. Most important, he stresses repeatedly, is the macro-structure (or composition) of a unit of text, for

“the meaning of the biblical texts lies primarily in the structure and composition of the books themselves.” (491)

By identifying major units of text, such as the narratives or legal material in the Pentateuch, Sailhamer believes one may then also locate the “compositional seams” where these sections are joined together. For it is at such seams, he claims, that the “intelligent design” of an author is most apparent (23). Sailhamer asserts that by strategically placing poetry, commentary, and common terminology at these “seams,” the maker of the Pentateuch has unequivocally communicated its meaning.

(Later chapters will provide details about these so-called “compositional seams,” but if you are interested in some concretes at this moment, Gen. 49, Num. 24, and Deut. 33 are mentioned a lot.)

I’d say that Sailhamer’s premise that “compositional seams” a) exist, b) open a window onto an author’s intent, and c) are the locations of a text’s main meaning must be one of the pieces of his argument that receives the most scrutiny from other theologians. But three cheers for him, that he is working with the idea of an intelligent, deliberate, design-conscious author at all.

The Themes of Law and Faith
Tracing the connections between all those “compositional seams” (both within and outside the Pentateuch) leads Sailhamer to conclude that the books of Moses were not written to showcase the Sinai (or Mosaic) covenant, but “to tell Israel that the Sinai covenant had failed” (27). Rather than teach Israel the Law, the Pentateuch was intended to teach Israel about faith, specifically by contrasting the lives and respective covenants of Abraham and Moses. Narrowing the focus still further, Sailhamer identifies the object of that faith as an eschatological king from the tribe of Judah, seed of Abraham. He will go on in this book to defend each of these claims and conclusions by connecting the inter-textual dots (e.g., have you ever noticed how many times Gen. 12:3 / 22:18 pops up in the OT?).

Although he will elaborate further on this in Chs 7 and 10, Sailhamer does address in his Introduction the purpose of the Mosaic Law in a text that is (he says) primarily about faith and grace. Briefly, he understands the law to have been added to a gracious covenant with Israel because of that nation’s transgressions (as per Gal. 3:19). While his “covenantal” language is identified more with the Abrahamic and the Mosaic than with Reformed theological concepts (Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace), Sailhamer does ally himself with the covenantal thinking of Cocceius**, who apparently held to a similar understanding of a shift in Israel’s relationship with God after Sinai. Here it will be necessary to scrutinize how Sailhamer’s casting of the covenants runs with or against the currents of Reformed thought.

I’ll be happy to clarify any of the above in the comments below.
*TANAKH: Essentially an acronym for the Hebrew Bible, which is made of the Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (Writings).

**Johannes Cocceius (coc-SAY-us) (1603-1669) German-born Reformed theologian who had much to say about covenant theology amongst the Dutch.

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  1. Eileen said,

    January 20, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Thanks for these posts, Paige. I’ve had a bookmark at page 238 for about 8 months, and your posts are making me think about diving back in again. Kudos go to IVP for using footnotes which the more tightly-wound among us appreciate.

  2. paigebritton said,

    January 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Hey, Eileen!
    It can be slow going, this book. Hope you pick it up again before the first 238 fade from memory. :)

  3. greenbaggins said,

    January 21, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    BOQ But three cheers for him, that he is working with the idea of an intelligent, deliberate, design-conscious author at all. EOQ This is what drives me absolutely crazy about the liberal commentaries up until only recently. They assume a nincompoop editor who wouldn’t know a contradiction if it smacked him upside the head. As a result, their commentaries are often largely useless, since there is no coherent meaning in the text at all, according to them. Westermann’s Genesis commentary is an example of this approach.

  4. Richard said,

    January 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Sounds interesting, does he reference David M Carr’s “Reading the Fractures of Genesis” at all?

  5. paigebritton said,

    January 21, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Hi, Richard,
    No, I don’t find Carr in the author index. Does he have a similar take on the formation of the book of Genesis?

    I don’t think this way of looking at the text is unique to Sailhamer; I believe he gathered the general idea from some untranslated Germans of the past. But he may be one of the first to write about it in English.

  6. paigebritton said,

    January 22, 2011 at 5:37 am

    Hi, this is me waving and saying, in case you missed this post, it’s the next one in the Sailhamer series, and it’s kinda interesting. (At least I think it is interesting, or I wouldn’t be waving at you.)
    Paige B.

  7. Reed Here said,

    January 22, 2011 at 7:23 am

    Looking forward to more Paige.

  8. Richard said,

    January 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Hi Paige, it was more the mention of “compositional seams” which set me wondering… Carr’s appoach is diachronistic rather than a canonical approach as he is trying to outline how the composition of Genesis developed over time by dividing Genesis into p and non-P and tracing the growth of Genesis by discovering ‘fractures’ within the text. His book is previewable in Google Books, certainly worth a read even if you don’t agree with him.

  9. paigebritton said,

    January 23, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    That’s interesting, Richard — although “seams” and “fractures” are antonyms, aren’t they! The former implies building, and the latter implies deconstruction. I’ll have to look into Carr for comparison. Thanks!


  10. Cris Dickason said,

    January 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Richard (#4 & #8) – Concerning Carr’s “fractures” – especially in service of diachronical method: how are they different from other source-criticisms, how does this differ from classic documentary hypothesis? Since it’s diachronic, I assume that means some subsequent generation’s editorial action is what introduced “fractures” as they smashed P and Non-P documents together (plate tectonics produces plate textonics?).


  11. jedpaschall said,

    January 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm


    How much similarity do you see between Sailhamer’s method and Robert Alter’s method in The Art of Biblical Narrative? Does he utilize Alter’s narrative techniques, cite them, modify them, or is his approach fundamentally different?

  12. paigebritton said,

    January 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Hi, Jed,
    I’m afraid Alter is not mentioned in the book, and I am not familiar with his approach. Sketch it for me and I might be able to tell you how similar it is to Sailhamer’s thinking.
    Paige B.

  13. jedpaschall said,

    January 31, 2011 at 4:04 pm


    Alter’s approach is interesting on several fronts. He is a Jewish scholar, who claims that the best modern analogue to Biblical narrative is modern prose fiction. Basically biblical narration follows similar plot development convention as fiction – so, the narrative includes rising and falling action, repetition, type-casting, foreshaddowing, and more. Essentially, while he is not a conservative scholar by any means, he debunks the crude, patchy nature of composition under the documentary hypothesis, and argues for a skillful narrator who stitches together a masterful, unified story using literary conventions not altogether different from our own modern forms.. While he doesn’t argue for a Mosaic authorship, and he doesn’t deny the composite nature of the text, he argues that they are brought together with masterful unity by the final editor.

    Some examples would include the type-cast of the meeting of the woman at the well that repeats itself throughout the OT Narrative, starting with Eleazar’s meeting of Rebekah, moving to Jacob’s meeting of Rachel, and continuing on to derivations, such as Moses’ meeting of Jethro’s daughter’s at the well. These archetypical scenes are narrative markers that draw continuity among these figures and their place in the whole story. It wouldn’t be too different from our archetypical stories of good cowboys wearing white hats, even in scenarios where good ones wear black, they are playing in some way off the archetype.

    I am looking forward to picking up Sailhamer, but I am surprised that he doesn’t make mention of Alter, since his narrative analysis in The Art of Biblical Narrative was a watershed work in the field. Maybe he is drawing off of different sources though. Anyway, thanks for the helpful review. If you ever get the chance to read Alter’s book, it is at the very least interesting and, I think entertaining.

  14. paigebritton said,

    January 31, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for the summary, Jed!

    I have not read Sailhamer’s Pentateuch as Narrative, which may (or may not) make as much of literary conventions as Alter does. The similarity I see between what you describe and The Meaning of the Pentateuch would be the conviction that in the Pentateuch we have evidence of a deliberate, authorial mind at work. Sailhamer seems to be most interested in this volume in identifying evidences of that author in the “compositional seams,” and reading in them (hopefully not into them) the “meaning” of the Pentateuch. So he doesn’t go much into detail about the narratives themselves here as he does in the other book I mentioned.

    Thanks for the recommendation — I might look into Alter sometime too!

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