Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Three

(Posted by Paige Britton)

My first treatments of John Sailhamer’s book (IVP, 2009) can be found here and here.

Part One: Approaching the Text as Revelation

Chapter One: Understanding the Nature and Goal of OT Theology

This first chapter is so brief that I will scarcely need to do more than offer you several excerpts that communicate Sailhamer’s opinion of the Bible and his theological task. I believe his claims here are borne out in the rest of the book: namely, that he holds the Scriptures in high regard as the very words of God, and that the theologian’s calling is to carefully articulate God’s thoughts (without committing the hubris of believing the theological expression to be on equal authoritative footing with the Scriptures).

On theology’s task:
“Theology has its ground in a work of God – a spoken word or a divine act. God has spoken to his human creatures and has acted among them in various ways and times (Heb. 1:1-2). He has revealed himself in observable and communicable ways. Theology’s task is to pick up the conversation and pursue the line of discourse initiated by God.” (60)


On theological humility:
“However much theology may claim to speak for God or on God’s behalf, as an act of revelation it is a human word. Theology stands on the human side of the divine act of revelation. It is always subject to self-examination and criticism. It is a ‘mirror viewed darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12) through which we must look for a word from God.” (61)

In this chapter Sailhamer also locates his view amongst historical conceptions of OT revelation, identifying as a fallacy the notion that the OT is merely “the written record of revelation played out in historical acts” (61, emphasis added). Were the Bible not divine revelation, but only “one of many possible responses to divine revelation,” then “theology must only say, ‘This is what they believed about God.’ It does not ask, ‘What does the OT demand of me?’” (62, emphasis added). In firm contrast, Sailhamer insists on the normative nature of OT theology, precisely because it is derived from the inspired Word of God:

“The task of biblical theology is to state God’s Word (the Bible) to the church clearly and precisely. What could be expected of biblical theology other than an understandable statement of the meaning of God’s words that come to us as the Word, ‘Holy Scripture’? Such a theology does not claim to be normative in the same way the Bible itself makes that claim. An OT theology can only attempt to present the claims of biblical narrative in human terms. Biblical theology of the OT is only a clay vessel for holding the message of the Bible’s own written texts.” (63)

Finally, narrowing the focus onto his own pet themes and understanding of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer offers the intriguing claim that

“[b]ecause 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. Its aim is Israel’s ‘new covenant’ with God as grounded in the message of the OT prophetic writings.” (66)

In fact, he goes on to say, the Pentateuch’s hero and emphasis are not Moses and the law, but rather Abraham and faith. What Sailhamer calls “Pauline” themes of new covenant and justification by faith can, he believes, be found along the “compositional seams” of these books. It remains for him to successfully communicate his defense of this reading in the rest of this hefty volume.

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14 Comments

  1. Jed Paschall said,

    February 10, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Paige, thanks again for the thoughtful review. If only there were more with Sailhamer’s convictions in OT studies. I can appreciate the ‘academic’ scholars as much as the next guy, but I think that it is sad that those who take a more pastoral, or even humble approach are largely derided, or even ignored in the academy. Sailhamer identifies the issue correctly, when he keys in on the normative thrust of God’s word as a whole (even if parts are descriptive), seeking to understand not only what God has said, but what he is saying to us. Even where I have points of disagreement with theologians coming from a committed vantage point, I have always appreciated their aims far more than those who take a merely descriptive approach.

  2. Vern Crisler said,

    February 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

    “Pentateuch’s hero and emphasis are not Moses and the law….” Huh?

  3. paigebritton said,

    February 13, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Hi, Vern!
    Yeah! So says Sailhamer. I’m surprised nobody else said “huh” about that yet. It’s rather a biggie. Stay tuned and I’ll tell you more…

    BTW, you commented earlier about Sailhamer’s unusual (heterodox?) reading of Gen. 1, where he has understood the creation story of both ch. 1 and 2 to be about the making of the Garden, rather than the whole earth. That view is expressed in some of his earlier works, but does not appear in this one; and in fact in a section later in this book he appears to have dropped it in favor of an orthodox reading (in which the Garden is the focus only in Ch. 2). Kind of interesting — I wonder what the story is behind that shift. As one reviewer noted, Sailhamer was never dogmatic about his unusual reading, but just presented it as a possibility.

    Same goes for his claims here: he is thoughtful and careful in his presentation and defense of his identification of the Pentateuch’s main message, but he admits he could be wrong. I’m not going to be able to judge his claims at a micro-level (language wise), but at least I can present them here for others to wrangle about. I can go a little further (but only so far) with implications on a systematic level: As far as I can tell, his reading is compatible with the way we think about the Covenants of Works & Grace; but then I think he turns some of our thinking about the Mosaic law on its head. Can’t wait to see what you guys make of all this as I get into his later chapters.

    pax,
    Paige B.

  4. drake said,

    February 14, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    ““However much theology may claim to speak for God or on God’s behalf, as an act of revelation it is a human word. Theology stands on the human side of the divine act of revelation. It is always subject to self-examination and criticism. It is a ‘mirror viewed darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12) through which we must look for a word from God.” (61) ”

    I must say this statement which I read often irks me. This so called humility sounds more like an indictment on God’s motives and ability to reveal truth to men. What I find to be a glaring contradiction to me in Reformed circles is this humility on the core issues of Christianity and a dogmatism on trivial nonsense. 1. Concerning what knowledge is 2. What God is and his trinitarian nature which methinks the Cappadocians and Nicea nailed with their view of the Father as Monarch and a denial of filioque 3. What the nature of the union is between human and divine in Christ, i.e. hypostatic union 4. How God is worshipped. In contemporary Reformed circles, on these issues, the knowledge of the typical church goer is abysmal. But just ask him about the IRS, or the two kingdoms debate, or what standard the government should apply to determine the value of American curency, the effects of modern day socialism, the efficacy of Baptism, he knows plenty.

  5. jedpaschall said,

    February 15, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Drake,

    I must say this statement which I read often irks me. This so called humility sounds more like an indictment on God’s motives and ability to reveal truth to men.

    Inasmuch as you are speaking to the ‘core issues of Christianity’ you are correct, whatever humility we have must be tempered with resolute boldness. From a Reformed perspective we can derive from the OT/Pentateuch clear doctrine on your points 1 & 4, your points 2 & 3 are more explicitly derived from the NT. I agree with you that Sailhamer might have overreached his defense of humility in approaching Scripture in quoting 1 Cor. 13:12. So to your main point, you’ll get no disagreement from me.

    But we should also grant the fact that he isn’t saying that the Word isn’t clear:
    “The task of biblical theology is to state God’s Word (the Bible) to the church clearly and precisely. What could be expected of biblical theology other than an understandable statement of the meaning of God’s words that come to us as the Word, ‘Holy Scripture’?

    However, humility is in order when dealing with those aspects of Scripture like the ones Sailhamer is dealing with in the Pentateuch. Sailhamer is dealing with one of the more complicated issues in the OT, namely authorship of the Pentateuch, and by extension the Primary History. Since the Scriptures aren’t entirely clear on authorship, we can’t apply certainty to the issues. Conversely a good OT theologian can’t be silent about the issue.

    Authorship has been one of the stumbling blocks for many conservatives in the OT since Wellhausen. The Documentary Hypothesis, and it’s later developments have been a given in OT theology for over a century, and conservatives haven’t necessarily dealt with these arguments very well. Often they have either dismissed the issue entirely, adamantly clinging to an unqualified adherence to Mosaic authorship, or unfortunately caved altogether to source critics. Frankly, Sailhamer, at the very least is dealing with the prospect of composite authorship, and he seems to do this without caving to the source critics or history-of-religion proponents. While he may be advocating humility in approach, he is bold inasmuch as he is actually dealing with the scholarly views which have often served to undermine the authority of the text as the revealed Word. So, even if he is humble, he avoids the willful ignorance, and even (at times) cowardice that has plagued conservative approach.

    From what Paige’s review, I don’t pick up any sense that Sailhamer would advocate anything other than clarity on the 4 points you address. That is unless you are seeing something I am not.

  6. jedpaschall said,

    February 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Vern,

    “Pentateuch’s hero and emphasis are not Moses and the law….” Huh?

    I didn’t catch that on my first pass through the post, and it is a good observation. I am not sure exactly how Sailhamer defends that view, but I’d be interested. I think it is safe to say that the NT views Abraham as the archetypical exemplar of faith (Rom. 4; Heb. 11). Associating faith (and by extension, salvation) with Abraham, and Law with Moses (and by extension, judgment) isn’t inappropriate either. The NT wouldn’t pick up on these categories if they weren’t there in the Narrative to begin with.

    Is Abraham more heroic than Moses? That’s debatable for sure. But, I would argue that the covenantal structure of the OT drives us to the necessity and primacy of faith over that of the Law. The fact is, that Deuteronomy (e.g. 4:25-31) presents the fact that Israel ultimately will not uphold the Mosaic covenant, which will drive them to the hope of the covenant God made with Abraham, which speaks to God’s faithfulness and the appropriate human response of faith. Maybe Abraham isn’t explicitly, the hero of the Pentateuch vs. Moses, but the Pentateuch ultimately drives us to the necessity of faith due to human inability to uphold the Law.

  7. paigebritton said,

    February 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks for #5 to Drake, Jed.

    I wasn’t sure how to respond to your comment, Drake, because while you certainly have a bead on the wrongly-placed theological humility of many Christians (even amongst the Reformed), there is still a place for right humility in the theological task. Sailhamer isn’t questioning any of the basics, but he is charting a new path with regard to the Pentateuch — though he will argue that it is really very old, and that some folks (like Anna and Simeon) got it. It’s proper (and very refreshing) that he should express himself with just this mix of scholarly integrity and humility about his attempt. He knows that whatever he writes is just a sandcastle compared to the Word of God — though of course, at its best, his work will be communicating God’s thoughts to us.

    I’d add to Jed’s thought the idea that Sailhamer is not just concerned about who the author was, but (even more so) is all about getting at what the author was up to.

  8. paigebritton said,

    February 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Re. the “hero” of the Pentateuch, I think Sailhamer’s point is that he believes the author of the Pentateuch wanted to emphasize Abraham and faith, and the ultimate failure of the Law. Thus the prophets and the NT writers who read their Ptch carefully picked up on what was already there.

  9. jedpaschall said,

    February 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Paige,

    Sailhamer is not just concerned about who the author was, but (even more so) is all about getting at what the author was up to.

    This is exactly why Sailhamers approach is so interesting, and potentially helpful. He deals with authorship and the historical questions that surround the issue, and this grounds the text in reality. This is the opposite of the aims of the dialectical theologians (Von Rad, Eichrodt, Childs, et. al.) who divorce authorial intent from anything real. But, in dealing with authorial intent, he deals with the error of the source critics who seem only interested with the history behind the text, which usually stands in direct opposition to the historical accounts contained in the narratives. From a conservative, and especially Reformed POV, he treads crucial waters here with respect to inspiration and inerrancy – namely that we must uphold that there is authorial intent, and that there is a clear and discernible meaning in the words of Scripture, and that this Word is grounded in real history, and faithfully corresponds to reality.

    I hope this isn’t too much of a rant, but I’d be interested in how much he deals with the impact of Kantian/neo-Kantian formulations of history and truth on our contemporary doctrine of scripture, since this is where 19th and 20th century OT Theology so desperately failed. The fact that he is dealing with authorship and authorial intent seems to indicate that he is dealing with these concepts implicitly at the very least. Frankly, one of the fundamental tasks for 21st cent. conservative OT Theologians is to recover a sense of text that accounts for authority in terms of intent, and history based on a real/factual account for truth.

  10. paigebritton said,

    February 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    You are right, he is firm about the realness of the history that’s recorded. But what interests me much about his approach is that he emphasizes that it is recorded. Somebody put the record together just so — so, why is it put together this way? Without making the Bible merely literature without historical referent, he nevertheless wants us to look at it as a literary creation, not just as a way to get at the events it records.

    An orthodox doctrine of Scripture is certainly implied in the book, and sometimes (as in this chapter) he is explicit about his stance on inspiration. But it is not central to his discussion. He’s more interested in what’s in the text, rather than in arguments over what the text is.

  11. Vern Crisler said,

    February 15, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    “Sailhamer is not just concerned about who the author was, but (even more so) is all about getting at what the author was up to.”

    One would think that is the goal of all responsible commentators.

    Or is Sailhamer wanting to do something more? Like Enns? Or just more redemptive-historical stuff?

  12. paigebritton said,

    February 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    There is a “something more” sense about Sailhamer’s project, though not like Enns at all. When Sailhamer tries to figure out “what the author was up to,” he is interested in authorial decisions at a structural level, as well as at a verbal or thematic level. Hence his interest in the poetry and the “compositional seams.” He finds intelligence throughout the text, but is particularly excited about the intelligent design apparent in these spots.

    Enns goes outside the text and gets excited about how ANE-ish the OT is, and how messy. Sailhamer goes deeply inside the text and marvels at how carefully crafted it is.

  13. Vern Crisler said,

    February 15, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Ok, sounds like he’s doing some sort of structuralism (hopefully not the discredited version Jim Jordan practices — i.e., hyper-structuralism).

  14. jedpaschall said,

    February 16, 2011 at 12:28 am

    Vern,

    I am not familiar with Jordan, could you explain his brand of ‘hyper-structuralism’?


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