Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Nine

(Posted by Paige)

For those of you who would like to catch up on the other chapter reviews in this series, links to previous posts are found in the first comment below. As it has been a while since I have been able to write one of these, I’ve also attempted a one-sentence summary of each review to remind you of Sailhamer’s main themes and claims.

Chapter 8: The Nature of Covenant and Blessing in the Pentateuch

Chapter 8 opens the book’s third and final section, “Interpreting the Theology of the Pentateuch.” In this chapter, the author seeks to develop a particular theological understanding of promise in the OT based on a compositional approach to the text of the Pentateuch, focusing specifically on Gen. 15:1-5. So that you may know the end from the beginning, let me offer a sketch of his conclusions before summarizing his larger concerns in this chapter:

In the dialogue that opens Genesis 15, Sailhamer identifies verses 3 and 4 as “commentary” on God’s promise of a great reward (v.1) and Abraham’s complaint that he has no direct descendant to be his heir (v.2). In other words, Sailhamer sees verses 3 and 4 as authorial glosses, meant to explain something to the reader about the “great reward” and, most importantly, about the identity of “Abraham’s seed.” While v.5 uses “seed” to refer to multiple descendants, vv.3-4 specifies a singular seed.

Sailhamer recognizes in vv.3-4 the theme of a singular Coming One, a refrain he has observed at other so-called compositional seams of the Pentateuch, most notably in the poetry. The apparently deliberate authorial strategy of Genesis 15 thus certifies this passage to him as a significant compositional seam, and its message (of justification by faith and a singular “seed”) as reflecting the theology of the whole Pentateuch in capsule form. From this conclusion it is just a small step over to Galatians 3:16, where Abraham’s seed is clearly identified by Paul as the (singular) Christ.

All that I have just summarized about Gen. 15 fits nicely into the familiar biblical pattern of Promise-and-Fulfillment, by which an OT prophecy is realized (i.e., made real) by NT people and events. Put simply, God’s (OT) promise to Abraham in Gen. 15 of a singular “seed” is actualized in Christ (NT). Yet up to this point in chapter 8, Sailhamer’s main concern has been to expose the inadequacy of Promise Theology to address the differences between OT and NT conceptions of promise. Sailhamer spends time on both Gerhardus Vos’ and Walter Kaiser’s approaches to promise and fulfillment, and concludes that any theological model that “looks only to the NT future for the meaning that it assigns to the OT books” inevitably devalues the OT and misses the significance of covenant in the OT (423). He writes,

Consequently, the focal point of the Old Testament’s theology is drawn not around the Old Testament as such, but within a future hope centered largely on New Testament texts. An important result of such repositioning of focus is that it overlooks almost entirely the present use of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. After the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament promise has been unwrapped, little is left of the Old Testament other than the packaging. (423f.)

Sailhamer argues that the way “promise” is conceived of in the OT is less a matter of future (i.e., NT) fulfillment, and more an expression of present blessing and relationship. He likens the OT concept of covenant promise to marriage, in which the spouses’ vows of fidelity to one another do not look to the future for their realization, but extend from the moment of avowal onward. In Sailhamer’s words,

…the kind of promise recorded in biblical narratives such as Genesis was such that was fulfilled at the moment of its expression in those same narratives. Like marriage vows, they require no time period before one can speak of their fulfillment…The divine promise (in the Old Testament), “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” is realized (actualized) in the present as a divine-human relationship. It is not merely a prophetic word about the future that must be fulfilled. (432f.)

Thus, in Sailhamer’s view, a “full-orbed” promise theology would incorporate both presently-realized covenants and the future hopes of specific pledges fulfilled (such as the singular “seed” of Genesis 15), rather than merely and exclusively concentrating on future-oriented models of OT promise (“a sort of time bomb set to go off at a particular time,” 430). Only in this way can the value of the OT be preserved.

I found this particular chapter to be unsatisfying for a few reasons. For one, a lack of editorial guidance at the end is apparent – unless you can read Latin and Greek, the final paragraphs will be unintelligible to you, and the absence of a thematic wrap-up leaves a number of loosely connected threads dangling.

Second, Sailhamer’s notion that Gen. 15:3-4 is an “authorial gloss” raises questions of historicity – so, did Abraham have this exchange with the Lord about the singular seed, or did Moses put these words into his mouth, so to speak? Sailhamer does not take time to explore the implications of his “discovery” of redaction here.

Finally, while he protests against those theological models that “devalue” the OT by concentrating exclusively on its spiritualized fulfillment in the NT, Sailhamer is not at this point forthcoming on what he believes is the OT’s “value” for the Christian. He will return to this theme in the conclusion of his book (in an insightful and worthy manner, in my judgment), but at this point he leaves the question of present-time value unanswered.

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  1. paigebritton said,

    December 3, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Here’s where we’ve been so far:

    My Introduction
    Sailhamer’s Introduction (Sailhamer introduces the concept of the “compositional approach,” and sketches the themes of law and faith in the Pentateuch.)
    Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology (What Sailhamer calls “Pauline” themes of new covenant and justification by faith can, he believes, be found along the “compositional seams” of the Pentateuch.)
    Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning (Sailhamer suggests that evangelicals have come to value biblical texts for the historical events they tell about, rather than paying attention to the way the text is a made thing, crafted in a certain way to convey what is in an author’s mind.)
    Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text (Sailhamer advocates paying close attention to the particular way an author has presented an event, rather than trying to get “beyond” the text to the historical event itself.)
    Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea (Sailhamer presents the idea that the current version of the Pentateuch is the “upgrade” from an original, thanks to the slight editorial assistance of a later editor from the time of the post-exilic prophets.)
    Chapter Five: Textual Strategies within the Tanak (Here Sailhamer stresses the need to note the “compositional seams” of the Pentateuch, where clues to the author’s theological emphases are found.)
    Chapter Six:The Composition of the Pentateuch (In this chapter, Sailhamer examines the poetry of the Pentateuch to highlight the author’s references to a coming eschatological king from the tribe of Judah.)
    Chapter Seven: Exploring the Composition of Legal Material in the Pentateuch (Sailhamer argues that each subsequent set of laws in the Pentateuch were given in response to specific instances of Israel’s sin.)

  2. rfwhite said,

    December 7, 2011 at 9:38 am


    With regard to Sailhamer’s interest in preserving the value of the OT for “present realization” and not mererly “future spiritualization,” my expectation, without immediate access to the book, is that this comes from his commitment to premillennialism, which is expressed in other publications of his.

  3. paigebritton said,

    December 8, 2011 at 6:59 am

    Hi, Dr. White,
    Thanks for that connection. I have not read enough of Sailhamer’s other works to know how strongly his premillennialism influences his conclusions in this book, though it may be a guiding factor. But the “value” that he sees the OT text holding for the Christian, as described later in this volume, did not strike me as being particularly “pre-mill” (which I would associate with things like fulfilled prophecy in current events, the “rapture,” current application of OT laws, etc.). Also, the “present realization” that he notes refers to those who were the original recipients of the covenant promises (Abraham, Israel), not Christians — don’t know if I made that clear enough above. A pre-mill stance might be tempted to expect more OT “realization” in the present day all ’round.

    Regarding the OT’s “value” for the believer, in later chapters Sailhamer will simply suggest that Paul’s theme of justification by faith is already present in the Pentateuch, and is in fact the heart of it; and that the Christian who studies these words of Moses will grow wise and encouraged, “like a tree planted by streams of water.” The originality of his argument seems to be the identification of “compositional seams” and intertextual echoes that support his conclusions that the Ptch is about the failure of the law and the triumph of grace through faith. I am not yet sure how much weight to put on his exegetical insights, but I have felt no qualms about the particular themes he claims to have discovered in those texts, or their value for us now.


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