(Posted by Paige Britton)
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been intrigued this past year by John Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2009), and thought it worthy of a series of brief summary reviews. By way of introduction, then, let me give a sketch of the author and my general impressions of this volume.
John Sailhamer is currently professor of OT at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Brea, CA, having taught the same subjects previously at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (NC). Last year I had the privilege of interacting a bit about this book with some scholarly-minded Baptist brothers (here*), several of whom had been Sailhamer’s students. Somewhere along the line I gathered the colorful detail that Sailhamer’s office is basically papered with the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch, affording him a constant visual display of the patterns of language and poetry that are foundational to his understanding of these texts. I also learned that Sailhamer and Walter Kaiser are old friends, which fact neatly balances Sailhamer’s critical stance toward Kaiser’s promise-based reading of the OT. I’ll bet the two of them are a riot when they get together.
Sailhamer’s other works include The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Zondervan, 1992), the article on Genesis in the Expositor’s commentary series (which, as far as I can tell, reproduces Chs. 1-6 of The Pentateuch as Narrative), and Genesis Unbound (Multnomah Press, 1996). All three works explore (to varying degrees) Sailhamer’s thesis that the opening of Genesis describes not the creation of the earth and its inhabitants per se, but rather the creation of the Garden of Eden and its inhabitants, following the brief but sweeping affirmation that “God created the heavens and the earth.” Lots to chew on there – but in fact this rather startling interpretation does not intrude upon the arguments in MP, so I won’t dwell on it in this series. You’re welcome to hash this one out in the comments below, though.
Aside from his uniquely interpreted Creation account, Sailhamer’s works on Genesis and the Pentateuch all convey a solid biblical-theological reading of the texts, unencumbered by critical theories of authorship or undue comparisons with contemporary ANE mythology. His respect for the text of the Pentateuch as the deliberate creation of an author (with maybe some tweaking by an editor at the level of Tanak-formation) is evident throughout MP; and the textual patterns that he identifies as key to the meaning of these texts, while perhaps novel insights, are yet an indication of his desire to let the words of the Pentateuch speak for themselves without resorting to outside voices. The cover art chosen by IVP, a reproduction of Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing, is entirely fitting: that old scholar could be Sailhamer himself, his finger emphatically pointing his companion to the words of the Word.
I should add an unfortunately deprecatory word about the text of this IVP Academic production of Sailhamer’s thoughts: he deserved a much better proofreader than he got. The copyediting in the 2009 edition is, in a word, dreadful. Sometimes I had the sense that an absent-minded professor just needed a kindly assist – as when we learn, “God says to Eve, ‘and he shall bruise you on the head’” (p.321) – for which handicap I have much sympathy. Most of the time, though, it’s a matter of pervasive editorial carelessness with spelling and punctuation (e.g., “the mantel of prophetic legitimacy,” p.450). It is ironic (and appalling!) that a text so emphatic about attending to the details of texts should itself be treated in such an inattentive way.
Finally, a thought or two about reading level: I know Piper touted this as a book for anybody, theology geek or otherwise, but I have to disagree. You’ve gotta be some kind of geek to patiently navigate Sailhamer’s many streams of thought for all 610 pages. (I do agree with Piper that you don’t have to read all the footnotes. In fact you probably can’t, unless you are fluent in German and Latin.)
I’ll introduce the thesis of the book and Sailhamer’s “compositional” approach to the Pentateuch in a later post.
*Just a note about the MP Blog: We started a year ago and only made it as far as my summary of Ch. 6 (there are 11 full chapters plus a hefty Intro in the book) because the host of the blog, Andy Witt, absconded this fall to theological studies in Toronto.