Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take One

(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.


  1. greenbaggins said,

    January 1, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Paige, do you think that modern abysmal education is responsible for so many modern books having lots of typos? When I read 19th century books, I see almost no typos ever.

  2. paigebritton said,

    January 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Maybe — but I think it is more a matter of training the eye & the “mind’s ear” through constant encounters with excellent texts, which our whole culture no longer promotes. If we read texts at all, we like them quick & easy (and not even completely spelled, LOL). Spotting errors in a dense text like this one takes a seasoned reader, not just a well-educated reader. When you know the rhythm or tune that letters and words and punctuation make when they’re singing together in harmony, then you get jarred by disharmony when it happens.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    January 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    That’s exactly how I feel about proofing.

  4. Ron Henzel said,

    January 2, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I think one problem that has been conducive to sloppy editing in books relative to what was the norm 50 to 100 years ago has been the tectonic shift in the perception of elapsed time caused by technological advancement—most recently computers. When I was at Wheaton in the ’90s (as both an employee and a student) the HR director had a copy of the 19th century rules for employees hanging framed in his office. Many of the requirements (as I recall) reflected the kinds of legalisms generated by the 19th century temperance movement (which was still affecting the college even then) in addition to the strains of pietism that prevailed in Wheaton’s evangelical milieu. But the thing that I remember impressing me the most was the expectation of how 19th century employees were expected to use their spare time, which included not only regular Scripture reading but also that of other “edifying literature.” The entire document was redolent of a time—which has actually occupied most of history—when getting certain things done “in a hurry” took days, weeks, or even months, and now we measure our expectations for some of those same things in nanoseconds.

    I think we try to do a lot of things much more quickly, and consequently with much less attention to detail, than our forebears did. I also think that technology has played a role in speeding up the normal process of linguistic change to the point where not only has the whole concept of standardized English come under siege, but many have taken the attitude that a concern for syntax is just plain silly.

    Now: here’s to hoping there are no typos or grammatical errors in this comment.

  5. richardwolfe2 said,

    January 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Just finished reading his book, “Genesis Unbound.” It is an excellent piece of work, with much food for thought. I expect it drives YEC types nuts. But he also critiques Hugh Ross as well.

  6. paigebritton said,

    January 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Hello, Ron!!
    I heartily agree with your assessment! Have you read James Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything? Worth a couple hours.

    I like this related quote from W. H. Auden:

    To achieve anything today, an artist has to develop a conscious strictness in respect of time which in former ages might have seemed neurotic and selfish, for he must never forget that he is living in a state of siege.

    Same goes for any serious reader nowadays, I think (which ought to be, but isn’t, every Christian believer…).

  7. Cris D. said,

    January 3, 2011 at 9:00 am

    PB: thanks for the heads up on the editorial shape of Sailhammer’s book. Knowing that going in could allow me to overlook it. I remeber first really glaring instance of a book not having a strong editor with Rayburn’s O come, let us worship : corporate worship in the evangelical church; Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Book House, c1980.
    We had it hot off the press for a Practical Theology course at WTS-Philly. It looked like it went straight from the author to the typesetter. I don’t know if the problem is cost cutting in the wrong area (editing) on publishers part, or if some publishers are too deferential to some authors (let the big name edit himself/herself); or if the actual editors are too deferential. It can certainly spoil the flow of the reader’s enjoying a work.


  8. paigebritton said,

    January 3, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Yes, I agree! I am not surprised to snag four or five errors in a fat book, and I always assume there are about as many that I’ve missed…But we’re talking about dozens and dozens in this one. Don’t know what process was used — maybe Sailhamer writes everything on yellow legal pads or an old manual typewriter and gets his grad students to transcribe! — but it’s definitely the editors’ lookout (IMHO) when it’s time to publish. Fortunately there’s a lot of thoughtful text here to absorb all those typos, but still…:)

  9. January 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Paige, I wonder if this is endemic to all publishers, or more specifically to Zondervan. A number of years ago, when the Dillard-Longman OT Intro came out, I noticed an inordinate number of mistakes in the text. This included not only typographical and grammatical errors, but references without referent. In other words, the text would give a quote, then parenthetical reference (XYZ, 59), and there was no such book or article in any of the numerous bibliographies in the book.

  10. greenbaggins said,

    January 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    The same thing happened with Waltke’s Old Testament Theology, also published by Zondervan.

  11. paigebritton said,

    January 3, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Yeah, but Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch is IVP Academic. It’s probably endemic.

  12. Vern Crisler said,

    January 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Why should we be surprised that there are so many errors in Sailhamer’s book? If he can’t tell that Genesis is talking about the creation of the cosmos, not just the garden of Eden, it’s no surprise he’s too blind to see all the other errors in his book.

  13. paigebritton said,

    January 3, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    I think I am simply surprised that the editors did not follow through on the fairly basic job of tidying the text, which was their responsibility before publication. That proofing work is in a different category from the work of coming up with the ideas in the text in the first place, which is of course the author’s responsibility. I don’t see a necessary connection between the two kinds of work; but sure, the pervasiveness of errors might be the hallmark of an author’s generalized faulty thinking. But it might also be indicative of a weak link in transcription, or an absentminded prof who mostly thinks in German.

    Obviously Sailhamer’s reading of Gen. 1-2 is controversial. In your opinion, Vern, does his interpretation in this area disqualify him from saying anything worthwhile about the OT at all (as we would disqualify someone who dismissed the historicity of Adam, or the divine inspiration of the Bible)?

  14. Vern Crisler said,

    January 4, 2011 at 8:26 am

    It would not disqualify him completely Paige. ;-)

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