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.