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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