Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Five

Here’s the Table of Contents for these reviews so far:

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning

Chapter 3: What is the “Historical Meaning” of the Biblical Text?

In Chapter 3, Sailhamer provides a feast for the historical theologian as he explores what has become of the notion of the “historical-grammatical” practice of reading Scripture. His claim is that, as originally intended by the 19th century German theologian Johann August Ernesti, this phrase referred to “a literary and linguistic understanding of the biblical text and its composition” (101); but later,via an English mistranslation, the synonyms “historical” and “grammatical” began to take on separate meanings for evangelicals*, leading to the prioritization of historical reconstructions of events over the careful study of the “verbal versions” of those events. This change of emphasis, Sailhamer writes,

shifts the focus from the biblical narratives, as historical accounts of real events, to the events themselves…lying outside the narratives. Thus, the task of the study of biblical “history” in this new orientation of method consists of clarifying, explaining and adding to the biblical narrative depictions of biblical events. We do so by filling in the details of the events from our growing knowledge of ancient history. (101)

While archaeology and historical reconstructions have their place in our studies, Sailhamer argues that the task of hermeneutics is mainly verbal: it is to discover “the meaning embodied in biblical narratives” (103), paying attention to what is provided by the author rather than filling in the details he has not given us. In this vein, Sailhamer offers this artistic observation by way of illustration:

Using modern historical tools, we have the same ability to fill in the historical details of scriptural narratives as we have of painting intricate details of 17th century life over the shadows of a Rembrandt painting. By painting shadows, Rembrandt deliberately left out many historical details that would have given us much information about the events he recorded on canvas…Rembrandt’s meaning lies as much in what is not seen in his painting as in what is seen. The shadows, by blocking out the irrelevant details, help us focus on what is seen. The effect of our adding more details to the painting would be to lose Rembrandt’s focus. (104)

Additionally, because the narratives in the OT are so lifelike, it is easy to mistake them for the events themselves, overlooking the reality that they were written by an author who had a particular purpose in mind and arranged his words just so. Sailhamer affirms Ernesti’s conception of the “historical dimension of a text,” which is simply “the ‘fact’ that at a certain place and time in the past a living human being recorded a word in a text in such a way that its meaning (usage) could be derived by reading that text” (118). Not only does this conception promote an author-focused entry to the biblical text (rather than an events-focused approach), it also preserves the idea of the inspiration of the very words of the text by calling us to focus on the very words of the text.

Without losing sight of the historicity of the events that are described, Sailhamer insists that we must remember that we are dealing with “verbal versions” of those events rather than the events themselves; and thus we should pay closer attention to the intelligent design of the author’s presentation than to historical reconstructions of the events he narrates. Once again, and from another angle, we arrive at Sailhamer’s text-immanent approach to reading Scripture.

So, what think you? What role should archaeology have in biblical hermeneutics? Is it possible to focus so much on the events described by a text that we forget to wonder about the “fact” of the text itself? And which is more important for understanding the meaning of scriptural narratives: discerning the author’s arrangement of his ideas in a textual form (which then can be related to other texts), or analyzing and filling out the details of the events described in that text?

*Recall that Sailhamer is writing for a general evangelical audience. He is actually quite complimentary of Reformed work in this area.