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.


  1. Phil Derksen said,

    April 4, 2011 at 8:30 am

    I tend to agree with Sailhamer and Ernesti. Too often it seems modern exegetes turn grammatical-historical interpretation into historical-grammatical interpretation. I think Ernesti expressed the danger of such a rearrangement well:

    “We must not hastily conclude any sentiment of the Scriptures to be unreasonable. The meaning, which according to grammatical principles should be assigned to any word of Scripture, is not to be rejected then on account of reasons derived from ‘things’ or previously conceived opinions; for in this way, interpretation would become uncertain.

    “…Any method of interpretation not philological, is fallacious. Moreover, the method of gathering the sense of words from ‘things’ is altogether deceptive and fallacious; since ‘things’ are rather to be known from pointing out the sense of words in a proper way. It is by the ‘words’ of the Holy Spirit only that we are led to understand what we ought to think respecting ‘things.’” (Elements of Interpretation, 18, 42)

    In other words, ‘things’ like miracles can too easily be explained away or minimized when the emphasis is taken off off accepting the narrative at its grammatical face-value.

  2. Vern Crisler said,

    April 4, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Sounds Barthian….We should focus on both meaning and history, not one to the exclusion of the other.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    April 4, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Vos has some helpful comments on this in his *Biblical Theology.* We are Barthian is we view the text as a witness to the event behind the text, which is Jesus. If, however, we see the text itself as God-breathed (and therefore a complete event in itself), then we avoid that error. I agree with Sailhamer that modern scholarship is very often in danger of making an end run around the text, trying to get to the historical event. For one thing, the text is an event in and of itself (which is what I see Sailhamer saying). Secondly, the only way to understand the event is *through* the text, not *around* the text.

    Personally, I think that the danger that Sailhamer is describing was much more prevalent a generation ago than it is now, primarily because of the rise of the literary movement in biblical studies. Now, the literary movement has brought some of its own problems, admittedly. However, the literary movement has brought many people back to the awareness of the text itself, and this is helpful. Take liberal commentaries as a case in point: most of the past generation of liberal commentaries are almost completely worthless (I think of Westermann’s commentary on Genesis, which I forced myself to read in its entirety; that ought to be supererogatory works right there!). They are only interested in the history behind the text. In order to get it, they rip the text into shreds and call that ripping action “theology.” It is nothing of the sort. They make the text completely unpreachable. However, looking at more recent liberal commentaries (and here I am thinking of Brueggemann as a good example), they are much more focused on the literary aspects of the text, and they come up with some genuine insights (not denying that they still have huge problems, by the way). The literary movement has made the liberals a bit more productive in the area of theology.

  4. Cris Dickason said,

    April 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Good observations, Lane. Interesting that you framed your remarks in terms of last generation of liberal exegetes or commentators. As I recall from a previous Sailhammer thread, it was evangelicals (like C. Hodge) that Sailhammer was discussing as overly focused on historical facts, history behind the text. I think the 2 observations go together in that over-emphasis, wrong emphasis, can cause the other side in a discussion to get off-track also. When critical scholars deny the historicity of events narrated in Scripture, it’s humanly understandable that some would major on authenticating or proving or upholding the historicity being questioned.


  5. paigebritton said,

    April 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Cris has a good point:
    While dismissing the historicity of miraculous events is one problem, an overemphasis on even the most ordinary historical event described by a text (to the exclusion of considering what the author meant by recording it as he did) is another problem. The first is more likely in liberal exegesis, the second in evangelical.

    What about beginning with the history, in order to understand the text? I think this is what Wright & Enns do. (Wright will even say that without access to 2nd Temple Lit, there’s no way to understand what Paul was talking about! Too bad for those Reformers.)

  6. Richard said,

    April 5, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Paige, I think we do need to begin with the history however the question inevitably becomes – which history? Should our interpretation of the text be controlled by the final redactor, e.g. is the historical context of Isaiah pre-exilic Jerusalem or exilic Babylon? What about the historical context of the Book of the Twelve, is it the historical period the individual prophet lived in or the time when the Twelve were redacted to form a unit? What you and I think the meaning of the Pentateuch is will differ if we disagree as to when it was edited into its final form e.g. is it mostly mosaic, monarchical or exilic? Complicated stuff!

  7. Jed Paschall said,

    April 5, 2011 at 3:40 pm


    Thanks for these posts, I ordered the book today, and look forward to digging in. To your question, I think that understanding what the text means is a complicated process that involves several inputs. Attention to grammar, syntax, narrative or poetic techniques employed, canonical considerations, and issues of genre are all important at the textual level to unearth the meaning of the events. But history and archaeology are also important in uncovering meaning as well. Good historical analysis goes beyond proving the length of creation days, dating the Exodus, or authenticating the reigns of David and Solomon. It uncovers cultural conventions and historical worldviews that get us closer to understanding the author in his context.

    A great example of archaeological and historical evidence shedding light on the text’s meaning is John Walton’s interpretation of the Babel narratives. He makes a compelling, and unique case that the sin at Babel isn’t pride, rather it is idolatry. He makes the case for the offense of idolatry by arguing that the tower was a ziggurat. Ziggurat’s had a unique cultic function, serving as a sort of stairway between heaven and earth that were located adjacent to it’s temple. The stairway to the heavens allowed the gods to come down to the temples, and eat the food sacrificed to them. Early urbanization seemed to coalesce around the convention of this sort of cult. In attempting to bring the gods down to themselves, man sought to contrive gods whose needs they could meet, and control them by sacrifices. Obviously this flies in the face of how the true God is to be worshiped. So, with a twist of irony, God does come down, not to be manipulated by the distorted beliefs of these early idolaters, instead he thwarts their depraved brand of urbanization (Gen. 11:1-9). Walton outlines this in his NIV Application Commentary, and I think his case is compelling. This also likely explains Jacob’s vision at Bethel in Gen. 28:10-22.

    There are many other examples of how historical and archaeological analysis helps us understand passages of scripture. But the point of these isn’t to get behind the text to the event, it is to understand the event in light of the text, as Lane has wisely noted. It is about knowing when to use the appropriate tool. To put it more simply textual analysis and historical analysis are best used in a balanced manner that gets us to what the author is intending to communicate.

  8. Jed Paschall said,

    April 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm


    Sounds Barthian….

    How in the world can you substantiate this? Sailhammer is dealing with authorship in a way that few conservatives have dared to. Barth’s problem wasn’t textual analysis primarily anyway, at times his exegesis was brilliant, it was his assumptions about the nature of Scripture itself. Sailhamer shares none of these views. To focus on the textual witness to the event, as opposed to trying to play the part of the historical critic trying to access the event independently of the text (something conservatives and liberals are both guilty of), is to take what the text says as seriously as the author intends. I really have no idea how you cram Sailhamer into Barth’s dialectical program.

  9. Vern Crisler said,

    May 3, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Here’s an interesting discussion about Sailhammer and his relation to Derrida (nothing outside the text).

    There’s a Kantian-Barthian assumption at work here. In this view, the text is the “phenomena” and history is the “noumena” and we can’t go beyond the phenomena to the history. In the Bible, history is wholly revealed in the text and at the same time wholly hidden.

    This obsession with text leads to an overemphasis on structure, leading to structuralism or even hyper-structuralism. As I said, I don’t think we need to exalt textual meaning at the expense of history.

  10. paigebritton said,

    May 4, 2011 at 6:43 am

    Thanks, Vern! I’ll look at that link. The “maybe even sailhamer” part rings true: you could maybe class Sailhamer in that category, because he certainly pays attention to the structure of the text, and does so in a way that exceeds what many commentators nowadays do. But that would be a misread of his intent, a miscategorization based on similar vocab and interest. Let him define his own project: There’s no way that he makes a Kantian-Barthian mistake about what Scripture is — it is for him the very words of God, grounded in real human history. But it’s also a crafted work, and he is looking carefully at the craft as evidence of an artist (and the Artist behind the artist).

    His point is not that we CAN’T go beyond the text to the history, but that it’s a mistake to leave the text behind while we concentrate on the history. What we’ve got before us is not the event in itself, but the “verbal version” of the event. We get to hear about the (real, historical) event through the words, but mostly what we’ve been given to study is the “verbal version.” So that’s what he’s doing.

    Really as I’ve read this particular book, I keep thinking how much his approach is a no-brainer for Reformed readers, whom he frequently compliments for paying good attention to the text. It seems mainly to be a corrective to the hastiness of general evangelicalism, which is of course his wider intended audience.

  11. paigebritton said,

    May 4, 2011 at 6:50 am

    Okay, now I looked at the link. Wow, so you got that conclusion out of Tim Hankins on James Smith on Derrida, Carson, and Sailhamer? Have you read Smith, Derrida, Carson, and Sailhamer, and let them speak for themselves? You might jump to different conclusions if you did. :)

  12. jedpaschall said,

    May 4, 2011 at 11:08 am


    YIKES!!! Here are some telling lines:

    I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida.

    The problem is that any good conservative interpretation of Scripture stands on the extra-textual referentiality of the Scriptural passage to the events which the narrative points. That is, according to the correspondence theory of truth, do the texts refer to the historical event faithfully? If so, in which way?

    Drawing a straight line between Sailhamer and Carson to Derrida is preposterous. I assume the author of this post hasn’t read Carson’s tome The Gagging of God where he demolishes the postmodern hermenutic as a fundamental “de-godding of God”. They probably haven’t listened to his Biblical Theology lectures where he call’s Brevard Childs and the Yale school of interpreters “bibliolotrists” for erroniously refusing to deal with anything other than the text itself. To Childs and many of the Dialectical theologians such as Barth and OT scholars such as Eichrodt, Von Rad, and Link, it doesn’t matter if the text doesn’t faithfully depict real events, since the text merely points to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God, and not to the history of Israel itself.

    This post is an uncharitable depiction of Carson and Sailhamer. Sailhamer is attempting to posit an intelligent account of the composition of the Pentateuch, while maintaining that the meaning and extra textual referents (real events) are true on both theological and historical planes. Sailhamer’s essential position that the point of the Pentateuch is to encourage faith as opposed to merely administer Law is in keeping with Pauline and Reformed theology. His insistence that the Pentateuch is not only theological (noumenal), but also historical (phenomenal) flies directly against the Kantian and exestential categories that find their ultimate conclusions in postmodern hermenutics.

    The article you provided has only obscured the fundamental points for which Sailhamer and Carson write.

  13. Vern Crisler said,

    May 4, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Here is how Sailhamer uses his textualism:

    He uses it to deny the Bible’s teaching on 6 day creation. No matter how good he may be on other points, when he denies the very thing the world is attacking with Satanic savagery, he is not being faithful to the biblical text, compositional strategies or no.

    So, I say if his structuralism can’t get right with Genesis, what good is it in the long run? Leave a little room for liberalism in your methodology, and it won’t be satisfied until it infects everything.

    I often disagree with Jim Jordan’s structuralist approach to biblical interpretation, but he has some devastating criticisms of Sailhamer’s interpretations. See:

    Also, for a review, see:

  14. paigebritton said,

    May 5, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Right, Vern —
    I read Jordan’s review, too. He doesn’t agree at all with Sailhamer about the creation days, but he does note that S. is not dogmatic about his proposal, and Jordan respects that.

    The issue of the creation days does not figure into the text I am writing about: and in fact, in the one place in the book where he could have promoted his unusual view about them, he drops it for an orthodox retelling! My sense (confirmed, I think, by Jordan’s reading) is that he published in earlier works a scholarly proposal, not a firm avowal of how it must be read; and now after scholarly dialogue with others maybe he has decided to let that unusual reading go.

    (For others: his unusual reading did not deny that God created the heavens & the earth, but he read(s?) the specific day-creations as having to do with the preparation of “the land,” that is, the specific locale where the story starts, Eden. Obviously this opens the door for Old Earth views of creation.)

    The same scholarly humility is apparent in The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Sailhamer has put together a careful, God-honoring proposal, and his book is both the fruit of his long scholarship and an invitation to dialogue.

  15. jedpaschall said,

    May 5, 2011 at 10:06 am


    He uses it to deny the Bible’s teaching on 6 day creation. No matter how good he may be on other points, when he denies the very thing the world is attacking with Satanic savagery, he is not being faithful to the biblical text, compositional strategies or no.

    You’ll get no agreement here from me here Vern. I think RSC’s comment’s about YEC being a boundary-marker issue are instructive. They simply should not be. The church has a long tradition of many views on Genesis, and so long as cardinal doctrines aren’t sacrificed I am not going to call another man’s positions ‘satanic’. The fact is, any ‘scientific’ construction of the Genesis text is most cernainly interpreting the text in ways it wasn’t written to communicate. Whether YEC, OEC, or TE, there isn’t textual data sufficient to cram the primeval history into the categories of the modern debate, since the text was addressed to a pre-modern, pre-scientific audience. I am not saying these views have no merit, but I am saying these are far from the original point of the text, which primarily have to do with establishing for Israel the sovereignty of the monotheistic (read true) God over all creation versus the rampant pagan cosmogony of the ancient world. The text has more of a polemic, and liturgical value over and against ANE paganism, in it’s original context, than it has concern with the nature of the creation days.

    I am hesitant in engaging any discussion on this issue, because I am nearly certain your mind is made up prior to any arguments to the contrary. Besides, your original point was that Sailhamer was that he was Barthian. You were wrong on this, and you are now digging wherever you can to discredit his work without really engaging the material. I could really care less if you agree with him, but the mischaracterizations are a bit over the pale. Have you read any of the book yet?

  16. Vern Crisler said,

    May 5, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    And this is supposed to be Sailhamer’s new way of doing exegesis? It sounds like the old unfaithfulness to the Word of God. “Primeval history”? What’s that? If the Bible is not telling us that God created the world in 6 days, then perhaps it’s also not telling us that Jesus rose from the dead after 3 days.

    I see no — nada — polemical or liturgical interest in Genesis. That’s just a lot of speculation. Genesis is interested is history. History Jed. Not “primeval” history, but history per se. That’s the real compositional strategy of the Bible.

    It is a shameful thing to deal with God’s word in the way that you and Sailhamer, and some others do. I know structuralism is the fad nowadays, but the point is to be FAITHFUL to the text, not to invent new ways to avoid its plain teaching. As I said, if Sailhamer’s approach cannot even do that as a minimum, what good is it?

    Also, two can play at the game of ad hominem, of saying whose mind is made up before any arguments. From what I’ve read of Sailhamer, it’s Barth-lite, mixed with Derrida and structuralism. Who really needs that? Better to open your mind to the Bible and close it to those who would undermine it with unsound hermeneutical methodologies.

  17. paigebritton said,

    May 6, 2011 at 7:22 am

    Are you assuming that “primeval history” means “not really history but myth”?

    “Primeval” just means “the stuff that happened way back at the beginning of things,” and it’s a widely-used term for those first 11 chapters of Genesis. Nothing shady inherent in the term, though yeah, there are plenty of scholars who would deny that any of it happened at all.

    I don’t get the impression from Sailhamer that he doesn’t believe the primeval history really happened; but since he does not meet your first standard for trustworthiness in a commentator (a belief in a literal 6-day creation), I guess you will not find the rest of his proposals worth looking at.

  18. Vern Crisler said,

    May 6, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Paige, it’s not just a belief in 6 literal days that’s at stake. It’s how the Bible should be interpreted. All responsible commentators know that Genesis is teaching a 6 literal day creation. However, if a hermenutical methodology cannot even recognize this minimal fact — the Genesis is teaching 6 literal days — what other teachings of the Bible are going to be jettisoned? As far as I can tell, Sailhamer doesn’t really believe in a global Flood either, despite the fact the Genesis teaches a global Flood. (I think he refers to the accounts as “poetic” and leaves global and local as options.)

    The ultimate question is not how creative or fascinating one’s structural interpretations are, but how TRUSTWORTHY one’s methodology is in reflecting what the Bible actually teaches.

  19. paigebritton said,

    May 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    The ultimate question is not how creative or fascinating one’s structural interpretations are, but how TRUSTWORTHY one’s methodology is in reflecting what the Bible actually teaches.

    Well, yes. I agree with you. But you have made certain interpretations your criteria for orthodoxy/trustworthiness, and when a theologian does not meet these, their every interpretation is suspect because their character is suspect. It’s a moral issue for you, whether or not a person reads “six literal days” in the creation account or not. That’s your prerogative, of course — but it is a stricter boundary for trustworthiness than many orthodox confessionalists would draw.

    Whether or not I agree with Sailhamer’s theory about the creation days — and like I said above, it DOES NOT FIGURE INTO the book these reviews are focused on, and his view MAY HAVE CHANGED over time — I am confident that he believes in a historical Adam and Eve, in God’s sovereignty over the events of creation, in the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible, and in justification by faith. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and respectfully explore his observations about the composition of the text of the Pentateuch, whether or not I ultimately adopt his way of thinking.

    What’s happening here is instructive, though: it’s worth a reconsideration, no less on my part, as to where to draw the line between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources. I am personally finding the need to draw a boundary that fences out N. T. Wright from among the thinkers whom I allow to instruct me (though I will still read him to find out what he says). I am all for giving self-professed Christian writers the benefit of the doubt till their own words prove them false, but there has to be a boundary line somewhere.

  20. Craig H Robinson said,

    July 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I know I am kind of late on this, but for some clarity on Sailhamer.

    He clearly believes that Gen1:3-31 is literal, historical and takes place in 6 consecutive, contiguous, 24 hour days. He just believes that it is only referring to God shaping/forming/preparing the Promised Land and not the whole planet earth. He makes some very good arguments and he makes them from the biblical text. Ultimately, I disagree though he makes some very strong points. We often confuse novel with liberal. While Sailhamer’s view is novel, it is hardly liberal. Sailhamer is very conservative in his approach to the Bible.

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