Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Six

(Posted by Paige)

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

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning
Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text

Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea

This chapter is so long and dense that I run the risk of either saying too much and exhausting you patient readers, or saying too little and failing to do justice to Sailhamer’s fascinating ideas. It’s another treat for the historical theologian, as Sailhamer explores the development of theories regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch, OT canon formation, and the theological significance of the compositional structure of texts. Here I will concentrate on issues of ideas, authorship, and the “compositional approach.”

“Finding the big idea,” for Sailhamer, means paying attention to the intelligent design of a text to find out where its author is taking us. As we gather clues – which may be as small as pronouns or as large as the whole Tanak – we begin to formulate an understanding of the “big idea” that the author intended to convey. But Sailhamer urges us to reread, ever more carefully, and always to be alert for details that check our understanding, on our way to an exegetically sound formulation of “the best (most valid) idea,” that is, “the one that explains the most and the most important parts of the Pentateuch” (152). “An idea,” he warns,

must not be allowed to drift like a distant cloud over the textual horizon. It must always be tethered to the text in ways directly associated with the intention (verbal meaning) of the author. Only then can such ideas be considered part of the author’s intention and find exegetical warrant in the text. (159)

Sailhamer’s own reading and rereading have brought him to a particular conclusion about the role of the law in the Pentateuch, especially in light of its rather late appearance (more than 50 chapters in!). He suggests that

the “big idea” of the Pentateuch is about both “obedience to the Mosaic law,” and “living by faith”…Ultimately, I believe, these two themes of law and faith will find their place alongside each other as a juxtaposition of law and gospel. The gospel, that is, justification by faith, is God’s means for our fulfilling the law (cf. Rom. 8:4). (156)

The current chapter sets the stage for a later exegetical defense of these “big ideas,” mainly by laying out Sailhamer’s conclusions about the authorship of the Pentateuch. He clearly assumes both the intelligent design of an original individual human author and the divine purpose underlying the text:

Behind our quest for the (human) author’s intent is, of course, the conviction that the divine intention of Scripture is to be found in the human author’s intent. (159)

But which human author? One set of Pentateuchal puzzles, of course, concerns questions of Mosaic authorship: Did he really have anything to do with it? If so, did he write the Pentateuch, or merely write it down? Did he use any prior written sources, or did he inscripturate (verbatim!) an oral revelation that had been passed along since Adam and Abraham’s time? What are we to make of the evidence of later editing here and there in the Pentateuch? Are these glosses random, or in any way related?

Sailhamer traces in this chapter some of the historical answers to the “Whodunnit?” question, beginning with the Reformers, who posited an unwritten but eyewitness oral revelation behind the material transcribed by Moses, especially in Genesis. Later evangelicals, he notes, were willing to concede that Moses may have used some written sources, but they gave little thought to how he put his book together. Finally Sailhamer offers a description of his own preferred “compositional approach,” summed up neatly as follows:

An evangelical compositional approach to biblical authorship identifies Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and seeks to uncover his strategy in “making a book.” (200)

Thus Sailhamer intends to account for the biblical witness to Mosaic authorship while also making up for the lack of discussion about what it meant for Moses to be that author. And here he makes his unique and intriguing contribution to that discussion: namely, the suggestion that there were really two human authors involved in the making of the Pentateuch. Not only does he attribute to Moses an intelligent, deliberate crafting of his material (whether gathered from other sources or composed himself), but he proposes that a second, chronologically later mind was behind (most of?) the editorial glosses that he identifies in the text of the Pentateuch. In fact, this later author/editor had the task of adding “redactional glue” throughout the Tanak, at the spots which Sailhamer calls the “compositional seams” of the text. We’ll hear more details about this later; the point here is that Sailhamer posits a single editor who held the big picture of the whole Tanak in mind, and so tweaked earlier texts now and again to reflect a theological message. As he puts it,

The present canonical Pentateuch is thus an updated version of the Mosaic Pentateuch produced, perhaps, by the “author” of the OT as a whole (Tanak). (200)

The idea of a “canonical Pentateuch,” which Sailhamer playfully dubs “Pentateuch 2.0,” requires some discussion of canon formation during the intertestamental time. I’ll not go into this here (though see the quote in the first comment below), but it’s worth checking out Sailhamer’s thoughts on this on pp.162-175, if you have the book. This is one area that I’m eager to see addressed in Reformed scholarly reactions to the book.

I’d be happy to clarify any of the above if you have questions.