Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Seven

(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

Just a disclaimer, everybody: I am writing about this book because I have been impressed by Sailhamer’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness, and intrigued by his proposals. I am not in a position to judge whether he is always correct. His ideas still need to be vetted by the Reformed scholarly community; but since the book is a very thick one, these chapter summaries are offered so more of us will have a clue about its contents as the discussion gets started.

Chapter Five: Textual Strategies within the Tanak

The two ideas that I will highlight from this chapter are the Messianic nature of the Tanak’s composition, and Sailhamer’s observations about the shape and patterns apparent in the Pentateuch. Each of these ideas will receive fuller treatment in later chapters.

The Messianic Vision of the Tanak: Although his book primarily treats the shape and message of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer offers an even wider vision at times, noting the patterns and interconnectedness present throughout the Tanak (which he assumes, based on Luke 24:44, is “the form of the OT with which Jesus and the NT authors were most familiar,” 235). This wider scope supports Sailhamer’s thesis that a later prophetic editor inserted bits of commentary into the Pentateuch here and there (thus creating “Pentateuch 2.0”), in order to help the post-exilic community to zero in on the message that the prophets had caught from Moses: the future hope of a New Covenant, and a coming king from the tribe of Judah.

This Messianic theme raises the question of the purpose of the Hebrew Bible. Does the OT require the NT’s interpretation before readers can grasp its Messianic message? Many evangelicals have answered in the affirmative, but Sailhamer turns this notion on its head: he has observed enough “prophetic echoes” of the Pentateuch within the OT to convince him that careful readers would have picked up a coherent picture of the Messiah well before he appeared. He offers Hannah’s prayer for a coming king as an example (1 Sam. 2:10), and notes that both Anna and Simeon knew what to expect. Sailhamer suggests the image of a stained glass window as a model for the OT’s Messianic vision, explaining that

[i]f there is an order and a pattern to the distribution of messianic texts, then the time has come to take a closer look at that order. What is the picture in the OT stained glass window? What is the meaning that lies behind its order, shape, and pattern? Does it have its own shape and picture, or is it an OT reflection of a NT picture? (234)

In subsequent chapters he will begin to explore the Pentateuch’s message of an eschatological king from the tribe of Judah, a message that he finds echoing and re-echoing through the rest of the Tanak.

The Making of the Pentateuch: Sailhamer’s other major concern in this chapter is the artistic design behind the “making” of the Pentateuch. In conscious contrast to the Documentary Hypothesis, he posits a singular mind behind the composition of the book, a task that likely involved the stitching together of many earlier written sources. “Its shape makes sense,” he writes, “and can be viewed as part of the intention and literary strategy of its author” (275).

Most important to his observations about “shape” are the placements of poems and blocks of law in the Pentateuch. Within a basically chronological arrangement, Sailhamer finds that evenly distributed poems connect the large blocks of narrative, and seem to be “a comprehensive organizational feature of the entire Pentateuch” (278). (A list of the poems he will study in future chapters is in the first comment below.) Sailhamer explains,

From what we can gather from his use of poetry, the author highly valued poems as a way of picturing the broader meaning of the texts he was linking together. To understand the Pentateuch, it is important to pay close attention to its poetry. (277)

Another puzzle is the variety and distribution of laws in the Pentateuch. Why are they not grouped in one section? What hint does their placement among the narratives give about the author’s attitude towards these laws? Again, these questions will be pursued in a couple of later chapters.

In summary, Sailhamer writes,

The unity of the book’s plan, its design and scope, betray a singularity of purpose that can only be described as that of an author (mens auctoris). The aim of a theology of the Pentateuch lies in the discovery of that purpose through careful examination of the author’s compositional strategy. Ultimately, our aim is not to deconstruct the Pentateuch, but to let it remain intact and attempt to sort out its various parts, assigning some weight of importance to their pattern of distribution within his book. The goal must always be guided by the hope of catching the author at work, which means seeking to know what he is attempting to say in this work and allowing him, at his leisure, to guide us through the book. For this task, one must become an attentive and sensitive reader. (282)


  1. paigebritton said,

    June 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Here are the poems that Sailhamer is referring to. He discusses these in detail in later chapters. The links take you to the ESV version of the passages.

    Gen. 3:14-19 (Curses after the Fall)

    Gen. 49:2-27 (Jacob’s Blessing)

    Ex. 15:1-19 (Song of Moses)

    Num. 23-24 (Balaam’s Oracles)

    Deut. 32-33 (Song of Moses)

  2. Jed Paschall said,

    June 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm


    Sailhamer seems also to be largely in agreement with Calvin’s covenantal program in pp. 526-32, and draws off of Calvin’s and Paul’s Messianic reading of the OT/Pentaneuch. He seems to agree with Calvin’s reading of Paul in Galatians where the Abrahamic covenant and not the Mosaic covenant is the controlling covenant in the OT.

  3. paigebritton said,

    June 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks, Jed! Yes, the priority of the Abrahamic covenant is very much Sailhamer’s theme. He builds up to it bit by bit in these next chapters.

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