Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Eight

(Posted by Paige)

To conserve length here, an updated Table of Contents for these reviews so far will be found in the first comment below.

Chapter Six: The Composition of the Pentateuch

This section offers an easier read than the previous two dense chapters. In Chapter 6, Sailhamer homes in on particular examples of compositional strategy in the Pentateuch, laying out the evidence he has collected to support his claim that a single author tied it all together with a certain theological agenda in mind. As a whole, he insists, the Pentateuch tells a single and complete historical story, made of parts woven together with a plan in mind, ultimately communicating a particular theological message about the importance of “faith.” Our task as students of the Book is to ask questions about its literary structure, thus tracing its themes and harvesting its meaning from the evidence of its composition.

A question of first importance is, How does the “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11 relate to the later portions of the Pentateuch? Connections between these earliest and subsequent sections of the text are not obvious, leading some critics to decide that Gen. 1-11 must certainly have been added later. Of course, any theory that suggests a prolonged and gradual development of the Pentateuch necessarily also dismisses the idea of a single author who strategically wove blocks of narrative together. But Sailhamer urges us to look closer: he has noticed that the very structure of the “primeval history” sets a pattern that is replicated throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. It is possible that this evidence of a deliberate and repeated compositional strategy is the key to recognizing the hand of a single author from Genesis through Deuteronomy.

Rather than reproducing all of Sailhamer’s lists and examples at this point, I will just summarize the sorts of patterns he has noticed in the microcosm of Gen. 1-11, which are then repeated in the macro-structure of the whole Pentateuch. (For your reference, though, Sailhamer lists the blocks of narrative and genealogies found in Gen. 1-11 on p.306; the locations of the primeval poetry on p.315f.; and the major blocks of Pentateuchal narrative and their corresponding poems on p.323f. For those who do not have the book, I have listed the locations of the poems in the second comment below.)

Sailhamer identifies the use of poetry at the “compositional seams” of the text as the primary compositional strategy of the author of the Pentateuch. That is, in both Gen. 1-11 and in the rest of the Pentateuch, large blocks of narrative are connected together by poems that draw the reader’s attention to larger theological themes. The poems act almost as tour guides, showing the central movement of the story and its most important ideas. Of the “primeval history” Sailhamer writes,

Genesis 1-11 follows an intentional compositional strategy that links together an otherwise loose collection of minor independent narratives. The strategy largely consists of attaching poems to small units of narrative. The poems play a significant role in thematizing the author’s understanding of the meaning of each individual narrative. (318)

Each poem is presented as the words of the central character of the narrative, providing thoughtful commentary and reflection that almost always draws the reader’s attention to a long-range historical view into the future. This eschatological perspective persistently searches out the identity of the promised “seed,” a question that is raised in Genesis 3:15 and then answered at strategic moments throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Thus, “in the last days” (eschatological trajectory) a “new covenant” will be implemented with the reign of a “future king.” This forward-looking, faithful hope for one who will make things right is, Sailhamer believes, the foundational theme of the Pentateuch; later, it would become the guiding theme of the prophets.

As a specific example of Sailhamer’s approach to gleaning theological information from the compositional strategies of the text, consider his observations about Joseph and Judah. At numerous points in the Joseph narratives (Gen. 37-50), “Judah is singled out from the other brothers as the one through whom the rescue of the family of Jacob was accomplished” (327). In the poetic blessing pronounced by Jacob, Judah is connected with Joseph’s dreams through the verbal repetition of the idea of his brothers bowing down to him (Gen. 49:8b; cf. 37:7, 9f.). Although Joseph became Jacob’s “firstborn,” Judah is identified in his father’s blessing as the progenitor of the coming prince (Gen. 49:10; cf. 1 Chr. 5:1-2). Through parallelism and poetry, then, “the king who was to come from the house of Judah is foreshadowed by the life of Joseph” (328). As we learned from Chapter 5, this is one of the “searchlights” of the OT that would shine on Jesus’ life, identifying him as the Messiah.

These eschatological references are strongly underscored by the theme of “faith,” which Sailhamer observes to run throughout the Pentateuch. The explicit references to “faith” and “unbelief” prepare us for the later reflections of the prophets and New Testament writers concerning the importance of steadfast trust in the covenant-keeping God of the universe. In this regard, the compositional strategy that Sailhamer identifies is a narrative pattern of emergency, promise, faith, and certainty (cf. the discussion on p.345ff.). A focus on faith raises the further question of the purpose of the law passages in the Pentateuch, which is the subject of the next chapter.

The advantage of tracing theological data through the evidence of deliberate literary strategies is the text-immanent nature of the task. A focus on verbal patterns and literary genres keeps us looking at the text as we have it, rather than going “behind” or beyond it into extra-biblical sources or assumptions. Sailhamer’s observations about the use of poetry to bind narrative portions together suggest that there is an intelligent design back of the Pentateuch, a planful authorial strategy, rather than the amorphous, gradual development posited by critical scholars.