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.



  1. paigebritton said,

    August 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Locations of Poems in the Pentateuch:

    (Links are to ESV.)

    Primeval Poetry: Gen. 1:27; 2:23; 3:14-19; 4:23-24; 5:29; 9:25-27

    Major Blocks of Narrative in Pentateuch:

    1. The primeval history (Gen. 1-11)
    2. The patriarchal narratives (Gen. 12-50)
    3. The exodus narratives (Ex. 1-19)
    4. The wilderness narratives (Num. 11-25)
    5. The conquest narratives (Deut. 1-11)

    Four Major Poems in Pentateuch:

    1. Gen. 49:1-27
    2. Exodus 15:1-21
    3. Num. 23-24
    4.Deut. 32-33

  2. Jed Paschall said,

    August 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm


    Thanks again, this has got to be my favorite series out there on the blogosphere, not to mention a breath of fresh air from all of the 2k debates dominating GB currently! I have fallen behind on Sailhamer lately so I’ll shoot with a couple of exploratory questions:

    1) Given Sailhamer’s approach that deals with compositional strategy in such a way that he seeks to re-focus the discussion to what is happening “in” the text as opposed to “behind” the text, do you think he pays adequate attention to refuting arguments by critical scholars (e.g. source criticism and Documentary Hypothesis)?

    2) Related to the first question, does Sailhamer seek to modify the origin of textual sources? Does he offer theories as to the origins of the primeval history, patriarchal narratives, etc.?

  3. paigebritton said,

    August 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Great questions, Jed! (Thanks for being my #1 — or is that just 1 — fan, BTW!!)

    1. Sailhamer does not go into detail directly refuting the documentary hypothesis here — that would probably be a polemical track more suited to some of his other works. If you look at p.275f., though, he specifically distinguishes the compositional from the critical view. And essentially every argument he puts forth in the book for the “intelligent design” of one author is his refutation of those critical theories of prolonged and disconnected textual development.

    2. I’m not sure what you mean by “modify the origin of textual sources.” He does support the theory that the primeval material of Gen. 1-11 and the patriarchal narratives came to Moses in written form: “Moses used written texts that he gathered from various sources and provided them with commentary, much like a modern producer of a documentary film” (207, from ch. 4 which has an extended discussion of the “how” of making the Pentateuch.).

    Hope those notes are helpful!
    Paige B.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    August 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    “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.” This is the key insight here, and the thesis that it is the poems at the seams is also very interesting. My only question would be this; how far from the “seam” is the poem allowed to be? The reason I ask is that some of the poems you mentioned seem to be a fair distance from the purported seam to which it belongs.

  5. paigebritton said,

    August 3, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Hi, Lane,
    Yes, another good question. I think Sailhamer’s observation about the poems is the most intriguing part of his proposal for finding the “meaning of the Pentateuch,” and I am curious to know how other OT scholars view his observations. Are they perceptive, or forced?

    Here’s how he explains the links between the blocks of narrative and the poems in the Pentateuch (past the primeval material in Gen. 1-11; note that the “compositional seams” are not necessarily located at the ends of the blocks of narrative I listed above):

    1. The first poem, Gen. 49:1-27, is positioned at the conclusion of the “patriarchal history” (Gen. 12-48). Gen. 49:28-33 is an epilogue.

    2. The second poem, Ex. 15:1-18, concludes the narrative which recounts the “exodus from Egypt” (Ex. 1-14). Exodus 15:19-21 is the epilogue.

    3. The poetic material in Num. 23-24 concludes the narratives dealing with the wilderness wanderings (Num 10-22). Numbers 24:25 is the epilogue.

    4. The poem(s) in Deut. 32-33 conclude the narratives of the conquest of the Transjordan that are part of the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1-10). Deuteronomy 34:1-4 is the epilogue. (324)

    There is indeed a considerable distance between the narratives of Deuteronomy and the poems of Deut. 32-33, and I can’t find Sailhamer’s explanation for why he links the two anyway. It probably has to do with subject matter, as if the legal material and final address that precedes the poems are sort of a long “aside.” (I might have included Deut. 31 as part of the narrative collection, too.) Certainly it is significant that these major poems round out the whole Pentateuch.

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