Not Your Grandfather’s Mosaic Covenant

Okay, I’ll fess up, this is a bait-and-switch: really this post is “Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Nine,” posted by Paige. But now that you’re reading, don’t stop. The content of this chapter should pique most of you enough to argue with it, so have at it!

Diehard Sailhamer fans and other intrepid researchers can find links to the reviews in this series (so far) in the first comment below.

Chapter 7: Exploring the Composition of Legal Material in the Pentateuch

When last we tuned in, Dr. Sailhamer was observing the presence of poetry at the “compositional seams” of the Pentateuch, which indicated to him the hand of an individual author tying together the text with the message of a coming eschatological king from the tribe of Judah. This bit was novel and potentially insightful, but not altogether startling.

Now Sailhamer turns to the puzzles posed by the presence of legal material in the Pentateuch. What is the purpose of the various collections of laws in the text? Why are there differences between details in these collections (e.g., between the earthen and brazen altars of Ex. 20:24-26 & Ex. 27:1-8)? Why is the narrative interrupted by large blocks of law (or, conversely, why are there islands of narrative in large lagoons of law?)?

Where critical scholarship sees “strata,” or the evidence of diverse sources gradually adding material over time, Sailhamer sees strategy: the intelligent design of one author who wishes to convey a particular message even through the very structure of the text. Now, Calvin also assumed a unity of purpose behind the various laws, identifying them all as belonging to the same covenant. But this is “not your grandfather’s Mosaic Covenant,” according to Sailhamer*: what’s happening through Exodus and Leviticus, he suggests, is actually a series of metamorphoses of the relationship between Israel and her God. That is to say, the legal material in the Pentateuch traces “a dynamic transition from a covenant like Abraham’s to one like Sinai” (381), each stage of this “transition” occurring after a scene of sinful disobedience on Israel’s part.

Here are (some of) the specifics that Sailhamer lays out in support of his reading (your questions and challenges may give me opportunity to add some more of his details in the comments below):

There are three instances where the disobedience of the people is followed in the text by an increase in specific laws, thus (Sailhamer posits) altering Israel’s relationship with God from being a covenant like Abraham’s – relatively simple, with no long lists of stipulations besides the Decalogue – to the full-blown Mosaic covenant, replete with details about priests, place, and purity. First (in order of most well-known) is the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), which is followed by further elaborations on the Priestly Code (Ex. 35-Lev.16). More obscure is a similar sacrifice to goat idols (Lev. 17:1-9), which is followed by the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26). And finally, though the event comes first chronologically, Sailhamer explores the possibility that the people’s fear and trembling at Mt. Sinai was the initial disobedience that changed their relationship with God and required the institution of the priesthood (including the “Covenant Code” of Ex.20:22-23:33 and the beginning of the Priestly Code in Ex. 25-30). (A tad more will be said about this one below.)

Sailhamer writes,

What begins to emerge from these observations of the narrative strategy is the notion that the biblical portrayal of the covenant at Sinai was not intended to be read in terms of a static unchangeable set of regulations. The author wants, instead, to show that Israel’s relationship with God, established in no uncertain terms at Sinai, almost immediately began to undergo important changes, due principally to Israel’s repeated failure to obey God. (363)

In short, as Paul puts it in Gal. 3:19, “law was added because of transgressions.” Sailhamer adds,

Israel’s initial relationship with God at Sinai, characterized by the patriarchal simplicity of the Covenant Code, was now to be characterized by a complex and restrictive code of laws belonging principally to the priests. (363)

While the Golden Calf incident is the most outstanding example of the people’s sin in this pattern of disobedience and increased stipulations, Sailhamer identifies the initial problem as occurring at Mt. Sinai, when the people begged Moses to meet with God on their behalf because they were terrified (Ex. 19). Here the usual English translation of Ex. 19:13, “they shall come up to the mountain,” obscures the original story as told in the Hebrew – at the sound of the trumpet, the people were to come up “in” the mountain, not merely to the foot of it; and because they refused, the initial offer of immediate relationship with their God was rescinded and replaced by the mediatorial role of Moses and the other priests.

Note that Sailhamer’s theories about the significance of the arrangement of legal material in the text fit with his thesis that the Pentateuch was never meant to be Israel’s rule book, but rather a book about the “new covenant” that was to come, based on faith rather than law.

So! There are the bare bones of it. Initial thoughts? Further questions? Did I give you enough to wrestle with? Quiz me for more – it’s a dense chapter.

*Though the title of this post is my own tongue-in-cheekiness, not his!