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!


  1. greenbaggins said,

    August 13, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Paige, I gather from this post that Sailhamer’s take on the Mosaic covenant is that it is NOT part of the covenant of grace? It seemed to be indicated by the “metamorphosis” language describing a change from Abraham to Sinai. Would this be an accurate assessment?

  2. paigebritton said,

    August 13, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Hi, Lane, you quick reader you —

    A couple things.

    First off, remember that Sailhamer is standing outside Reformed (and Covenant) theology looking in, if he speaks about the “CoG” or the “CoW”. He himself does not use these categories. He does give an excellent (very fair, I think) summary of Covenant Theology, as well as dispensationalist and biblical (promise) theology, in chapter 10, which explores further the purpose of the Mosaic law in the Pentateuch. (Remember, too, that he is writing for a general evangelical audience, mainly made up of pastors & sem students.)

    So no, he does not see the Mosaic law as part of the “Covenant of Grace,” but then he does not presuppose or write in these terms (although he expresses admiration for Calvin and covenant theology in general). He points out both positive and negative aspects of the Mosaic law, but really highlights the Abrahamic covenant as the covenant that best describes a relationship of faith.

    Sailhamer’s concern is to explore what can be know of the author’s intentions for the Pentateuch from the way the various texts are woven together. And his conclusion about what the Pentateuch is (I sound like Enns!) goes like this (from Ch. 10):

    The Pentateuch, as a book, came after and later than the making of the Sinai covenant. As such, the Pentateuch is not called a “book of the covenant.” It is a book that tells the story of the covenant at Sinai and its failure. The Pentateuch is about Sinai and its covenant, but it is not written on behalf of that covenant. It is written from the perspective of one whose eyes are fixed not on Sinai but on “the covenant” that lies beyond Sinai. (552)


  3. paigebritton said,

    August 13, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Lane again:
    Another way to look at it is, if Sailhamer is right about the significance of the compositional pattern he has noticed, would that make any difference for our Covenant Theology? Would it have to be rethought?

    My initial take is, no, not really — the Mosaic Covenant might have a different shape than we’re used to (dynamic, rather than static, over the course of the Pentateuch), but we’d still be able to call the additions to the Mosaic Covenant “gracious” (if we were inclined to do so already).


  4. Joel said,

    August 17, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I just had to say thanks for this series on Sailhamer’s book. I am almost through the book myself and these summaries have been very helpful. I hope you will put them all together when you are done in a pdf type format.

  5. paigebritton said,

    August 17, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Thanks back, Joel!
    Yeah, when they are all done I’ll compile them and make them available in a couple of ways, both online and pdf. I figure they’ll be useful to somebody that way, too.
    Paige B.

  6. rfwhite said,

    August 18, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Paige: I have wanted to ask you to clarify a detail for me.

    In the main post, you said, There are three instances where the disobedience of the people is followed in the text by an increase in specific laws … First (in order of most well-known) is the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), which is followed by the lengthy Priestly Code (Ex. 25-Lev.16).

    Since Ex 32 doesn’t follow Ex 25-31, how does Sailhammer work out the relationships among these chapters and still make his point that laws are added after the people’s disobedience?

  7. paigebritton said,

    August 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Oh, good catch. I was reading my notes too quickly there.

    I ought to have written Ex. 35-Lev. 16, which is the more elaborated part of the Priestly Code — an increase in detail because of the second instance of sin.

    The instructions for priests and tabernacle that occur before the narrative of the Golden Calf are explained as being the result of the people’s sin of disobedience at the mountain, requiring a mediator and a set-apart place of worship.

    I changed my post to reflect your catch. Thanks!!
    Paige B.

  8. rfwhite said,

    August 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Ah, that works. Thanks.

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