Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Ten

(Posted by Paige) (Edit: I just noticed this one is TEN, not ELEVEN. Not that anybody really cares. :)

Still plugging away at this tome – only three chapters to go after this one!

The first comment below provides a brief summary of each chapter, and links to my previous reviews. Links to biblical references within this post fetch up the ESV.

Chapter 9: Is There a “Biblical Jesus” of the Pentateuch?

As suggested by this chapter’s title, Sailhamer’s interest here is in identifying and tracing whatever message the Pentateuch may contain about a Coming One, known to us via the NT as the historical Jesus, but anticipated since the beginning of the story as the Savior of Israel and the world. (Sailhamer notes that by calling this figure the “biblical Jesus” he means to be “transparently anachronistic ,” not credulous about the OT writers’ prior knowledge of a specific man by this name.) In keeping with the overall thrust of the book, this chapter investigates in some detail how the deliberate composition of the Pentateuch contributes to a theological message of expectation that points to Jesus. Sailhamer offers both innertextual (within the Pentateuch) and intertextual (between other biblical books and the Pentateuch) studies to support his conclusion that Moses intended his audience to anticipate a singular “seed” of Abraham who would also be a king from the tribe of Judah.

To start off, Sailhamer reviews his theories about the “making” of the Pentateuch, reminding us of his conviction that an individual author used his own compositions as well as other sources, connecting these texts in a meaningful way. In particular, the poems that occur at the “compositional seams” between major blocks of narrative act both as literary glue and as clues to the theological intent of the Pentateuch. “The next aspect of the making of the Pentateuch,” he writes, “involved weaving into these narratives a series of theological motifs or themes (theologomena)” (466). Ultimately, the echoes of these themes by way of “learned quotations” both within the Pentateuch and in the writings of later psalmists and prophets reinforce the original theological intentions of the author.

Sailhamer then offers a series of detailed studies of texts where such “learned quotations” and cross-references occur, beginning with innertextual connections within the Pentateuch itself (see pp.464-481 for details). He identifies a link between Gen. 12:3, Gen. 27:29, and Gen. 49:8-10 that to him suggests a deliberate effort to associate Abraham, the blessing of the nations, and the promised “seed” with the royal line of Judah. Additional examples of “learned quotations” from Num. 24:5-9 and Deut. 33:4-7 reinforce these connections. Sailhamer explains,

It seems clear that these learned quotations of the promise narratives within the Pentateuch’s poems are intentional. Their intent is to identify the “seed” promised to Abraham (Gen. 12) with the “scepter from the tribe of Judah” (Gen. 49) and Balaam’s victorious “king” (Num. 24). The “king” in each of these poems is thus linked directly to the promise of the “seed” of Abraham. (476)

Emphasized in all of this discussion is Sailhamer’s conviction that the author of the Pentateuch means his audience to understand Abraham’s promised “seed” to be a singular rather than a collective figure, as Paul asserts in Gal. 3:16. “To be sure,” he concedes, “at numerous points in the promise narratives, the identity of the ‘seed’ of Abraham is clearly understood collectively. But, as true as that observation is, it is not the whole story” (478). In fact, Sailhamer insists, careful reading of the Pentateuch by the later biblical writers resulted in a reinforcement of a singular interpretation of the “seed,” as evidenced by learned quotations throughout the rest of the Tanakh. Hannah’s prayer for a future king (in 1 Sam. 2; see especially v.10) is cited as a demonstration that “later readers of the Pentateuch were aware of the prophetic meaning of these early poems in the Pentateuch” (471). Sailhamer also examines Jeremiah 4:2 – “The nations in him will be blessed” – in its immediate and canonical context (see pp.481-499); Psalm 72 (which quotes the same text; see pp.499-510); and the intriguing singular/plural pronoun puzzle of Num. 23:22 and Num. 24:8 (see pp.518-521). Perhaps my favorite of his supporting arguments concerns Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, which, Sailhamer insists, was applied metaphorically by the Evangelist precisely because Hosea had already assigned a metaphorical meaning to the historical exodus event, in light of a coming king (see pp.510-518).

Sailhamer concludes this chapter with a respectful appreciation of John Calvin’s understanding of the singular “seed” promised to Abraham, and he leaves us with his studied opinion that even the earliest books of Scripture contain God’s call to faith in the singular Coming One. He writes,

Abraham’s faith (Gen. 15:6) was grounded in the work of an individual (singular) descendant (“seed” [Gen. 22:18]) of Abraham, through whom God’s primeval blessing (Gen. 1:28) and eternal life (Gen. 3:22) would be restored to all humanity (Gen. 49:10). In the patriarchal narratives and poetry, religion of the patriarchs is cast as essentially a pre-Christian version of NT faith – a faith in an “individual seed” of Abraham who is identified as a coming king from the house of Judah who was the mediator of the Abrahamic covenant. This was the king from Judah who is the focus of the Pentateuch’s poetry and narrative symbolism. (533f.)

If you read just one chapter of this large work, I’d suggest you read this one, both for a taste of Sailhamer’s exceptional “compositional” approach and for the detailed innertextual and intertextual studies he offers to support his convictions.