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.


  1. paigebritton said,

    February 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Here’s where we’ve been so far with these reviews:

    My Introduction
    Sailhamer’s Introduction (Sailhamer introduces the concept of the “compositional approach,” and sketches the themes of law and faith in the Pentateuch.)
    Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology (What Sailhamer calls “Pauline” themes of new covenant and justification by faith can, he believes, be found along the “compositional seams” of the Pentateuch.)
    Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning (Sailhamer suggests that evangelicals have come to value biblical texts for the historical events they tell about, rather than paying attention to the way the text is a made thing, crafted in a certain way to convey what is in an author’s mind.)
    Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text (Sailhamer advocates paying close attention to the particular way an author has presented an event, rather than trying to get “beyond” the text to the historical event itself.)
    Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea (Sailhamer presents the idea that the current version of the Pentateuch is the “upgrade” from an original, thanks to the slight editorial assistance of a later editor from the time of the post-exilic prophets.)
    Chapter Five: Textual Strategies within the Tanak (Here Sailhamer stresses the need to note the “compositional seams” of the Pentateuch, where clues to the author’s theological emphases are found.)
    Chapter Six:The Composition of the Pentateuch (In this chapter, Sailhamer examines the poetry of the Pentateuch to highlight the author’s references to a coming eschatological king from the tribe of Judah.)
    Chapter Seven: Exploring the Composition of Legal Material in the Pentateuch (Sailhamer argues that each subsequent set of laws in the Pentateuch were given in response to specific instances of Israel’s sin.)
    Chapter 8: The Nature of Covenant and Blessing in the Pentateuch (In this chapter, the author seeks to develop a particular theological understanding of promise in the OT based on a compositional approach to the text of the Pentateuch, focusing specifically on Gen. 15:1-5.)

  2. February 23, 2012 at 9:12 am

    With respect to the Abrahamic promise, it’s fascinating that Sailhamer appears to be following Calvin’s interpretive method in allowing the narrative to speak for itself, while also being oriented toward a more fundamental reality, that is, the coming of the singular One in whom all nations would be blessed. The recovery of this sort of intertextual method is worth paying attention to.

  3. paigebritton said,

    February 23, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks, James. I agree. Sailhamer is looking at intertextual / innertextual echoes at a level of detail that I have never encountered before. It’s like hiking the Sierras with a geologist.

  4. rfwhite said,

    February 24, 2012 at 8:27 am

    PB: Without access to the book, let me ask this question: does Sailhammer consider the Melchizedek material of Gen 14 in his treatment and, if so, what is the gist of that consideration? I ask because the letter to the Hebrews makes so much of Melchizedek and Abraham.

  5. paigebritton said,

    February 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Hi, Dr. White,
    Yes, Sailhamer does discuss Melchizedek in this volume, although not in this chapter. While the Messianic connection that is brought out in Hebrews might fit with the “biblical Jesus” theme of ch. 9, here Sailhamer seems to be exploring territory that few others have covered, finding connections via those inner/intertextual echoes of the words of the Abrahamic covenant.

    When he does bring up Melchizedek, it is in an interesting discussion about the centrality of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Pentateuch, despite appearances that suggest the Ptch is mostly about Mosaic Law (ch.7). Sailhamer notices that the figures of Melchizedek, Jethro, and Cyrus (and their Hebrew counterparts, Abraham, Moses, and Ezra) point to the inclusion of the nations in God’s plan of redemption (as per Gen. 12:3). If you ever have the chance to thumb through the book, there is a detailed chart of the parallels among these three accounts on pp.370-371. (I didn’t deal with this material in my review of ch. 7, choosing to focus on the chapter’s main theme of the composition of legal material in the Ptch. Too much stuff to cover in one post! :)

    Thanks for asking!
    Paige B.

  6. Trent said,

    May 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Paige. I am a little lost what is the point?…so far just from what you have said it seems elementary to anyone who’s read from a study Bible or a devout theological student rather than Sailhamer’s life of study. No offense to him.
    To rephrase my question, the Pentateuch reveals the ‘seed’ and has a unique literary composition to tell the story. Is that all he goes into?
    I am not trying to be rude by any means, it’s really hard to phrase a question like that over a comment.

  7. paigebritton said,

    May 22, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Hi, Trent,
    Thanks for your question. Don’t know if you’ve glanced at the other chapter reviews, which might broaden the scope for you of what Sailhamer is trying to do with this Theology that is particularly original. Yes, the theme of this chapter — the “seed” of the OT as Jesus in the New — is of course familiar to us; but the very detailed and specific observations that he makes about “inner-” and “inter-” textual connections re. the seed are unusually insightful. I couldn’t begin to pack them all into the above review post. :)

    This is only one of the fruits that Sailhamer reaps from his very text-centered approach to the Pentateuch, and it may indeed be the one that reads most like preaching to the choir. But he may have a particular audience in mind who still needs convincing.

    Paige B.

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