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.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Nine

(Posted by Paige)

For those of you who would like to catch up on the other chapter reviews in this series, links to previous posts are found in the first comment below. As it has been a while since I have been able to write one of these, I’ve also attempted a one-sentence summary of each review to remind you of Sailhamer’s main themes and claims.

Chapter 8: The Nature of Covenant and Blessing in the Pentateuch

Chapter 8 opens the book’s third and final section, “Interpreting the Theology of 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. So that you may know the end from the beginning, let me offer a sketch of his conclusions before summarizing his larger concerns in this chapter:

In the dialogue that opens Genesis 15, Sailhamer identifies verses 3 and 4 as “commentary” on God’s promise of a great reward (v.1) and Abraham’s complaint that he has no direct descendant to be his heir (v.2). In other words, Sailhamer sees verses 3 and 4 as authorial glosses, meant to explain something to the reader about the “great reward” and, most importantly, about the identity of “Abraham’s seed.” While v.5 uses “seed” to refer to multiple descendants, vv.3-4 specifies a singular seed.

Sailhamer recognizes in vv.3-4 the theme of a singular Coming One, a refrain he has observed at other so-called compositional seams of the Pentateuch, most notably in the poetry. The apparently deliberate authorial strategy of Genesis 15 thus certifies this passage to him as a significant compositional seam, and its message (of justification by faith and a singular “seed”) as reflecting the theology of the whole Pentateuch in capsule form. From this conclusion it is just a small step over to Galatians 3:16, where Abraham’s seed is clearly identified by Paul as the (singular) Christ.

All that I have just summarized about Gen. 15 fits nicely into the familiar biblical pattern of Promise-and-Fulfillment, by which an OT prophecy is realized (i.e., made real) by NT people and events. Put simply, God’s (OT) promise to Abraham in Gen. 15 of a singular “seed” is actualized in Christ (NT). Yet up to this point in chapter 8, Sailhamer’s main concern has been to expose the inadequacy of Promise Theology to address the differences between OT and NT conceptions of promise. Sailhamer spends time on both Gerhardus Vos’ and Walter Kaiser’s approaches to promise and fulfillment, and concludes that any theological model that “looks only to the NT future for the meaning that it assigns to the OT books” inevitably devalues the OT and misses the significance of covenant in the OT (423). He writes,

Consequently, the focal point of the Old Testament’s theology is drawn not around the Old Testament as such, but within a future hope centered largely on New Testament texts. An important result of such repositioning of focus is that it overlooks almost entirely the present use of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. After the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament promise has been unwrapped, little is left of the Old Testament other than the packaging. (423f.)

Sailhamer argues that the way “promise” is conceived of in the OT is less a matter of future (i.e., NT) fulfillment, and more an expression of present blessing and relationship. He likens the OT concept of covenant promise to marriage, in which the spouses’ vows of fidelity to one another do not look to the future for their realization, but extend from the moment of avowal onward. In Sailhamer’s words,

…the kind of promise recorded in biblical narratives such as Genesis was such that was fulfilled at the moment of its expression in those same narratives. Like marriage vows, they require no time period before one can speak of their fulfillment…The divine promise (in the Old Testament), “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” is realized (actualized) in the present as a divine-human relationship. It is not merely a prophetic word about the future that must be fulfilled. (432f.)

Thus, in Sailhamer’s view, a “full-orbed” promise theology would incorporate both presently-realized covenants and the future hopes of specific pledges fulfilled (such as the singular “seed” of Genesis 15), rather than merely and exclusively concentrating on future-oriented models of OT promise (“a sort of time bomb set to go off at a particular time,” 430). Only in this way can the value of the OT be preserved.

I found this particular chapter to be unsatisfying for a few reasons. For one, a lack of editorial guidance at the end is apparent – unless you can read Latin and Greek, the final paragraphs will be unintelligible to you, and the absence of a thematic wrap-up leaves a number of loosely connected threads dangling.

Second, Sailhamer’s notion that Gen. 15:3-4 is an “authorial gloss” raises questions of historicity – so, did Abraham have this exchange with the Lord about the singular seed, or did Moses put these words into his mouth, so to speak? Sailhamer does not take time to explore the implications of his “discovery” of redaction here.

Finally, while he protests against those theological models that “devalue” the OT by concentrating exclusively on its spiritualized fulfillment in the NT, Sailhamer is not at this point forthcoming on what he believes is the OT’s “value” for the Christian. He will return to this theme in the conclusion of his book (in an insightful and worthy manner, in my judgment), but at this point he leaves the question of present-time value unanswered.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Nine

If any of you actually wanted to read the next chapter review of this book, it is here. (I hid it under a different name, and you might have missed it!) Enjoy.

Paige B.

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!

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.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Seven

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s an updated Table of Contents for these reviews so far:

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning
Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text
Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea

Just a disclaimer, everybody: I am writing about this book because I have been impressed by Sailhamer’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness, and intrigued by his proposals. I am not in a position to judge whether he is always correct. His ideas still need to be vetted by the Reformed scholarly community; but since the book is a very thick one, these chapter summaries are offered so more of us will have a clue about its contents as the discussion gets started.

Chapter Five: Textual Strategies within the Tanak

The two ideas that I will highlight from this chapter are the Messianic nature of the Tanak’s composition, and Sailhamer’s observations about the shape and patterns apparent in the Pentateuch. Each of these ideas will receive fuller treatment in later chapters.

The Messianic Vision of the Tanak: Although his book primarily treats the shape and message of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer offers an even wider vision at times, noting the patterns and interconnectedness present throughout the Tanak (which he assumes, based on Luke 24:44, is “the form of the OT with which Jesus and the NT authors were most familiar,” 235). This wider scope supports Sailhamer’s thesis that a later prophetic editor inserted bits of commentary into the Pentateuch here and there (thus creating “Pentateuch 2.0”), in order to help the post-exilic community to zero in on the message that the prophets had caught from Moses: the future hope of a New Covenant, and a coming king from the tribe of Judah.

This Messianic theme raises the question of the purpose of the Hebrew Bible. Does the OT require the NT’s interpretation before readers can grasp its Messianic message? Many evangelicals have answered in the affirmative, but Sailhamer turns this notion on its head: he has observed enough “prophetic echoes” of the Pentateuch within the OT to convince him that careful readers would have picked up a coherent picture of the Messiah well before he appeared. He offers Hannah’s prayer for a coming king as an example (1 Sam. 2:10), and notes that both Anna and Simeon knew what to expect. Sailhamer suggests the image of a stained glass window as a model for the OT’s Messianic vision, explaining that

[i]f there is an order and a pattern to the distribution of messianic texts, then the time has come to take a closer look at that order. What is the picture in the OT stained glass window? What is the meaning that lies behind its order, shape, and pattern? Does it have its own shape and picture, or is it an OT reflection of a NT picture? (234)

In subsequent chapters he will begin to explore the Pentateuch’s message of an eschatological king from the tribe of Judah, a message that he finds echoing and re-echoing through the rest of the Tanak.

The Making of the Pentateuch: Sailhamer’s other major concern in this chapter is the artistic design behind the “making” of the Pentateuch. In conscious contrast to the Documentary Hypothesis, he posits a singular mind behind the composition of the book, a task that likely involved the stitching together of many earlier written sources. “Its shape makes sense,” he writes, “and can be viewed as part of the intention and literary strategy of its author” (275).

Most important to his observations about “shape” are the placements of poems and blocks of law in the Pentateuch. Within a basically chronological arrangement, Sailhamer finds that evenly distributed poems connect the large blocks of narrative, and seem to be “a comprehensive organizational feature of the entire Pentateuch” (278). (A list of the poems he will study in future chapters is in the first comment below.) Sailhamer explains,

From what we can gather from his use of poetry, the author highly valued poems as a way of picturing the broader meaning of the texts he was linking together. To understand the Pentateuch, it is important to pay close attention to its poetry. (277)

Another puzzle is the variety and distribution of laws in the Pentateuch. Why are they not grouped in one section? What hint does their placement among the narratives give about the author’s attitude towards these laws? Again, these questions will be pursued in a couple of later chapters.

In summary, Sailhamer writes,

The unity of the book’s plan, its design and scope, betray a singularity of purpose that can only be described as that of an author (mens auctoris). The aim of a theology of the Pentateuch lies in the discovery of that purpose through careful examination of the author’s compositional strategy. Ultimately, our aim is not to deconstruct the Pentateuch, but to let it remain intact and attempt to sort out its various parts, assigning some weight of importance to their pattern of distribution within his book. The goal must always be guided by the hope of catching the author at work, which means seeking to know what he is attempting to say in this work and allowing him, at his leisure, to guide us through the book. For this task, one must become an attentive and sensitive reader. (282)

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Six

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s an updated Table of Contents for these reviews so far:

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning
Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text

Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea

This chapter is so long and dense that I run the risk of either saying too much and exhausting you patient readers, or saying too little and failing to do justice to Sailhamer’s fascinating ideas. It’s another treat for the historical theologian, as Sailhamer explores the development of theories regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch, OT canon formation, and the theological significance of the compositional structure of texts. Here I will concentrate on issues of ideas, authorship, and the “compositional approach.”

“Finding the big idea,” for Sailhamer, means paying attention to the intelligent design of a text to find out where its author is taking us. As we gather clues – which may be as small as pronouns or as large as the whole Tanak – we begin to formulate an understanding of the “big idea” that the author intended to convey. But Sailhamer urges us to reread, ever more carefully, and always to be alert for details that check our understanding, on our way to an exegetically sound formulation of “the best (most valid) idea,” that is, “the one that explains the most and the most important parts of the Pentateuch” (152). “An idea,” he warns,

must not be allowed to drift like a distant cloud over the textual horizon. It must always be tethered to the text in ways directly associated with the intention (verbal meaning) of the author. Only then can such ideas be considered part of the author’s intention and find exegetical warrant in the text. (159)

Sailhamer’s own reading and rereading have brought him to a particular conclusion about the role of the law in the Pentateuch, especially in light of its rather late appearance (more than 50 chapters in!). He suggests that

the “big idea” of the Pentateuch is about both “obedience to the Mosaic law,” and “living by faith”…Ultimately, I believe, these two themes of law and faith will find their place alongside each other as a juxtaposition of law and gospel. The gospel, that is, justification by faith, is God’s means for our fulfilling the law (cf. Rom. 8:4). (156)

The current chapter sets the stage for a later exegetical defense of these “big ideas,” mainly by laying out Sailhamer’s conclusions about the authorship of the Pentateuch. He clearly assumes both the intelligent design of an original individual human author and the divine purpose underlying the text:

Behind our quest for the (human) author’s intent is, of course, the conviction that the divine intention of Scripture is to be found in the human author’s intent. (159)

But which human author? One set of Pentateuchal puzzles, of course, concerns questions of Mosaic authorship: Did he really have anything to do with it? If so, did he write the Pentateuch, or merely write it down? Did he use any prior written sources, or did he inscripturate (verbatim!) an oral revelation that had been passed along since Adam and Abraham’s time? What are we to make of the evidence of later editing here and there in the Pentateuch? Are these glosses random, or in any way related?

Sailhamer traces in this chapter some of the historical answers to the “Whodunnit?” question, beginning with the Reformers, who posited an unwritten but eyewitness oral revelation behind the material transcribed by Moses, especially in Genesis. Later evangelicals, he notes, were willing to concede that Moses may have used some written sources, but they gave little thought to how he put his book together. Finally Sailhamer offers a description of his own preferred “compositional approach,” summed up neatly as follows:

An evangelical compositional approach to biblical authorship identifies Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and seeks to uncover his strategy in “making a book.” (200)

Thus Sailhamer intends to account for the biblical witness to Mosaic authorship while also making up for the lack of discussion about what it meant for Moses to be that author. And here he makes his unique and intriguing contribution to that discussion: namely, the suggestion that there were really two human authors involved in the making of the Pentateuch. Not only does he attribute to Moses an intelligent, deliberate crafting of his material (whether gathered from other sources or composed himself), but he proposes that a second, chronologically later mind was behind (most of?) the editorial glosses that he identifies in the text of the Pentateuch. In fact, this later author/editor had the task of adding “redactional glue” throughout the Tanak, at the spots which Sailhamer calls the “compositional seams” of the text. We’ll hear more details about this later; the point here is that Sailhamer posits a single editor who held the big picture of the whole Tanak in mind, and so tweaked earlier texts now and again to reflect a theological message. As he puts it,

The present canonical Pentateuch is thus an updated version of the Mosaic Pentateuch produced, perhaps, by the “author” of the OT as a whole (Tanak). (200)

The idea of a “canonical Pentateuch,” which Sailhamer playfully dubs “Pentateuch 2.0,” requires some discussion of canon formation during the intertestamental time. I’ll not go into this here (though see the quote in the first comment below), but it’s worth checking out Sailhamer’s thoughts on this on pp.162-175, if you have the book. This is one area that I’m eager to see addressed in Reformed scholarly reactions to the book.

I’d be happy to clarify any of the above if you have questions.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Five

Here’s the Table of Contents for these reviews so far:

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning

Chapter 3: What is the “Historical Meaning” of the Biblical Text?

In Chapter 3, Sailhamer provides a feast for the historical theologian as he explores what has become of the notion of the “historical-grammatical” practice of reading Scripture. His claim is that, as originally intended by the 19th century German theologian Johann August Ernesti, this phrase referred to “a literary and linguistic understanding of the biblical text and its composition” (101); but later,via an English mistranslation, the synonyms “historical” and “grammatical” began to take on separate meanings for evangelicals*, leading to the prioritization of historical reconstructions of events over the careful study of the “verbal versions” of those events. This change of emphasis, Sailhamer writes,

shifts the focus from the biblical narratives, as historical accounts of real events, to the events themselves…lying outside the narratives. Thus, the task of the study of biblical “history” in this new orientation of method consists of clarifying, explaining and adding to the biblical narrative depictions of biblical events. We do so by filling in the details of the events from our growing knowledge of ancient history. (101)

While archaeology and historical reconstructions have their place in our studies, Sailhamer argues that the task of hermeneutics is mainly verbal: it is to discover “the meaning embodied in biblical narratives” (103), paying attention to what is provided by the author rather than filling in the details he has not given us. In this vein, Sailhamer offers this artistic observation by way of illustration:

Using modern historical tools, we have the same ability to fill in the historical details of scriptural narratives as we have of painting intricate details of 17th century life over the shadows of a Rembrandt painting. By painting shadows, Rembrandt deliberately left out many historical details that would have given us much information about the events he recorded on canvas…Rembrandt’s meaning lies as much in what is not seen in his painting as in what is seen. The shadows, by blocking out the irrelevant details, help us focus on what is seen. The effect of our adding more details to the painting would be to lose Rembrandt’s focus. (104)

Additionally, because the narratives in the OT are so lifelike, it is easy to mistake them for the events themselves, overlooking the reality that they were written by an author who had a particular purpose in mind and arranged his words just so. Sailhamer affirms Ernesti’s conception of the “historical dimension of a text,” which is simply “the ‘fact’ that at a certain place and time in the past a living human being recorded a word in a text in such a way that its meaning (usage) could be derived by reading that text” (118). Not only does this conception promote an author-focused entry to the biblical text (rather than an events-focused approach), it also preserves the idea of the inspiration of the very words of the text by calling us to focus on the very words of the text.

Without losing sight of the historicity of the events that are described, Sailhamer insists that we must remember that we are dealing with “verbal versions” of those events rather than the events themselves; and thus we should pay closer attention to the intelligent design of the author’s presentation than to historical reconstructions of the events he narrates. Once again, and from another angle, we arrive at Sailhamer’s text-immanent approach to reading Scripture.

So, what think you? What role should archaeology have in biblical hermeneutics? Is it possible to focus so much on the events described by a text that we forget to wonder about the “fact” of the text itself? And which is more important for understanding the meaning of scriptural narratives: discerning the author’s arrangement of his ideas in a textual form (which then can be related to other texts), or analyzing and filling out the details of the events described in that text?

*Recall that Sailhamer is writing for a general evangelical audience. He is actually quite complimentary of Reformed work in this area.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Four

(Posted by Paige Britton)

In case you want to catch up, here’s where we’ve been so far with this ongoing review:

An introduction to John Sailhamer is here

Notes about Sailhamer’s Introduction are here

A sketch of Chapter One (“The Nature & Goal of OT Theology”) is here

Chapter Two: Finding the Author’s Verbal Meaning

In order to prepare us for his intensely “text-immanent” approach to determining the meaning of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer spends considerable time in this chapter tracing the history of biblical interpretation from Augustine to the present. His point is that, thanks to Augustine’s distinction between the words (verba) of Scripture and the things (res) to which those words point, the church has ended up (in several different ways) going astray from the words and concentrating on the “things” – especially, in the case of evangelicalism, historical events. More on this below.

Again in this chapter, Sailhamer is quite clear that he believes the Scriptures were verbally inspired by God – hence his desire to pay close attention to the very words of the biblical texts. He would like to invite other believers to do this, too, but first he needs to convince them that they are generally working with an interpretive model that values the inspired words only as a means to get beyond the text to the historical events the words refer to. Sailhamer writes,

Simply put, if the words of the Bible are inspired, their meaning is of central importance. This puts the emphasis in the right place: on the meaning of the words as a part of the language of the Bible. To ask why the author wrote the Pentateuch is a valid historical question, but that question should not be construed as an answer to the question of the meaning of the Pentateuch. One finds the meaning and message of the Pentateuch not in asking why it was written or how, but in asking what was written as the book itself. (73f., my emphasis)

Here’s a quick summary (the speed-set version) of how Augustine’s view of words and things “played itself out fully in medieval biblical interpretation and provided the foundation of most modern ‘historical’ approaches to the Bible”(77):

Beginning with Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, many Christian thinkers began to prize what they called the “spiritual sense,” rather than the “literal sense,” of the biblical texts. That is to say, in order to understand the words, they appealed more and more to what the words stood for (i.e., the theological realities beyond the text). This was especially true when reading OT passages:

Reading the Bible (OT) came to be a process of watching for the things that words pointed to. This meant, if need be, that the meaning of Scripture could, as easily as not, be investigated apart from the meaning of the words of Scripture. (80)

Having loosened their interpretive moorings from the words of the Bible itself, “Augustine, and those who followed in his steps, turned increasingly to the authority of the church” as the final arbiter of the spiritual meaning of the biblical texts (80). Enter the Tradition! …And that about covers the Middle Ages.

Although the Reformation brought renewed attention to the original languages and a rejection of extrabiblical Tradition, a second wave of post-textual thinking was waiting just around the corner, this time in the area of biblical history. With the Enlightenment came biblical realism and historicism, often without any entailments of spiritual meaning at all: “biblical words pointed to real events in history (biblical realism), not to spiritual truth as such” (81).

In reaction, evangelicals in the 18th and 19th centuries, who naturally wanted to preserve the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy, began increasingly to look beyond the text to affirm the biblical realities that had played out in history, paying less attention to the way those realities were recorded by the biblical authors. In other words, the Bible came (by Charles Hodge’s time) to be regarded as

a brute fact containing many smaller facts, all in need of brilliant explanation…The validity of one’s explanation rests not on how well it explains the text, but on how well it explains the facts that come incrementally out of the text as bits and pieces of unassembled history. (98)

Thus evangelicals have come to know about historical realities through a text, but the text is really only valued as a witness to those historical events (and as a historical event itself!) rather than as a made thing, crafted in a certain way to convey an author’s mind.

John Sailhamer hopes to call believing readers’ attention back to the text as text. “My purpose,” he writes,

is to argue that if evangelicalism is to remain true to its rich biblical heritage, the goal of an evangelical biblical theology must be refocused on the meaning of the Scriptures themselves (sola Scriptura). What do the words of Scripture tell us about the “things” to which they point? I am not suggesting that the Scriptures are not about real things. I believe that they are. What I am suggesting is that the theological meaning of the Scriptures lies in the meaning of its words as parts of sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts. (87)

…So, you who have read this far, what do you think of Sailhamer’s evaluation of evangelical biblical interpretation as having moved beyond the text of Scripture, in that it is more concerned with historical realities described by the inspired text than with the words and literary structure of the text itself? Is this a valid insight? Is it a significant one?

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Three

(Posted by Paige Britton)

My first treatments of John Sailhamer’s book (IVP, 2009) can be found here and here.

Part One: Approaching the Text as Revelation

Chapter One: Understanding the Nature and Goal of OT Theology

This first chapter is so brief that I will scarcely need to do more than offer you several excerpts that communicate Sailhamer’s opinion of the Bible and his theological task. I believe his claims here are borne out in the rest of the book: namely, that he holds the Scriptures in high regard as the very words of God, and that the theologian’s calling is to carefully articulate God’s thoughts (without committing the hubris of believing the theological expression to be on equal authoritative footing with the Scriptures).

On theology’s task:
“Theology has its ground in a work of God – a spoken word or a divine act. God has spoken to his human creatures and has acted among them in various ways and times (Heb. 1:1-2). He has revealed himself in observable and communicable ways. Theology’s task is to pick up the conversation and pursue the line of discourse initiated by God.” (60)

On theological humility:
“However much theology may claim to speak for God or on God’s behalf, as an act of revelation it is a human word. Theology stands on the human side of the divine act of revelation. It is always subject to self-examination and criticism. It is a ‘mirror viewed darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12) through which we must look for a word from God.” (61)

In this chapter Sailhamer also locates his view amongst historical conceptions of OT revelation, identifying as a fallacy the notion that the OT is merely “the written record of revelation played out in historical acts” (61, emphasis added). Were the Bible not divine revelation, but only “one of many possible responses to divine revelation,” then “theology must only say, ‘This is what they believed about God.’ It does not ask, ‘What does the OT demand of me?’” (62, emphasis added). In firm contrast, Sailhamer insists on the normative nature of OT theology, precisely because it is derived from the inspired Word of God:

“The task of biblical theology is to state God’s Word (the Bible) to the church clearly and precisely. What could be expected of biblical theology other than an understandable statement of the meaning of God’s words that come to us as the Word, ‘Holy Scripture’? Such a theology does not claim to be normative in the same way the Bible itself makes that claim. An OT theology can only attempt to present the claims of biblical narrative in human terms. Biblical theology of the OT is only a clay vessel for holding the message of the Bible’s own written texts.” (63)

Finally, narrowing the focus onto his own pet themes and understanding of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer offers the intriguing claim that

“[b]ecause it focuses on the text of Scripture, the aim of this kind of OT theology is not Israel’s ancient religion as grounded in the Sinai covenant. Its aim is Israel’s ‘new covenant’ with God as grounded in the message of the OT prophetic writings.” (66)

In fact, he goes on to say, the Pentateuch’s hero and emphasis are not Moses and the law, but rather Abraham and faith. What Sailhamer calls “Pauline” themes of new covenant and justification by faith can, he believes, be found along the “compositional seams” of these books. It remains for him to successfully communicate his defense of this reading in the rest of this hefty volume.

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