restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch

 David Alan Black  

Recently I asked my colleague Tracy McKenzie if I could publish his excellent review of John Sailhamer's latest work. Tracy graciously consented. This review originally appeared in the Southeastern Journal of Theology 1:1 (2010), pp. 86-88. My thanks to the editor, Dr. David Hogg, for permission to reprint it here. -- Dave Black

John Sailhamer. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. 632 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-8308-3867-7. $28.00 Paperback. Reviewed by Tracy McKenzie, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, The College at Southeastern, Wake Forest, NC. 

John Sailhamer brings his tenured years of experience in Old Testament studies, the Hebrew Bible, and, in particular, the Pentateuch in this accessible but profound analysis of the Pentateuch. Not content with merely sketching a method for biblical theology, he also illustrates exegetically and theologically the fruit from his method and studies in this modern day tome.

Sailhamer attempts to trace an approach back to what he considers a classical evangelical approach to Scripture which sees only the words of Scripture themselves as special revelation. As such, it is only these words which are necessary to understand the meaning conveyed in the Bible. He contrasts this view with both those scholars on the left such as Schleiermacher and those on the right such as Hengstenberg or Keil. Sailhamer credits Schleiermacher with much of the movement away from a focus on the text as the basis for meaning. As for Hengstenberg and Keil, Sailhamer demonstrates that in an effort to defend the historicity of the OT and its coherence with the events of the New Testament, nineteenth century evangelicals unwittingly gave ground on this uniquely evangelical aspect concerning the doctrine of Scripture and along with it a hermeneutical foundation.

In Part One, Sailhamer considers both of these aspects from an evangelical viewpoint. He defines an Old Testament theology as “the study and presentation of what is revealed in the OT” (63). This is especially pertinent for an evangelical approach to Scripture because an evangelical theology “focuses on the text of Scripture…not Israel’s ancient religion as grounded in the Sinai covenant.” (66) In other words, “God’s word is not merely in the Bible, it is the Bible.” (footnote 14, 63) Thus, for Sailhamer, revelation, and therefore, theology does not derive from God’s acts or events recorded in Scripture but from the words as they were intended by the author. As it relates to a hermeneutical foundation, he states that an approach with a single minded focus on the text coheres well with evangelicalism’s belief that the text is the locus of revelation. It is necessary for Sailhamer to trace evangelicals’ departure from a primary focus on the text and how it yields meaning to their tendency to focus elsewhere. According to Sailhamer, their focus has been on presumed socio-historical information in which the central characters of the narrative are depicted or similar types of socio-cultural information which prevails upon the presumed author whether he be a narrative character or anonymous. To do this, Sailhamer demonstrates a subtle reversal of one of evangelical’s ablest exegetes and philologists, Johann August Ernesti.

As he analyzes translations and explanations of Ernesti, Sailhamer shows that the translator’s own methodology actually overshadows the plain sense of Ernesti’s words. Other scholars, thinking they were following in the footsteps of Ernesti, unwittingly accepted methodological foundations that went beyond Ernesti and integrated critical scholarship’s movement away from its primary focus upon the text for understanding meaning from the biblical texts. Sailhamer goes to great lengths to uncover the path which led evangelicals from the path of textual understanding. Along the way he interacts with such figures as Augustine, Calvin, Vitringa, Coccejus, and a host of others.

Another central component of Sailhamer’s method involves a compositional approach to understanding biblical authorship. For Sailhamer, this approach “does not differ significantly from the classical evangelical” approach to Scripture. Composition involves an author using “written texts that he gathered from various sources and provided them with commentary, much like a modern producer of a documentary film.” (207) Of course, Sailhamer recognizes modern evangelicals’ unease with the notion of sources and aptly points out their use by classic evangelicals such as Jamieson, Fausset and Brown and Campegius Vitringa. Moreover, Sailhamer clarifies a compositional approach and an author’s purposeful integration of sources and contrasts it with other critical methods such as the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory of the Pentateuch’s layered development which evangelicals have rejected.

Along the way, Sailhamer discusses Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the prophets’ retrofit of that document. Using the notion of effective history, Sailhamer argues that the Prophets read the Mosaic Pentateuch and provided commentary upon it eventually yielding the final shape which we now have. For Sailhamer, this differs from the DH in two ways. First, composition involves “intentional design and purpose,” not an historical evolution void of any linguistically mediated intentionality. Second, a compositional approach does not attempt to discern the existence and subsequent meaning of independent layers or sources (275). A compositional approach reads the final shape and seeks to understand the arrangement of its pieces within a whole.

In Part Two, Sailhamer builds on previous works in an attempt to uncover the textual strategies of the Pentateuch. He does so by analyzing importantly placed passages such as Genesis 1–11, the poetic seams (Genesis 49, Numbers 24, and Deuteronomy 33), Exodus 15 and 19, and the Pentateuch’s legal material. From these passages, Sailhamer discerns an emphasis on an eschatological king, faith, and a critique of the Sinai covenant. In Part Three, Sailhamer further investigates these passages as they bear upon the relationship between such Old and New Testament themes as covenant, blessing, promise, salvation, and the biblical portrayal of the “seed.” Sailhamer painstakingly demonstrates verbal links between these pentateuchal passages and other texts from the second and third sections of the Hebrew Bible, namely, Jeremiah and the Psalter. In each of the discussions, Sailhamer interacts with prominent theologians from different theological systems critiquing them in light of his own understanding of his theology of the Pentateuch. Sailhamer concludes his discussion in Part Three with a consideration of the Law as it relates to the Pentateuch, the New Testament, and the theme of salvation.

While supportive of nearly all aspects of this work, one section, in particular, raised concern. In the chapter entitled “The Nature of the Covenant and Blessing in the Pentateuch,” Sailhamer attempts to delineate subtle nuances to the notion of covenant and promise. While there has been misunderstanding and theological depreciation of the Old Testament in particular models of prophecy and fulfillment, Sailhamer seems to overreach in order to demonstrate that the Old Testament has more value than merely ‘fulfillment.’ He does this because, “The divine promise… is not merely a prophetic word about the future that must be fulfilled. The fulfillment of such a promise looks not toward a future event but toward an assurance of a present relationship. The fulfillment of such a promise is not a future event, but an assurance or commitment in the present” (434).

Sailhamer attempts to clarify his position in the ensuing pages but leaves many questions unanswered. First, one might grant that God’s covenant with Abraham has present consequences for Abraham in light of his faith. Given the content of the Abrahamic covenant, however, how can the primary focus not be on future events or a future person, namely, the Seed of Abraham? To further obscure the matter, in the subsequent section, Sailhamer exegetically argues the point that God’s promise to Abraham indeed concerns the Seed of Abraham. Second, utilizing Sailhamer’s own methodological discernment between text and event, even though God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis, the meaning of that covenant is not thoroughly or explicitly exhausted until the ‘final act’ of the author in Deuteronomy 30 and forward. It is at this point that the covenant involving circumcision is explicitly about the future, namely Deuteronomy 30:1–15 “And it will be…”

Finally, in adherence to Sailhamer’s appeal to trace compositional strategies in order to understand the purpose of book and canon ‘making’ (434), the Prophets speak with one voice when they echo Deuteronomy 30 and promise a time when God will make his people by giving them his own Spirit. Only then will “you be my people and I will be your God” (Jer 30–33, Ezek 36–37, Joel 2:28, Isa 32:15).

In addition to this minor concern, other editorial errors include the following list:


101 – “evens” instead of “events”

143 – “depris” instead of “debris”

158 – “curse” instead of “course”

218 – “such such”

293 – “tthat hey”

360 – “Nun” instead of “Num”

368-68 – “see figure 5” instead of “see figure 4.1”

366 – reference to Numbers 11 should be reference to Numbers 10:29-32

385 – n. 54, no period before “Refer”

479 – n. 28, misspelled “awckward”

487 – capitalized “Is”

487 – misspelled “arive”

509-510 – “stophe” instead of “strophe”

Notwithstanding these minor issues, for those who will learn from Sailhamer, this book has the potential to chart a new and invigorating course. Sailhamer himself would not say it charts a new course but a course on which evangelicals from a previous generation traveled often. For the reader of Scripture today, however, Sailhamer’s proposal would return them, both student and scholar alike, to a perspective where the locus and meaning of revelation is found within the pages of Scripture only, through the compositional strategies and literary structures which were left by the author himself through which one can hear the very message of God.

December 4, 2010

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