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This review is by Art Boulet, a student now at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a great blogger-friend. The book being review is John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation
. John was a colleague-friend of mine back when we were both at TEDS, and we often chatted about birdwatching and his narratival approach to Scripture.
Sailhamer begins his book with a simple statement of purpose: “a study of the theology of the Pentateuch” (11). In order to reach this goal, Sailhamer divides the book into three main parts. Because of the length of the book (612 pages + 3 indices), I will attempt to summarize the introduction and each main part of the book and end the review with a few critical remarks.
The introduction lays out some key building blocks in the argument that Sailhamer will make throughout the book. One of the key points is that the purpose of the Pentateuch is to teach a life of faith modeled after Abraham and “not to teach a life of obedience to the law given to Moses at Sinai” (14). Sailhamer also argues for a theological reading of the Pentateuch by which the goal is to understand “the biblical author’s intent as realized in the work itself” (15). He argues that there are two forms of the Pentateuch: one as Moses wrote it (Pentateuch 1.0) and the final form of the Pentateuch (Pentateuch 2.0) which was put together by a later editor/author who shaped and added to the Mosaic Pentateuch. The goal in the study of the Pentateuch’s composition is to understand what the authors’ (Moses and the final author/editor) strategy was in shaping the final form of the Pentateuch. He argues that the final form of the Pentateuch is a “prophetic rewrite of the Mosaic Pentateuch” (52).

The first main part of the book focuses on approaching the the text as revelation. This part lays the hermeneutical groundwork for the following two parts. The nature of theology is distinct from the nature of religion. Instead of focusing on the religion of ancient Israelites, the task of theology, and the goal of Sailhamer’s approach to OT theology, is to restate God’s revelation in such a way that the theology presented is found to be normative for Christians today. In order to do this, Sailhamer argues that the intention of the author must be understood. The way to get to the author’s intentions is through her or his words. 
Sailhamer also argues that what the biblical author meant to say is also what God meant to say (69). The verbal meaning (as opposed to literal meaning) is what the theologian should be after in their exploration of the Old Testament. This is best understood by a “historical-grammatical” reading of the Hebrew text, which is what Sailhamer argues for as opposed to a “historical-critical” reading of the text. The author’s meaning, as understood through a “historical-grammatical” reading, is where the text derives meaning, not from the objects or things to which the author’s words point (i.e., the meaning is in the text, not behind the text [historical-critical reading] or in front of the text [reader-response reading]). By using these tools the reader can understand the “big idea” that the final composition of the Pentateuch is making. Biblical theology aids the reader in understanding what the big idea (or ideas) of the Pentateuch are and how the author expresses those big ideas throughout her or his work.
The second main part of the book is focused on the composition of the Pentateuch. The textual strategies in the Pentateuch, such as the literary history of Israel, echoes, themes running through stories, and the physical process of writing a “book” in Hebrew are explored by Sailhamer followed by a discussion on the composition of the Pentateuch. Sailhamer argues for the final shape of the Pentateuch to be shaped by a prophetic editor (295-98). This editor showed a particular strategy while tying together Gen 1-11 as well as the rest of the Pentateuch. There was much literary skill required from such an editor as she or he strung together a cohesive narrative from various genres of literature (poetic, historical, law codes, etc.). There is an extended discussion on the legal material within the Pentateuch. The argument made is that “the Pentateuch is clear that Sinai was to be replaced by another covenant” (414), which is the new covenant of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The third main part of the book focuses on interpreting the theology of the Pentateuch. The idea of promise and fulfillment in various OT texts and theologians is discussed, but Sailhamer prefers the idea of ‘covenant promise’ as a better description since the
idea of ‘promise’ is primarily a NT idea. An interesting chapter is the discussion of the “biblical Jesus” in the Pentateuch (460-536). Sailhamer makes a distinction between studying the “messiah” of the OT and studying the “biblical Jesus” of the OT. The main difference between the two is that the limit of the study of a “messiah,” according to Sailhamer, is the OT itself whereas the “biblical Jesus” incorporates both testaments of the Christian Bible (462). The purpose of the Mosaic law in the Pentateuch, according to Sailhamer, is ultimately about the new covenant of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In that way, the Pentateuch, and even the legal material found within the Pentateuch, points towards salvation that is ultimately in Christ. Sailhamer concludes this massive study of the Pentateuch with a helpful conclusion that restates the argument of the book (albeit, a bit differently).
There are some very positive things about Sailhamer’s work that, I think, will benefit many readers. He is very clear about his goals, his hermeneutical method, and his main ideas. With ‘theological interpretation’ being somewhat “in vogue” these days, I think many will find Sailhamer’s theologically driven reading of the Pentateuch helpful.
Sailhamer is very intent on maintaining an “evangelical” viewpoint on many theological and historical topics, which will also be viewed positively by many within the wider evangelical world. It would not surprise me to see this book on the reading list of courses being taught on the Pentateuch at many evangelical seminaries in the future.
However, there are many, such as myself, who would not view Sailhamer’s work completely favorably because of his choice of hermeneutical method. By choosing to read the Pentateuch “theologically” and not showing enough attention to the historical background of the Hebrew Bible, Sailhamer makes some statements that are theoretical at best and unsubstantiated at worst. The three examples that follow serve as an example.
When discussing the goal of OT theology, Sailhamer writes, “we will argue that the authors of the OT Scriptures were prophets, not priests” (66). This argument is based on the theological goals and purpose that Sailhamer believes are present within the Pentateuch. However, the idea that prophets were active authors in the ancient Near East, or even within the monarchic, exilic, or post-exilic era of Israel, is an idea that is absent from historical evidence. Scholars such as Karel van der Toorn, in his work Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, have shown that it was the priestly community in which the scribal activity in Israel, as well as the rest of the ancient Near East, is known to take place. The proposal that Sailhamer promotes, that of prophets being responsible for the authorship (which, in Sailhamer’s definitions, also includes editors/redactors) of the Hebrew Bible, is not based on history, but on interpretation of the Hebrew Bible abstracted from history. Since the weight of the evidence that we have of scribal culture in ancient Israel goes against Sailhamer’s theologically driven proposal of a prophetic origin of the Hebrew Bible, I don’t think his proposal can be accepted without historical evidence.
Another statement that lacks historical evidence to substantiate it is the idea that “the present canonical Pentateuch is the same book as the Mosaic Pentateuch in the sense that it is a preservation of that original Pentateuch within the context of Scripture and canon” (54). This expresses the proposal of a Pentateuch 1.0 and 2.0 (above) that Sailhamer promotes throughout the book. This proposal, however, seems to originate within Sailhamer’s evangelical convictions regarding the nature of Scripture and what Mosaic authorship means for that doctrine. For most evangelicals, Mosaic authorship or, at the very least, “primary” Mosaic authorship is required for their inerrantist doctrine of Scripture. The idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, however, does not stand close historical scrutiny. Variations of Wellhausen’s idea of sources within the Pentateuch have been the accepted understanding of the formation of the Pentateuch for decades, and with good reason. While evangelicals are normally put off by the idea of different sources being woven together to form the Pentateuch, their hesitancies need not result in a complete rejection of the idea. Scholars like Mark Smith, in his recent book The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, have shown that there is much theological pay off by taking source-critical ideas seriously. It is a shame that Sailhamer does not deal with the documentary hypothesis in his book but simply states his theory without an historical discussion.
The final example is Sailhamer’s understanding of material scribal culture in the ancient Near East and how it relates to the composition of the Hebrew Bible. Sailhamer writes, “writing materials, such as pen and ink, as well as various kinds of writin
g surfaces (leather, papyrus, wood), were also necessary and apparently in sufficient supply” (274). Sailhamer is referring to the monarchic period of Israel when these writing instruments were apparently in sufficient supply. He also states that books like the Hebrew Bible “were designed for individual reading” (274). Neither of these ideas, that of writing instruments being in sufficient supply and that of books in the ancient Near East being designed for individual reading, are attested in the historical record. It wasn’t until much later, during the time of Augustine, where people began to read for themselves (there is a story of people thinking Augustine to be strange because he would be seen looking at books and not reading aloud). The evidence extant from the ancient Near East shows that writing utensils (pens, parchment, etc.) were not in “sufficient supply.” Writing was usually reserved only for the palace or for business transactions. The normal citizen of a town in the ancient Near East most likely did not have writing utensils and also, most likely, could not even read. Sailhamer’s proposal, while it serves his theological purposes, is not sufficiently shown to be historically accurate. If it cannot be shown to be historically accurate, then the theological ideas must be reassessed.
Other issues are also present within Sailhamer’s book, but I don’t want to bog down the reader with minor issues that one person may have with his work.
Overall I think that Sailhamer does a good job of explaining what the Pentateuch says as well as what it means for today’s audience. I would suggest that people read Sailhamer, especially evangelical Christians, for his theology and his literary observations about the Hebrew Bible. I would temper his work, however, with that of another scholar who is well versed in ancient Near Eastern history (such as John Walton, Mark Smith, Richard Hess, Kenneth Kitchen, etc.) so that a well-rounded view of the Hebrew Bible, and its teachings, emerges. As with any book, including the Hebrew Bible itself, one must read it critically and be willing to listen to other voices. I’m sure that Sailhamer would agree that his work is not the last word, but a word that is contributing to the church’s continued study of the Hebrew Bible and its implications for Christians today.
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