Review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation, by John H. Sailhamer

The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. By John Sailhamer. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009. 632pp. ISBN 9780830838677 $45.00 (paper).

After nearly thirty-five years of teaching, in 2009 John H. Sailhamer offered his magnum opus to the world: The Meaning of the Pentateuch. Sailhamer is a respected Old Testament scholar, who has taught at a number of well-regarded evangelical seminaries, such as Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society (2000). He is also the author of a number of influential Old Testament studies, such as The Pentateuch as Narrative.[1]

The Meaning of the Pentateuch focuses on “the compositional strategy of the author of the Pentateuch” (11), and its goal is to identify the meaning of the Pentateuch for today’s readers (13). After a protracted introduction, the first section summarizes the author’s methodological line. Sailhamer argues that the task of Old Testament (OT) theology is to determine the meaning of the text of Scripture, rather than the events described by the text (68-148). He advocates taking a compositional approach that interacts with the Pentateuch in its final, canonical form. This view “suggests that the Pentateuch was not the product of a long and complex process of literary growth, but rather something that comes to us as a more or less updated edition of a single earlier (Mosaic) composition” (200). To understand the Pentateuch’s theological message, one must interpret its individual portions in light of the whole.

The second section exposits Sailhamer’s view of the Pentateuch’s composition. According to Sailhamer, the final form of the Pentateuch was fashioned by a solitary author, whom he argues was from the prophetic tradition (295-298). Sailhamer observes that this individual strategically placed poetic material at the conclusion of major narrative sections (e.g., Gen. 49, Ex. 15, and Num. 23-24) in the Pentateuch (232-344). The text between the poetic material in Exodus and Numbers is intentionally arranged in a parallel format which places the Sinai material at the center—serving to underscore their importance for the Pentateuch’s message (365-366).

The third section further develops Sailhamer’s understanding of the Pentateuch’s composition. Sailhamer emphasizes the leitmotifs of covenant, faith, and offspring developed in Gen. 15 (435-454). This connection between the prophetic promise and the blessings of the covenant is the key to understanding the significance of this passage and establishes a central link to the New Testament by focusing on the “seed of Abraham” as the primary hope of the promise. This leads to a consideration of the “biblical Jesus” in the Pentateuch, demonstrating that the Messianic hope is quite highly developed in the text. The concept that Christ is the true Israel is not totally exclusive to the New Testament but is developed in the OT itself. Because Sailhamer holds that the OT laws are not normative for believers today, he argues that the laws are present in the Pentateuch as part of the narrative technique, a sign of the failure of Israel, a demonstration of why the law was given to Israel, and as a collection of “just” laws (558-562). In the final chapter, Sailhamer focuses on the compositional strategy of Genesis 1–11, showing that salvation in the Pentateuch is the “establishment of a renewed relationship between God and humanity” (587).

Sailhamer’s work caused quite a stir in the scholarly world when it was published. Eugene Merrill wrote that “the erudition and wide reading and research of the author are indeed impressive.”[2] Another review notes that the church should be “grateful” for the book’s “exegetical insights.”[3] W.J. Houston said, “Sailhamer’s familiarity with orthodox Protestant literature of the 16th to 19th centuries is perhaps unrivaled among biblical scholars.”[4] All of these statements could be multiplied several times over; Sailhamer’s book is a monumental work of scholarship that is well deserving of wide acclaim.

To this widespread acclaim, I would add my own. It is clear from reading The Meaning of the Pentateuch that Sailhamer has given himself to reading Latin and German works of theology and that familiarity shows on every page of the book as Sailhamer quotes freely from Augustine and Jerome in Latin. Moreover, Sailhamer’s work has a valuable focus on the Messiah in the Old Testament and he shows how this theme rises out of the text of the OT without having to be read into the text from the New Testament. But perhaps the most helpful feature of Sailhamer’s book is the focus on the text as revelation. Rather than following the mainstream of far too much of OT studies which dismisses the text of the OT in favor of their own conjecture, Sailhamer’s canonical perspective focuses on the text we have before us and thus bypasses these debates entirely. He emphasizes strongly that the text is revelatory rather than the events that the text describes; he writes, “We do not understand a Rembrandt painting by taking a photograph of the ‘thing’ Rembrandt painted and comparing it with the painting itself” (19). According to Sailhamer this focus “is what is meant by the grammatical-historical approach” (73). This focus on the text proper is a valuable reorientation of OT studies, as it moves past the fictions invented in the process of the higher–critical endeavor and zeroes in on the purpose of the text.

Nevertheless the book does have some disappointing features, the first being its size. As another reviewer has noted, Sailhamer repeats himself so frequently that he could rightly be accused of “self–plagiarism.”[5] Whole pages are repeated in places: for example the entire discussion on pages 277-278 appears again on pages 323-324. Had all of this repeated material been excised by a thorough editor this book might have been published with only 215 pages (rather than 632) with no great loss in substance.

Second, the work is marked by some strange inconsistencies. Given Sailhamer’s focus on the text as revelatory rather than the event the text describes, it is surprising that Sailhamer attempts to reach behind the text when he examines Exodus 19. According to Sailhamer, there are different versions of the events that take place at Sinai; in the first (Exo. 19:1–16a) the whole nation is to be a kingdom of priests. In the second, (Exo. 19:16b-25) there is a distinction between the people and the priests. Sailhamer explains that the nation was commanded to ascend the mountain in Exo. 19:3, sinned by refusing to do so due to their fear, and God gave them the law as a result:

In light of these compositional clarifications in Exodus 20:18–21, what we learn about Exodus 19 is that God’s original intention to meet with the people on the mountain (Ex. 19:13b; cf. Ex. 3:12) was fundamentally altered by the people’s fear of approaching God. In their fear, the people traded a personal, face-to-face relationship with God for a priesthood (392).

This is not the conclusion that one would arrive at if the canonical text was interpreted as it stands. Exodus 19:12 commands that boundaries be set up around the mountain so that the people will not even touch it and the relevant verb in 19:13b (יעלו) can easily be understood to mean “they shall come up to the mountain” (ESV), or “they shall come near the mountain” (NKJV). Only when we disregard the context and look behind the text, as Sailhamer does, would we take this verb to call the people to ascend the mountain together with Moses. But the context is clear that if they so much as touch the mountain they are to be stoned (Exo. 19:12b); in short, the text doesn’t tell the story that Sailhamer does.

It seems that in this instance, Sailhamer is not interpreting the text, but is attempting to reach behind the text—and against his own hermeneutical method. Sailhamer’s inconsistency with himself at this point is jarring, and as a result he builds an entire false theology on a false event, precisely because of his inconsistency.

These criticisms aside, Sailhamer has written a fresh, engaging, and (mostly) sound work that engages with the literary and compositional aspects of the Pentateuch, and the insights and conclusions he offers are conducive to deeper thought—especially within broader evangelicalism, which is often cavalier and unthinking in its interaction with the OT because of a mechanical adherence to a sort of “evangelical tradition.” Despite the flaws I have noted, I would still highly recommend this book to those interested in OT studies.

[1] John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary, Library of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992).

[2] Eugene Merrill, review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch, by John H. Sailhamer in Bibliotheca Sacra 169:73 (Jan-Mar. 2012): 114.

[3] Joe Sprinkle, review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch, by John H. Sailhamer in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53:4 (Dec. 2010): 810.

[4] W.J. Houston, review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch, by John H. Sailhamer in Vetus Testamentum 61:4 (2011): 708.

[5] Eugene Merrill, review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch, by John H. Sailhamer, BibSac 169:73: 115.


One thought on “Review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation, by John H. Sailhamer

  1. Hey Mike, I appreciated the review! But, I have trouble understanding how Sailhamer betrayed his own method in Ex. 19. It seems that he merely interpreted the narratives in a way that made the most sense of all of the textual data; he made no references to extra biblical material nor discussed a hypothetical historical scenario to my knowledge, and his references to Ex. 20 and Ex. 3 seem to affirm that he was simply trying to understand the text of the Pentateuch.

    I’ve heard this criticism before, so maybe it’s valid and I am just missing it? Could you elaborate on how this isn’t simply a disagreement with his interpretation of the text, but Sailhamer trying to interpret the events behind the text apart from the text?


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