Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Meaning of the Pentateuch, by John H. Sailhamer

John H. Sailhamer.  The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation.  IVP Academic, 2009.  See here to purchase the book.

The late John Sailhamer taught Old Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Brea, California.

In the Meaning of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer makes a variety of points about the Pentateuch. They include (but are not limited to) the following:

—-Sailhamer argues that a version of the Pentateuch was written by Moses, who used different sources.  Later, the Pentateuch underwent an eschatological update.  Parts were added that stressed the coming of a Messianic king of Israel in the last days.  This king of Israel would defeat Israel’s enemies, inaugurate paradise, and bless the nations.  Sailhamer believes that such themes were latent in the original Pentateuch, but that the additions emphasized them and made them clearer.

—-According to Sailhamer, canonizers played a role in the Pentateuch’s eschatological orientation, as well as that of the Hebrew Bible.  The Pentateuch ends with Israel not yet in the Promised Land, and that is because the Jewish people during the time of this canonization are still awaiting the Messianic, eschatological restoration of Israel to, and in, her land.  The same goes with the Hebrew Bible, which ends with II Chronicles, with Israel still in exile, and yet hope is on the horizon.  At the same time, Sailhamer maintains that there were different communities with different canons: some communities preferred to end the Hebrew Bible with II Chronicles, giving the Hebrew Bible an eschatological focus that anticipated a future restoration from exile.  At least one community, however, ended the Hebrew Bible with Ezra-Nehemiah.  This gave the Hebrew Bible a historical focus, which maintained that the fulfillment of Israel’s restoration from exile occurred historically under Ezra and Nehemiah.  Sailhamer holds that this difference of opinion can also be discerned in different versions of the Book of Jeremiah.

—-Sailhamer maintains that the Pentateuch is not about obeying rules but is about faith.  Trust in God is a recurring theme in the Pentateuch (i.e., Abraham believes God, the Israelite spies did not have faith in God).  According to Sailhamer, God in the Pentateuch desired a direct relationship with Israel.  Israel would be a priesthood and would hear from God directly, and she would have few rules to follow.  But Israel feared hearing directly from God and requested a mediator, and she kept sinning.  Aaron helped Israel to construct the Golden Calf, and Israelites worshiped goat demons.  God then gave more laws to provide Israel with discipline, restraint, and guidance.  The Tabernacle would provide a system of mediation, the levitical laws would keep the priests on the straight and narrow, and the Holiness Code would guide individual Israelites.  For Sailhamer, this structure of the Pentateuch (and he seems to believe this is part of the original Pentateuch) anticipates the new covenant, in which God would write God’s laws on the Israelites’ hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  Sailhamer argues that parts of the Book of Jeremiah support this picture of God giving Israel more laws in response to Israel’s sins, and he also refers to New Testament and patristic views to that effect.

—-Sailhamer defends certain Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.  When Paul in Galatians 3:16 states that God made the promises to Abraham’s seed (Christ, according to Paul), not Abraham’s seeds, did Paul fail to realize that “seed” is a collective noun?  When Matthew 2:15 applies Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) to Jesus coming from Egypt, did Matthew not notice that Hosea 11:1 is about Israel coming out of Egypt?  Is Isaiah 7:14 eschatological or Messianic, as Matthew 1:23 seems to suggest, or does it concern an event in the seventh century B.C.E.?  Sailhamer wrestles with difficult questions and offers important insights: that there is an individual, kingly seed in the Hebrew Bible who blesses the nations, and that Numbers 24:7-8 can be interpreted to mean that God will bring the king of Israel out of Egypt.  In my opinion, he was not as convincing on Isaiah 7:14.  While he may be correct that Isaiah 7:14 has a larger eschatological significance in the Book of Isaiah, it still seems to be a sign about events in the seventh century B.C.E.

—-While Sailhamer defends Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, he is unhappy with the tendency of many Christians to treat the Hebrew Bible primarily as a prophecy about Christ, or as a promise about Christ’s coming.  In his mind, such an approach implies that the Hebrew Bible is useless now that Christ has come.  Sailhamer believes that the Hebrew Bible still enlightens and informs, and that it provides a context for the New Testament.  For Sailhamer, the Hebrew Bible’s focus is not so much on prediction as it is on elucidating God’s will and ways.

—-Sailhamer contends that there is a shift towards individual piety in the course of the Hebrew Bible.  Deuteronomy 15:1 commands that the Israelites are to hear the Torah every seven years.  By contrast, Joshua 1:8, which marks the “Prophets” section of the Hebrew Bible, and Psalm 1, which marks the “Writings” section, exhort individuals to meditate on the Torah day and night.  Sailhamer refers to a scholarly argument that the Book of Psalms was intended for individual piety, and he presents a picture of exilic and post-exilic Jews as literate.  Sailhamer also maintains that the song in Exodus 15 presents a picture of individual praise of God.

—-Sailhamer made intriguing points and addressed questions that I have had.  What did Noah mean when he predicted that Japheth would dwell in the tents of Shem (Genesis 9:27)?  Sailhamer answers that in reference to the identification of their descendants in Genesis 10 as well as the Book of Daniel, relating it to Rome and Greece’s dominion over Assyria, Babylon, and Israel.  Did Noah end God’s curse of the earth (Genesis 5:29)?  If so, why does the ground still produce thorns?  According to Sailhamer, Noah, by sacrificing after the Flood, encouraged God to bless the earth.  Sailhamer also notes that, prior to the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants, the Hebrew hero (Abraham and Moses) had contact with a Gentile (Melchizedek and Jethro).  Sailhamer commented some on the significance of this, but he could have commented more; most of the time, he had the opposite problem, repeating points he had already made—-sometimes the exact same arguments and quotations.

Now for my assessment:

—-Sailhamer argued robustly for his positions.  He did not merely assume that certain passages in the Pentateuch are eschatological, as some evangelical scholars do, but he actually set out to defend his positions and to address challenging questions.  His argument that there was a later eschatological update to the Pentateuch is plausible, even though I would not be too quick to acknowledge that the Pentateuchal writings were originally eschatological.

—-Sailhamer focuses on Judah in his interaction with Genesis 49.  Genesis 49 can be translated to concern the last days, and it talks about a Judahite king, whom Sailhamer interprets as the Messiah.  But Jacob in Genesis 49 talks about the other Israelite tribes as well.  How do they fit into the last days?  Many Jewish interpreters have interpreted Genesis 49 in reference to events in Israel’s history: the judge and serpent Dan in vv 16-17 has been interpreted as Samson, for instance.  They have also maintained that the phrase translated as “last days” actually means coming days, which is not necessarily eschatological.  (Sailhamer acknowledges that as a possible translation but rejects it, thinking that the eschatological interpretation of the phrase makes more sense, in terms of the structure of the Pentateuch.)  A possible challenge to Sailhamer’s interpretation of Genesis 49 as eschatological occurs in v 7.  Jacob predicts that Simeon and Levi will be scattered in Israel.  That happened historically, but, after Israel’s eschatological restoration, Simeon and Levi will receive land in Israel, according to Ezekiel 48.  How would Sailhamer interpret such details of Genesis 49, from an eschatological standpoint?

—-Did exilic and post-exilic Jews really possess their own copies of the Torah, as in their own scrolls?  That is not usually the picture that I have gotten from academics, but I am open to correction.

—-Sailhamer interprets Numbers 24:7-8 to concern the Messiah coming out of Egypt.  Are there any post-biblical Jewish sources that manifest such an expectation, though?  If canonizers updated the Pentateuch to include such an expectation, would we have seen it in other Jewish sources?  More engagement with post-biblical Jewish sources may have helped Sailhamer’s case (or not).

—-As I said above, Sailhamer was repetitive when it came to certain points.  That did help me absorb the points, but did he have to, say, quote Jamieson-Faussett-Brown’s statement that Moses used sources three times?  The conclusion did a good job tying things together, especially when it related Sailhamer’s discussion of methodology and evaluation of evangelical scholarship to Sailhamer’s own methodology and project.  Still, an appendix in which Sailhamer laid out the passages that he believed were the original Pentateuch, and the passages that he considered to be the later additions, would have been helpful.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!


  1. His book duplicates certain material. Nowadays, books are written on computer, so it's easy for an author to copy/paste from preexisting files.

    It's possible that the repetition was due to incipient senility. Some of the sources of the book may have been written before the onset of senile dementia, but the book was poorly edited because, by that time, his faculties were beginning to fail. He developed both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

  2. Thanks for the information, Steve. Some on Amazon mentioned his poor health, but they did not give details.

  3. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful review! I have read Sailhamer's Genesis commentary (EBC) and found some great insights there. I don't always agree with him (in particular, I don't buy the idea of laws "added because of transgressions") but find his work very stimulating.

    Hope the work on your dissertation goes well!

  4. Thanks, Doug! I may read his Genesis commentary at some point. There was not much about the details in Genesis in The Meaning of the Pentateuch----with some exceptions. When he did comment on specific passages, such as the curse of the earth, he did so well.


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