Book Reviews

The Meaning of the Pentateuch

Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation

John H. Sailhamer Downers Grove, IL 2009-10-15

For many years Sailhamer has devoted himself to what some may call the “metanarrative” approach to the Old Testament, especially to the Pentateuch, a method that views the entire corpus as a text strategically and artfully composed by original “authors” and successive “redactors” or “shapers,” resulting in its final canonical form. He makes clear that this process is not the same as that espoused by “redaction critics” who not only propose minor additions and alterations to the literary traditions handed down to them, but who radically revised those traditions in terms of historical realia and even theological intent to make them amenable to their own cultural and historical settings (pp. 200–204).

At the same time Sailhamer ventures into areas of compositional and canonical strategy that will leave some evangelicals uneasy, since he seems to push the boundaries of Pentateuchal redaction a little too far, eviscerating the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, except for the account of Moses’ death (Deut. 34:5–12), the anachronistic occurrence of the name Dan (Gen. 14:14), and the allegedly premature reference to Israel’s kings (Gen. 36:31). However, a sympathetic yet critical reading of the present work exonerates him. Sailhamer is not a liberal but an evangelical who challenges traditional ways of thinking without denying their foundational truth.

This leads to a consideration of the positive and beneficial contributions of the book and also some negative assessments concerning both content and composition. As to the first of these, the following must suffice.

First, the erudition and wide reading and research of the author are indeed impressive. Not content with secondary literature, Sailhamer goes to the primary texts, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, or anything else important to his argument. Such dogged pursuit of the facts is a model to young scholars as to how such things ought to be done.

Second, Sailhamer has demonstrated a method of analyzing texts that lies safely within the framework of an evangelical bibliology and yet challenges literary and hermeneutical approaches glibly held simply because they are ancient and rarely challenged from within the camp. There is danger in this, of course, but a weakness in much traditional evangelicalism has been an overemphasis on the Bible as the Word of God to the neglect of its own testimony of being the word of men. As such, the Bible reflects in its form and structure the handiwork of human penmen, inspired as they were indeed, who worked on and over texts as they passed from hand to hand and from generation to generation. (See Michael A. Grisanti, “Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the OT Canon: The Place of Textual Updating in an Inerrant View of Scripture,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44 [2001]: 577–98.)

Third, the author draws constant attention to the perspicuous nature of the Old Testament, that is, its intentionality with respect to declaring the mind and purposes of God to every generation, ancient and modern. If this required occasional innertextual clarification, then this was done, the clarification being as inerrant and authoritative as the text that lay before the scribe. Again, this insight underscores the compositional fact that Scripture, like man himself, was in its formative stages a living text, the work of man as well as of God.

As to some negative assessments, again a few examples must suffice. First, Sailhamer’s polymathic display is as much offensive in places as it is impressive. Very few scholars are at home in Latin (though perhaps they should be), to say nothing of the laity. Moreover, many of the lengthy citations (e. g., p. 118 n. 33; p. 120 n. 44; p. 138 n. 74) appear to be little more than gratuitous window dressing, since Sailhamer either renders them in English or explains their meaning in the text above the line.

Second, many of Sailhamer’s suggestions of later, post-Mosaic redaction can be challenged. For example he proposes that “it is not difficult to envision how the final version of the Pentateuch could have come to reflect the viewpoint of the priesthood and its laws” (p. 295; cf. pp. 297–98, 357). This explanation is entirely unnecessary since nothing priestly in Ezra or Nehemiah or any other postexilic texts is out of line with or additional to the Pentateuch itself.

Third, the prose of the book is laboriously repetitive, nearly to the point where one could justly accuse the author of “self-plagiarism.” Quite obviously, “cutting and pasting” has left its clues, testifying to either a felt need for reenforcement of ideas from place to place or a process of compositional redaction that may not fully have covered the seams of the bits and pieces of text employed by the author as part of his own compositional strategy (cf. pp. 17–18, 201; 51, 203; 55, 207; 100, 105; 254, 255–56). This tongue-in-cheek response to Sailhamer is intended to illustrate some of the questionable aspects of his own analysis of the Pentateuch.

Fourth, future editions of the work should note the following miscellanea: “Davis” for “Davies” (p. 72); need for “of” before “the Pentateuch” (p. 243); “plaintive” for “plaintiff” (p. 262 n. 61); “that they” for “tthat hey” (p. 293); “sanctioned” for “sanctitoned” (p. 295 n. 23); “cannot” for “cannot not” (p. 334); “that” for “the tha” (p. 335); “de Lyra” for “von Lyra” (p. 382); “Bernhard” for “Berhard” Duhm (author index).

These criticisms notwithstanding, Sailhamer has dealt with the literary, compositional, and theological aspects of the Pentateuch in fresh, creative, yet evangelically sound ways that should serve paradigmatically for similar analyses of other biblical texts. The insights, proposals, and conclusions he offers are stimulating and conducive to deeper thought about issues generally held by evangelical scholarship in cavalier and unthinking adherence to long-held but sometimes unwarranted tradition. The blurb on the back cover by this reviewer remains unaltered despite the few negative observations above that must inform careful reading of any texts, including this magnum opus.

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Eugene H. Merrill
Eugene H. Merrill is a former faculty member of DTS. Dr. Merrill has been heavily involved in international Christian ministry in Europe, Asia, and the Near East. As a scholar Dr. Merrill regularly contributes to leading journals, periodicals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries. Academia runs in his family as his wife, Janet, holds a doctorate in counselor education from Columbia University and his daughter, Sonya, earned a Ph.D. in medical ethics from the University of London and an M.D. from Harvard University.
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