The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. By John H. Sailhamer. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009. 610 pages. Paperback, $40.00.


Nothing makes me more nervous than when I hear a preacher say that he has an interpretation of a biblical text that no one else holds. My heresy antennae come up quickly. Part of my fear is based on one of the fundamental values of orthodoxy. As a Christian concerned with orthodoxy, I value preservation over innovation. When I hear an interpretation that is novel, I fear that the interpreter has abandoned the deposit of faith left by the prophets and apostles. Rarely can a work of interpretation both preserve what has been passed down and strike out in directions that seem provocative and innovative to the contemporary interpreter. John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch is such a work.


In the book Sailhamer takes the reader on a journey through the Pentateuch in order to understand its meaning, including its “big idea.” The reader begins with the hermeneutical foundation for interpreting the Pentateuch. Sailhamer stresses revelation, that is, “the divine act of self-disclosure put into written form as Scripture by the prophets” (11). He argues that the Pentateuch is revelation rather than an artifact of ancient Israelite religion. In doing so, he also lays out his own approach to reading the Pentateuch: what he calls a “compositional approach” (48). As Sailhamer defines it, “An evangelical compositional approach to biblical authorship identifies Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and seeks to uncover his strategy in putting the book together” (48). By uncovering this strategy, Sailhamer claims that one also uncovers the “historical meaning” of the Pentateuch (100–01). He compares and contrasts this understanding of the “historical meaning” of biblical texts with critical and evangelical scholars. Finally, Sailhamer provides practical pointers for discerning the “big idea” of a work such as the Pentateuch.


In the second part of the book Sailhamer sets his attention specifically on the text of the Pentateuch. His first concern is to explain how the Pentateuch was made. By doing so, he hopes to shed light on the strategy that was used in making it. He describes the way in which many biblical books, including the Pentateuch, are made by placing together some source material along with commentary in order to make a unified text. The sources for the Pentateuch consist primarily in “large blocks of narratives, ancient poems and the collections of laws” (279). Sailhamer locates the composition and interpretation of the Pentateuch within the process of making the entire Old Testament. Having described the way in which the Pentateuch was made, he lays out the rationale for the various parts of the Pentateuch, highlighting the structure of the Pentateuch, the placement of poetic material, and the interaction between legal material and narrative framework. In this part of the book Sailhamer most clearly sets out his understanding of the “big idea” of the Pentateuch.


The third part of the book moves beyond the exegetical task to the theological task, specifically biblical theology. Sailhamer addresses significant issues of biblical theology to show the Pentateuch’s point of view for these issues. He begins by critiquing the notion that the scheme of promise and fulfillment serves as the appropriate link between the two testaments. Then, he justifies the search for the “Biblical Jesus” in the Pentateuch and shows the result of such a search. Next, he discusses the significance of the Mosaic Law for Christians, especially how Christians are to apply the Mosaic Law. Finally, he describes the picture of salvation offered in the Pentateuch.


Throughout the book the reader will find much that reflects both preservation and innovation from a contemporary evangelical perspective. I offer three significant examples although there are many others. First, Sailhamer affirms Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, a clear case of preservation. At the same time he brings to light that certain brief portions of the Pentateuch do not appear to come directly from Moses, notably the account of his death in Deuteronomy 34. By exploring these “additions,” Sailhamer notes that there is a consistent perspective that suggests that these additions are part of an intentional strategy to produce “an updated version of the Mosaic Pentateuch produced, perhaps, by the ‘author’ of the OT as a whole (Tanak)” (48). In other words, there was an effort on the part of the prophets who followed Moses to preserve what they had received, in part, by bringing it up-to-date with the rest of the Old Testament. Such a proposal is an innovation.


Second, in contrast to the “postmodern turn” in biblical studies, Sailhamer affirms the historical-grammatical method of interpreting texts. He preserves this method characteristic of evangelicals. At the same time, Sailhamer articulates the meaning of the historical-grammatical method that offers a critique of its contemporary usage. Here especially he looks at the understanding and role of history in the interpretation of biblical texts. His critique in large measure is that contemporary evangelicals have lost sight of the words of the Bible by focusing on the objects or events to which the words point. Sailhamer states that the aim of contemporary evangelical interpreters is “to view biblical events not merely through the eyes of biblical authors (as written accounts of those events), but also through the eyes of historians as if we were gazing upon the actual events through the words of the text” (101). Even though he preserves the historical-grammatical method, his explanation is an innovative critique of its contemporary use.


Finally, Sailhamer affirms that the Pentateuch is a Christological document, preserving a longstanding Christian understanding of the book. Yet, he articulates it in terms that are out of step with many contemporary evangelicals who are focusing on Christological readings or salvation-historical trajectories. Sailhamer argues that the intentional, historical meaning of the Pentateuch was Christological from the start.


Sailhamer’s work is a case of preservation and innovation. As a result, he provides an insider’s critique to contemporary evangelical biblical interpreters and theologians. This work provides a critique of current approaches to the biblical text, but also strikes out in new areas for future work. Sailhamer does not provide a comprehensive, detailed defense for each part of the portrait. Instead, he provides a provocative look forward.


The strength of Sailhamer’s book is that it paints a wide-ranging portrait of the Pentateuch: its origin, history, strategy, interpretation, and its place in biblical theology. The portrait provides an impressive synthesis of many seemingly disparate pieces. This strength will likely be its weakness as well because Sailhamer devotes such time to the larger portrait that he does not spend time defending his case for every detail. Many readers may want to see further justification of specific points only to find that Sailhamer does not provide it.


The Meaning of the Pentateuch is the result of decades of Sailhamer’s reading, teaching, and publishing on the Pentateuch. It synthesizes much of the work that he has produced over the years, especially his Introduction to Old Testament Theology, The Pentateuch as Narrative and his articles on the Pentateuch and hermeneutics. One might expect this book to be his magnum opus, but such a designation does not get at its heart. Its true character is found on the dedication page: “To my students.” This book is not a comprehensive, detailed defense of Sailhamer’s work, but a roadmap forward for evangelical biblical theology. It is less of a magnum opus and more of a magna carta.


See also IVP’s description.


Joshua E. Williams

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary