John Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch: A Review Essay

Here are the opening paragraphs of my review of Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation:

This book received significant electronic attention. Mark Driscoll and John Piper went back and forth over it on Twitter, then Piper blogged on it, followed by a Collin Hansen Christianity Today interview, all linked on Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds. Even before the generation of this digital excitement, I had been looking forward to this book for several years. If asked to identify the major influences on my thinking about the Old Testament, Sailhamer is on the short list with T. Desmond Alexander, Stephen Dempster, William J. Dumbrell, and Paul House.

Sailhamer’s Presidential Address to the ETS, later published as “The Messiah in the Hebrew Bible,” was a watershed moment in my thinking about the Old Testament. That address gripped and fascinated me, as did an essay Sailhamer wrote on the connections between Genesis 49, Numbers 22–24, and other texts. I say all this to preface the following points of appreciation, puzzlement, and disagreement.

And here is the outline of the review essay:

1. Introduction (the two paragraphs quoted above)

2. Points of Appreciation

2.1 Impressive Research in Latin and German
2.2 Focus on the Messiah
2.3 Focus on the Final Form of the Text

3. Puzzling Features of the Book

3.1 Incidental Questions
3.2 Repetitions and Redundancies
3.3 Text or Event?
3.4 Sailhamer’s Dialogue Partners
3.5 Typology?

4. Points of Disagreement

4.1 Pentateuch 2.0
4.2 Abraham and Moses
4.3 The Event at Sinai and the Purpose of the Law
4.4 Other Disagreements

5. Conclusion

Thanks to SBJT‘ for generously granting me permission to post the whole thing here.

For those interested in bibliographic details: James M. Hamilton Jr., “John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch: A Review Essay,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14.2 (2010), 62-76.

Errata: I spotted  at least one typo as I looked back over it. On page 70 I meant to refer to Jeremiah presenting himself “as an installment in a line of prophets” but mistyped the word line as life. Oops!

SBTS students: you will receive an email notifying  you when you may pick up the Journal. Thanks for not pestering the nice man who works in the Journal office.

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  1. Jim,
    I’m so thankful that you were able to post this entire review. I finished the book last week and found that whereas there were some very strong points, I didn’t feel that it made much movement beyond his The Pentateuch as Narrative and Theology of the Old Testament. As such I was the first non-five star review at Amazon (four stars), but the more I ponder it I would probably move it to three.

    Like you, I was somewhat bothered by his section on the “two altars.” Furthermore, his interpretation of Sinai was lacking (or at least since I’m partial to Vos and Waltke I disagreed). I also am not sure that he substantiated the fact that the last edits came from a prophet as opposed to the standard thinking of priestly editing. Furthermore, I would argue that Milgrom’s critiques of Knohl on the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) not only move the date backwards to a pre-exilic/exilic date (as Milgrom argues), but that the internal consistency of the entire book alongside Milgrom’s criticisms of the traditional arguments, destroy the need for a “Holiness Code” at all (I’ve particularly been doing research lately in Leviticus 26 showing how it does not fit within the Holiness Code, but makes more sense as a concluding covenant for the greater section stretching back into Exodus). I say this because Sailhamer accepts a Holiness Code without discussion. And of course, the repetition in the book is a killer. There are literally paragraphs that are cut and paste from previous sections.

    With that said, I do appreciate the discussion at the beginning concerning the nature of an evangelical view of inspiration (even though I disagree at points). I also appreciate his display of the continued Messianic hope throughout the OT, but particularly in the Pentateuch. Finally, I greatly appreciated his discussion of Abraham’s seed and Christ (chapter 9).

    If I had to give a friend one book on the Pentateuch’s relation to the OT and biblical theology, I’d give them Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty. If I had to give them one book by Sailhamer, it would still be The Pentateuch as Narrative.

  2. I expect the redundancy is due in large part to the fact that nowadays, books are written on computer. This gives rise to a cut-n-paste compositional technique, where preexisting chunks of material which a writer already has on file are incorporated into a “new” book. Computers have changed the way books are written. Modern composition tends to be choppier and more repetitious because the writer is more reliant on computer memory, and reliant on his own. Compare F. F. Bruce’s commentaries with more recent commentaries. Even though Bruce had a phenomenal memory, his commentaries are shorter than more recent commentaries because his writing relies on what is in his head rather than what is on a computer file.

  3. It would be useful to see you flesh out your own view of how he relates Dan 9 to the formation/finalization of the OT canon.

    1. I don’t know that it will relate to the canon, but I’ve done some work on the interpretation of Daniel 9 in Revelation (see my forthcoming Preaching the Word vol. on Revelation), and Lord willing I’ll be working soon on a theology of Daniel.

  4. Hi Jim,

    Thanks so much for posting this excellent review. I haven’t finished this book but read enough that it began to trouble me. I’m rusty on OT scholarship, but it struck me in some respects as an evangelical version of the theses of von Rad, Perlitt, and others (taken apart by McConville in Grace in the End); i.e., von Rad’s UrDt theory, that a proto-Deuteronomy existed featuring the promise of God, versus the later commandment-and-judgment-heavy final form; and the belief that (say) Deut 7:12a as a later insertion to make an unconditional covenant promise conditional.

    A colleague wondered about Deut 6:20ff and how Sailhamer would deal with that rather straightforward description of the purpose of Torah. Did you encounter that in your read?

  5. I’m just posting this to clarify my previous comment. Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time considering Sailhamer’s views on text/event, Exodus 19, the direction of the Pentateuch and other factors and now probably align more with him today than when my comment was posted above. Since the above comment has my name attached to it, I thought I should update it.

    I’d probably stick with four stars for the book, but am less critical of the two altars section, still very critical of the repetition throughout the book and now understand his perspective on the prophetic voice in the final redaction. I still think it didn’t move much beyond his other two books mentioned above, but does serve to combine the two in a rather effective manner.

  6. I know I am way late to the party, but why again is his view of Ex 19 so scandalous? it seems to make since the last part is of exodus 19. And honestly help me understand what C Wright was getting at, with identity and witness talk. But seeing ex 19 as a faith test for all the people to trust God’s desecration over them as a “holy” “preasthood” and step out in faith showing they understand God as both powerful (nature of who he was revealed in Egypt) and fatherly, caring to protect and provide(as in wilderness tests and how they are presented).

    Every review I looked at never explained other views of the law or Siani. Could somebody help a brother out?

    I thought it generally assumed even in conservative scholars that some form of amanuensis or editorial process (even maybe Ezra) was involved in final formation.

    Ad his view of Moses it did not seem to me that he made him out to be an unbeliever busting hell wide open.

    But what do I know I’m a janitor… Seriously .. I just want to understand .. What am I missing?

    1. I disagree with Sailhamer’s view of Exod 19 because he claims to be telling you what really happened rather than what the text says happened. Sailhamer usually insists that the only access we have to what happened is the text. Here he sets the text aside in favor of his theory about what really happened, which isn’t what the text says.

      Not sure what you have in mind in your ref. to C. Wright.

      For other views on the law, you can see my book God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, anything by Schreiner on the law, or Gentry and Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant.

      I’m fine with what conservatives typically say about textual updating. Sailhamer is going well beyond that.

      He contrasts Moses with Abraham, Abraham being a man of faith, Moses a man of law. I think the text indicates Moses was a man of faith, and the author of Hebrews agrees.

      I hope this helps!

      1. That does help Thank You.. I do agree after a reread that the Abraham Moses thing is off. Can’t agree the apollos, I mean Hebrews (just a little joke). Seriously, I also want to thank you for the book requests. Kingdom through covenant is on deck for me.. And I already had you batting cleanup.. I will look for schreiner when I can.. (Since you batting clean up I expect a home run!! 😉

        I think the only part stuck for me is Ex 19 .. Two reasons. 1.) if God does not command the people to come up to meet with him then why do so many translations make it read as such. Especially since Moses denounces similar actions In 20:18
        2.) I prefer to read assuming the flow of the text is historical. So to say Ex 19:25 is a retelling or tie in of 20:18-22 seems to assume an authority over the text and its shape I don’t want to give myself. (I coset this Maybe my problem). I want to see it as The moral law as legislative and binding on my conscience with a narrative shape that reminds no one will fulfill the law the OT is one long hope for the promise one. Anyway thanks for responding.. Blessings

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