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The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation
Author: John H. Sailhamer
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 632

A thought expressed by F. W. Boreham comes to mind when I think about The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John H. Sailhamer. Let your mind roam along new lines. Are you given to astronomy? Pick up a book on botany. If mathematics is your thing, a study of psychology may be in order. If you can’t get enough conversation, take the time to make friends with books. We are the richer when we break away from habitual ways of relating.

When it comes to studying the Bible, my preference in the Old Testament might be Psalms, Ruth or one of the Prophets. Studying the first five books of the Bible, commonly known as the Pentateuch, is further down the list. This book goes against my natural inclination, but I sensed my need to know more about the purpose of this section of Scripture. How many Christians are at a loss to know what to make of the Old Testament? I suspected this book would provide help. 

I discovered that John H. Sailhamer is an excellent guide. He is a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Brea, CA. This book is for his students. 

As with any author or person, our greatest strengths can be an area of vulnerability. Sailhamer’s lifetime of study make this a scholarly work. His familiarity with historical analysis and recent studies, make this a valuable resource, one that would be a fine addition to any theological library. His insights open new vistas, but readers not inclined toward the technical may become impatient with his exhaustive treatment.  Though the book is written for academics and serious students, a patient reader will find this rewarding. 

Sailhamer is evangelical, orthodox and precise. Though some ideas may be debatable, his analysis and commentary is on the mark. Sailhamer draws rich meanings from texts through painstaking analysis, not reading into the text but letting it speak for itself. That’s part of the benefit of this book, watching someone rightly divide the Word of Truth. 

Sailhamer focuses on the final form of the Pentateuch, rather than the history behind the text. He believes that the meaning lies in the text itself, something that modern critical analysis has moved away from.

Most Christians associate the Pentateuch with the Law. Though it comprises a significant part, Sailhamer demonstrates, to my delight, that in addition to “obedience to the Mosaic law,” the Pentateuch is about “living by faith.” Think Abraham and Moses. The former was an example of faith that the apostle Paul references in the New Testament. The latter failed to keep the law and was kept out of the Promised Land. Is the Pentateuch more about the failure of the old and the hope for something new? 

Sailhamer seeks to get at the author’s original intent by exploring in detail the compositional strategy of the Pentateuch. Especially revealing are the compositional seams that link together narrative sections and collections of laws. Four major sections of poetry form the core of these seams and provide critical insight and commentary. 

Sailhamer concludes that the Pentateuch is about “the prophetic hope of a new covenant. At the center of that hope, and extending to the whole of the Pentateuch, is the role of the king from the house of Judah who will reign over Israel and the nations.”

Sailhamer’s slow and deliberate enfolding of this meaning is beautiful to behold and has forever changed the way I look at these poetry sections. 

This book is also valuable in showing how a Christian should relate to the entire Old Testament. How are we to view it, and what is still binding? 

This study shows the benefits of grappling with subjects that are not as appealing but with sustained effort yield meaning that can be like a bloom in an unexpected place.

Michael Dalton
January 21, 2010



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