The Meaning of the Pentateuch — Review and Giveaway

Christianity Today recently chronicled the Mark Driscoll/John Piper war-of-words regarding John Sailhamer’s newest book.  To recap, here was the online verbal exchange:

Driscoll noted that he received Sailhamer’s newest work, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, a book he felt was appropriate for “hardcore uber geek theological types who love footnotes.”

John Piper responded with an appropriate verbal beat down:

To all pastors and serious readers of the Old Testament — geek, uber geek, under geek, no geek — if you graduated from high school and know the word meaning, sell your latest Piper or Driscoll book and buy Sailhamer… There is nothing like it.  It will rock your world.  You will never read the Pentateuch the same again.  It is totally readable.  You can skip all the footnotes and not miss a beat.

In fact, you might have to skip the footnotes unless your German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French are up to par!

A Little Background

I was first introduced to John Sailhamer and his writings when I came to SEBTS in 2006.  After enduring four years of study at my undergraduate institution’s Religion department I was worn out from defending the historicity of the Hebrew Bible.  Reading Pentateuch as Narrative and Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach was a breath of fresh air.  This hermeneutic took the text of Scripture seriously and made sense of of the New Testament writers’ interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.  These books provided a necessary corrective to my hermeneutic.  I had been so preoccupied by secondary textual issues in my reading of the Old Testament I had neglected to let the Old Testament shape my questions and concerns when I approached the text.  After listening to Sailhamer and re-reading the Hebrew Bible, I no longer felt self-conscious about the intentionality and cohesion of the Old Testament.  Further, from a scholarly perspective, I was made aware of the shortcomings of previous historical-critical approaches to the Hebrew Bible.  The method I was taught in my undergraduate studies (e.g., Wellhausen) had been demonstrated by modern scholarship to hold little prospect for consensus.  The meaning of the Hebrew Bible was opened as I saw new perspectives in reading the text as intended by its author(s) (e.g., Childs, Sailhamer, Rendtorff).

The Meaning of the Pentateuch

Sailhamer’s most recent contribution to Old Testament Studies is a legitimate tome in the field.  It is the magnum opus of his great career.  This text combines years of classroom teaching, scholarly research, and published books and articles into one collection.  The result is a comprehensive approach to the Pentateuch explaining and incorporating a robust Biblical Theology and well-defined Hermeneutic into serious, careful exegetical examination of the Hebrew Bible.  The reader will gain large overviews of subjects such as Biblical exegesis, Biblical theology, historical method, and philology.

What I most enjoy about this book is Dr. Sailhamer not only makes summary hermeneutical/theological/philosophical statements but he also demonstrates how he arrived to these conclusions.  Further, he demonstrates an exhaustive knowledge of the history of ideas in relation to Biblical exegesis and theology.  As a historian, Sailhamer is able to trace the historiography of Old Testament interpretation and explain how modern evangelicals have arrived at their current hermeneutical guidelines.


Sailhamer takes seriously the compositional strategy and the words of the text of the Hebrew Bible.  For Sailhamer, proper interpretation seeks to find the intended meaning of the author by the words he uses and the way the text is structured.  As a result he spends a significant amount of time exegeting the theological commentary that occurs at the seams of the Tanak (e.g., Deuteronomy 34, Joshua 1, Malachi 3/4, Psalms 1-2, Chronicles 36).  For him, these “seams” provide significant interpretive clues to the intended meaning of the Hebrew Bible.  Within the Hebrew Bible (and, even, the New Testament), Biblical authors act as Biblical theologians as they interpret previous text (e.g., compositional themes, prophets, apostles, etc.).

Organization of the Book

The book is organized into three sections dealing with foundational issues (e.g, hermeneutics, Biblical theology), text specific issues (e.g., compositional strategy), and theological conclusions drawn from a reading of the Pentateuch (e.g., covenant, blessing, messiah, Mosaic Law, salvation).

Concluding Remarks

Much more can be said about Sailhamer’s discussion of theology and compositional strategy.  Hopefully what has been discussed will whet your appetite to read this book and (more importantly) to examine the intended meaning of the Pentateuch.


In order to increase the traffic at my new blog and be generous, I have decided to give a brand new copy of John H. Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the PentateuchTo enter this giveaway merely comment on this post (make sure to use a valid e-mail address so I can contact you if you win). The winner will be chosen randomly and contacted via e-mail.  Please share this contest with other people via Twitter, Facebook, blog, or neighborhood flyers. Only one comment per person, but you’ll get an extra entry if you link to this post on your own blog!

23 thoughts on “The Meaning of the Pentateuch — Review and Giveaway”

  1. I want one! I’ll link this to my twitter. I have a blog, but no one reads it. Literally, no one. So Twitter will suffice.

    1. Nice. Send me the link to your blog and I’ll add it to my google reader. That way when you update it, I’ll see it but there’s no pressure to update regularly.

  2. Mark,
    NIIIICE work on this review man. I really enjoyed my class with Dr. S at SEBTS and learned a great deal about interpreting scripture. Glad to see you blogging and look forward to more to come.

  3. Good idea – I’ve linked your post on my own.
    I came across this after reading the Piper/Driscoll interchange.
    Very provocative book and immensely valuable in getting a clearer picture of the ultimate authorial intent of not just the Pentateuch but the entire Bible.
    Dr Varner’s article is great as well. I know he didn’t like the repetition, but I’ve appreciated the re-enforcement it provides while reading such a lengthy tome.

  4. after being exposed to Sailhamer’s earlier work (and not being impressed at all), I need something to renew my interest in Sailhamer!

  5. Hmmm, uber geeks… I don’t think we have any of those in Louisiana, however, this is one cajun transplant who has a very high regard for the Old Testament. It was a study of the Minor Prophets that brought the Bible alive for me. Week after week we read of the sin and corruption committed by Israel, the question became what’s the point. Continued study revealed that God’s steadfast love is the point. It’s what led Him to send us His son.

  6. When is somebody actually going to review this book from an exegetical perspective? Mr. Sailhamer does a very good job articulating what he thinks the purpose and structure of the Pentateuch is. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that he puts forth regarding the structure of the Pentateuch is a square peg. Although he skillfully pummels it with a well-argued hammer, it still does not fit into the round hole of the text. Is anybody out there actually reading it and comparing it to the text? Have you gone through and actually outlined the text in the manner that he describes? Have you compared it to the purpose and structure of any of the individual books which comprise it (i.e., Genesis, Exodus, etc.)? I’ve spent decades studying the Pentateuch and the five books which comprise it. I’ve personally spent days in this book and in the biblical text over the last few weeks. As much as I’d like for it to, in the end, the structure he is arguing for does not hold water. It is an artificial construct that has been imposed on the text to force a purpose from it which is not there. I realize that a critique from someone lacking formal credentials will do little to persuade anybody in our current western Christian culture, because few know the text well enough to truly argue from it. So I’m not going to take the time to try to persuade you. But maybe somebody who actually has the credentials in the O.T. will take up the challenge and do a serious study and review of this book’s exegetical claims. Please, the church needs your protection right now.

    I do not recommend this book at all. I think it is errant. And what makes it worse is that the average person, even the average formally educated (i.e., seminary) person, isn’t equipped enough to know the difference. The fact that is has been trumpeted by a few prominent evangelical pastors is unfortunate at best.

    1. First of all, you offer no actual examples of exegetical mistakes. Second, this review is on a blog, not in a peer-reviewed journal. I do not have the ability in this forum to examine in detail every claim Dr. Sailhamer makes (plus, no one would actually read them if I did). Third, plenty of scholars have reviewed this work in the positive and negative within the field of Old Testament studies. Fourth, it seems that you have an axe to grind for no discernable reason. Fifth, what do you think someone learns at seminary? I know I walked through most of the book of Genesis in the original text trying to discern the exegetical structure… And the list goes on and on…

    2. Look at Sailhamer’s bibliography. He has clearly does his own exegetical work. Look at his Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis as well as his Pentateuch as Narrative, in which he takes the entire Pentateuch, passage by passage, and offers commentary on it. If that doesn’t satisfy your appetite, he also has an NIV Compact Bible Commentary where we takes a big picture view of every biblical text. Having had the opportunity of studying under Sailhamer for a few semesters, I took a Genesis exegesis class with him and also am aware that he also taught an Isaiah exegesis class. His work in Biblical Hebrew moves even further into his close reading of OT texts. You’ll have trouble finding an OT scholar better equipped in his knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, as well as non-English texts from before 1900 that is alive today.

      Your criticism is generic and lacks humility. DR. Sailhamer, as an one of most important evangelical scholars alive today, has spent his entire life studying the Pentateuch, not just “days” like your own. My advice is to consider it for at least weeks and months. If you don’t have his conclusions or ideas acceptable, how better would you explain the theological source of many of Paul’s and Jesus’ own ideas?

  7. I’m looking forward to reading Sailhamer, having never been exposed to him before. If Dricoll and Piper find it as good as they tweeted, and IVPress published it, I’m really interested in reading it.

  8. Sailhamer is a great scholar who loves God and the Bible like no one I have ever met before – I can’t wait to read his newest book! Anyone who wants to get a deeper appreciation for God’s Word should read what this man has written.

  9. Sailhamer is bound to be criticized for arguing from Mosaic authorship. That is to say that many people won’t accept this book’s theology, because they reject Mosaic authorship – favouring, instead, the Documentary Hypothesis. Yet, I wonder whether Moses could not have been the redactor (in part)/author (in part) of a series of sources which, taken together, form the Pentateuch (with final additions, such as the account of Moses’ death). This would explain the indications of sources behind the Pentateuch, without compromising Mosaic authorship. Of course, the typical documentary hypothesis both posits sources as well as dating them after the time of David (roughly 1000 BC). My question, for everyone here, is what necessitates the late dating of the sources of the Pentateuch (if there were any)? If there were a ‘J’ ‘D’ ‘E’ and ‘P’, for example (or some other list of sources), what would necessitate their post-Davidic dating, as is usual?

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