The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John H. Sailhamer

June 30th, 2010

Sailhamer, John H. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.  638 pp.  $40.00.  Purchase at Westminster books.


The Meaning of the Pentateuch is the culmination of a lifetime of study of by John H. Sailhamer–professor of Old Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.  His book, Introduction to Old Testament Theology was very formative to my understanding of preaching the text of Scripture versus preaching the historical events described in Scripture.


This mammoth 638 page tome is a tribute to more than 30 years of scholarly study by Dr. John H. Sailhamer.  I will attempt to summarize this book in an extremely short manner though I could easily write pages upon pages just in summary alone!

The book is divided into three parts.  The first section deals with our approach to the Pentateuch as the revelation of God.  Here, Sailhamer introduces what Old Testament Theology is and how we are to understand what the writers of the Old Testament, specifically, the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is trying to tell us.  He next explains the importance of verbal meaning–what the author actually wrote and then compares that to the historical meaning–having a historical-grammatical method to interpreting Scripture.  He argues that we ought to return to the original intent of this method as opposed to our current understanding.

The second section concerns itself with the rediscovering of how the Pentateuch was originally composed.  Here, as I will discuss in a moment, I respectfully disagree with Sailhamer.  In this section, he looks at the Tanak, the Hebrew name for our Old Testament–it was divided into three parts–Law, Prophets, and Writings as opposed to our Law, History, Wisdom Lit., Prophets subdivisions.

The key chapter to the second chapter is the chapter entitled The Composition of the Pentateuch.  It  is here that Sailhamer argues for an author other than Moses for the Pentateuch.  Regardless of who you think wrote the Pentateuch, this section on the composition of these first five books is very interesting and formative.

The final section is the application of Sailhamer’s lifetime of study.  Here, we learn how to interperet the theology of the Pentateuch.  Ultimately, without the Pentateuch, there is no reason for Christ to come and save mankind from sin.  Through the Pentateuch we learn to be obedient to God and to live by faith that He alone can save us if we respond to Him in faith.


As I said above, I disagree with his understanding of who wrote the Pentateuch.  He basically takes a source theory as to the Pentateuch.  In other words, Moses did not write the entire Pentateuch as so many believe.  He argues that the Pentateuch was compiled from various sources at various times and was not completed as we know it until sometime in the 1st century BC.  Without going into much detail, I respectfully disagree.  Simply stated, Jesus Christ explicitly states that Moses wrote the Law (Mark 12:26Luke 2:2216:29, etc.).  He refers over and over to the assumption that was understood by the Jews that Moses wrote the Law.

This disagreement notwithstanding, I found The Meaning of the Pentateuch to be an excellent though challenging read.  It takes some time (it took me 6+ months to wade through it) to read and even then, you will be amazed at what you missed.  I appreciated his willingness to fight for the historical-grammatical method for interpreting Scripture as well as tracing where his logic and prusuppositions lead him.


Sailhamer’s magnum opus ought to be read by all pastor’s and seminary students.  It will change the way you read the first five books of the Bible–regardless of the presuppositions you bring to the table.  The Pentateuch is ultimately the foundation of the Bible.  Without it, we have no need for Christ.  Apart from it, we do not understand Christ fully.  This is to our shame.

This book is not for everyone.  It was written for the serious student of Scripture.  Many, my wife among them, are not as interested in understanding these nuances on the scholarly side of theology.  Regardless, as a pastor, you owe it to your congregation and those you lead to be familiar with what is being said about the Bible. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: