Finding Meaning in the Pentateuch
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
Marjorie C. Malley
Oxford University Press, USA
August 25, 2011
280 pp., $18.87
Late last year, Mark Driscoll announced through Facebook the publication of John Sailhamer's The Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2009) with a special appeal to "hardcore uber geek theological types who love footnotes." But his friend and fellow pastor John Piper took issue with Driscoll's suggestion that only a nerdy remnant would appreciate the book.
"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," Piper blogged. "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."
Backed by these endorsements, Sailhamer's 610-page tome on the Bible's first five books briefly broke into the top 100 in Amazon.com's sales rankings. CT editor at large Collin Hansen interviewed Sailhamer, Old Testament professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, about his newest book, biblical criticism, and finding meaning in the text of Scripture.
How do you explain the meaning of the Pentateuch to evangelicals who revere these foundational books but do not see their relevance?
Experience has taught me that we really have to want to understand the meaning of the Pentateuch before we see its relevance for our lives. I've been fortunate to have students who have kept me looking for answers about the meaning and relevance of this book. The old theologians used to speak of "the love for Scripture" as a sign of true faith in Christ. They would say, "We should read the Old Testament as if it were written with the blood of Christ." For them, the Old Testament and the Pentateuch in particular was a Christian book, a book about Christ. For most evangelical Christians today it is a book about archaeology and ancient history.
Here we have to be careful because, to be sure, the Old Testament is about ancient history. But that is not its meaning. Its meaning is Christ. Saying that also calls for a great deal of caution. In my book, I take the view that the whole of the Pentateuch is about Christ, but that doesn't mean that Christ is in the whole Pentateuch. Finding Christ in the Pentateuch means learning to see him when he is there rather than trying to see when he is not there. I like to tell my students that we don't need to spiritualize the Old Testament to find Christ, but we do need to read it with spiritual eyes.
I have a good friend who likes to chide me by saying you don't need "exegesis" to find Christ in the Old Testament. All we need is some "extra Jesus." I wrote my book in part to show my friend and others like him that serious scholarship leads one to find Christ in the Old Testament because he is really there. The author of the Pentateuch put him there when he wrote the book. I've found that if you show someone that Christ is really there in the Pentateuch and the Old Testament, they will come back to see more—not merely because they have come to revere the Pentateuch as a foundational book, but more importantly because they want to see more of Jesus.
What is the trickiest problem with discerning the meaning of the Pentateuch?
The problem can be a simple one. Christians just don't really believe the Old Testament is their Bible in the same way the New Testament is. For them the Old Testament teaches the law and the New Testament the gospel. The Old Testament is about Israel and the New Testament is about the church. They may not say it in so many words, but it's there, especially on those rare occasions when the preacher asks them to turn to an Old Testament passage. For them it's like reading someone else's mail. They feel they need to ask permission to obey its laws. Remember this: What we call the "Old Testament" today was the only "New Testament" Jesus and Paul ever had. All the evangelism we read about in the book of Acts was the result of the gospel they proclaimed from the pages of the "Old Testament."