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."
How does an understanding of the whole help us understand the smaller parts of the Pentateuch?
An important goal in understanding a written text is to discover the "intention of the author." Where is he going with his text? Is there a strategy that lies in the author's composition? Such questions help us discover what the author wants to say in both the details and the whole of his text. The author is like a mystery writer who plants seemingly meaningless details for us to discover and ultimately connect to find their meaning. Only when we discover that meaning in terms of its parts and their relationship to the whole can we say we understand the text. Wouldn't you like to see the written notes in the margins of Sherlock Holmes's Bible?
What can we learn from later biblical figures in how they treated the Pentateuch?
In my book I have taken a close look at how the later Old Testament authors read and interpreted the Pentateuch. They had essentially the same Pentateuch we have today, plus a number of comments that they passed along as their explanatory notes. Being for the most part prophets, their comments and explanations ultimately found their way into the later versions of the Old Testament text. It is in those notes that we can see most clearly their longing for the coming of a Savior foretold by Moses in the poems of the Pentateuch.
You argue, "The Pentateuch was written not so much to teach Israel about the Sinai covenant as to teach them about the new covenant." How did you reach this conclusion?
In reading through the poetic texts that frame the narratives in the Pentateuch, I find they often use the same words and expressions as the biblical prophetic literature. The phrase "in the last days" is a good example. Those same words and phrases carry with them the notion of a new covenant. They are part of the same prophetic composition throughout the Old Testament and were later used by Jesus and the NT writers to interpret the Old Testament. So rather than focusing on the past Sinai Covenant, the Pentateuch is looking forward to a future new covenant "in the last days."
What one thing would you say to help us change how we read the Pentateuch and how pastors preach from it?
Keep your eyes on the biblical text. What do their words say to you personally, and what do they tell us about Jesus? Those are the prophetic words that God still speaks to us personally today.
During your tenure as an Old Testament professor, how has study of the Pentateuch changed?
By far the biggest change in Old Testament studies over the past four decades has been the fall—if not the total collapse—of the discipline of Old Testament itself. I don't mean to say that the study of the Old Testament has no future. I mean only that there is a general sense among Old Testament scholars at the moment that the discipline of Old Testament studies has an uncertain future. It is not that there is no future. It is that no one has been able to predict what its future will be. This an exciting time and productive period to be studying the Old Testament because despite the many new approaches being tried and tested, a consensus on what will come next has not been reached.
Several evangelical scholars have recently called on their colleagues to appropriate the methods of critical interpretation. What do you make of this effort?
I'm saddened by it. Criticism has its place in biblical scholarship, but I cannot envision how or where it would play out in evangelicalism. As evangelicals we have the responsibility of addressing the questions raised by biblical criticism. But I would expect that to happen alongside of and from within our own "non-critical" perspective.
What do you expect will be the next great frontier in Old Testament studies?
The next frontier in Old Testament studies will be the same as its first frontier, that is, the question of the Old Testament's witness to Christ.
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