Sometime ago, Brian, my fellow infrequent contributor to BBG, offered up a post on five resources to help people understand the Pentateuch in a posted titled “Five Books for the Five Books.” I wholeheartedly agree that the resources he listed are helpful, and would even now agree (I didn’t then, as you can see in his original post) that T D Alexander’s book, From Paradise to Promised Land, is the best book I’ve read on the Pentateuch. The person not interested in source criticism would do well to skip the first 100 pages or so, but otherwise it’s a fantastic overview of what the Pentateuch teaches.
A few years back I picked up a copy of another study on the Pentateuch at a CBD Warehouse Sale. I bought it because I recognized the author’s name from my Exegesis in Genesis class with Duane Garrett (and I’ll explain why he stood out to me a in a minute), and because the sale price was $6.79 (normally priced $24.99). The Pentateuch As Narrative was my first introduction to OT scholar John Sailhamer’s works. It took me a while to sit down and read through it a bit, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in it. He has since gone on to write another book on the Pentateuch, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, which received a hearty endorsement from John Piper.
Sailhamer, who essentially gives a running commentary on the Pentateuch in this book, is at his best when he’s pointing out easy-to-miss connections throughout the Pentateuch. For instance, Sailhamer shows verbal parallels between Noah and Abraham, demonstrating that they each “represent new beginnings in the course of events recorded in Genesis. Both are marked by God’s promise of blessing and his gift of the covenant” (p128). The same goes for parallels between the story of Abraham going in and out of Egypt (chapters 12-13) and the story of Israel doing the same (in the Joseph story and in Exodus 11-12). “By shaping the account of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt to parallel the events of the Exodus, the author permits the reader to see the implications of God’s past deeds with his chosen people” (p142).
I could probably list off a couple dozen other examples (connections between the flood story and purification laws, brilliant!), not all of which are entirely convincing, in my opinion. But the effect of all this is in demonstrating that there is a narrative unity to the Pentateuch. Whatever else one wants to say about the sources behind the Pentateuch (safe to say that Sailhamer is hardly convinced by Documentary Hypothesis advocates), the final form of the text is intended to be seen as a unity.
That is not to say, however, that I always find Sailhamer’s analysis correct. I’ll give one quick example to make my point.
I mentioned earlier that Sailhamer’s name rung a bell with me for a specific reason. In my aforementioned Exegesis in Genesis class, Dr Garrett mentioned Sailhamer’s view of the “days of creation” in Genesis 1. I was quite familiar with the 24-hour view and the indefinite-period-of-time view (or whatever it should be called), and even the framework hypothesis. But I hadn’t heard Sailhamer’s view before.
In a nutshell, Sailhamer argues that the days of creation in Genesis 1 are not referring to the creation of our planet (he does see that in Genesis 1:1, just not what follows). Instead, these days refer to God’s creation/preparation of the “land” (read: Promised Land) for Israel. You can find a more detailed presentation of his argument summarized by Matt Perman (who is actually summarizing Sailhamer’s argument in Genesis Unbound- apparently one book making his point isn’t enough!) at the Desiring God website. One of the alluring features of this view is the use of “land” (eretz, in Hebrew) in Genesis 1 and the rest of the Pentateuch. “The Land” is a common thread in the Pentateuch. God had promised it to Abraham and his descendents (Gen 12:7) and much of the rest of the Pentateuch is centered around the theme of God preparing them to live in the Land.
My reaction, though, is that Sailhamer reads the evidence backwards. While I appreciate the verbal and thematic connections between Genesis 1 and various other places in the Pentateuch (God separating the waters on Day 3 and with the Red Sea), I would argue that the Red Sea account points back to the creation of the world, rooting Israel’s story (the creation of Israel) in God’s total creative power. I’m intrigued, but not convinced (but could be, I suppose).
So The Pentateuch as Narrative would not be my first book to recommend to someone on the first five books of the Bible. From Paradise to Promised Land still holds the #1 slot for me. But I think it’s good for me to have someone throw a few curveballs. That someone is John Sailhamer. He comes to the text with a different set of eyes, picking up on details that I never would have seen. While I may disagree, I’m rarely disappointed.