Archive for the ‘Pentateuch’ Category

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.

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I recently had the privilege of kicking off a series of three classes on the Pentateuch at our church’s training school. I mentioned early in the class that the Pentateuch, (or OT in general), is often among the most challenging portions of the Bible.  Why?  Firstly, the Pentateuch is the oldest portion of the Bible, written in the neighborhood of 3,500 years ago.  Secondly, the culture in which it was was written, the Ancient Near East, is vastly different from our own Greco-Roman (i.e., Western) roots.  These increased chronological and cultural differences (as compared to one of Paul’s letters, for example) often require extra diligence on the part of the reader.

Praise be, many resources are available to us as a help to flesh out the richness of the Pentateuch, and close some of the gaps we encounter when we read it.  I would recommend the five books below as some possible starting points:

Our resource of the month, IVP’s Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament, is a great starting point, and a helpful, accessible resource for OT study in one volume.

From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch is the best book I’ve read on the Pentateuch.  Ever.  It is more concerned with theology than strict exegesis per se, but I’ve yet to encounter its equal. There is only one caveat: There are 100 pages or so at the front of the text about higher criticism. While this is ‘important’ material, it is much more geared for those in scholarly circles, and far less important than understanding the Pentateuch itself. Those interested in higher criticism should read Garrett’s Rethinking Genesis instead. As such, I’d recommend skipping the first section of Paradise to the Promised Land, unless you really enjoy trudging through the annals of what OT critics have (mostly in error) written about Pentateuchal authorship.

Archaeology and the Old Testament is another good resource for OT backgrounds. While the text sticks closely to its subject, archaeology, it is far from a dry history book. You will not find detailed commentaries on biblical passages here, but you will find a great resource that explains what we’ve learned about the history of the ancient near east through archaeology, and how that relates to different passages in the Bible. Hoerth often points to how certain findings bring to life different OT passages. Aside from being a great resource for understanding the culture of the OT, this text is also helpful in affirming the historical reliability of the Bible. Hoerth is very careful (and right!) to note that as helpful as archaeology is, it can never “prove” the Bible. He does well to describe what archaeology can and cannot do for us as we study Scripture.

Handbook on the Pentateuch is effectively a chapter by chapter commentary on Genesis through Deuteronomy that ties together many of the larger themes running through the Pentateuch. It’s also Danny’s favorite, and that’s worth something :)


A final recommendation would be IVP’s New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Here is another great starting place for those looking for an accessible, single volume commentary of the entire Bible.

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