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The Pentateuch as narrative – John Sailhamer

I sent this review to a creationist magazine. I am not sure if it was published. 

The Pentateuch as narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Library of Biblical Interpretation series), John H. Sailhamer, Zondervan publishing house (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992, 522 pages) – ISBN 0-310-57421-8

John Sailhamer is an engaging conservative evangelical scholar who has been teaching and researching in the Old Testament for over three decades, and is presently resident at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in California. He has other books which address questions of creation more directly; but this is the work that came my way in Kenya’s Rift Valley.

Sailhamer’s main aim is to show the “strategy” of the writer of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch is basically a story (not in the modern sense of “made-up tale”, but rather of a historical account re-told for a present purpose). It only rarely provides direct editorial comment to explain why a certain event, person or other detail is being focussed upon. Sailhamer asserts that the writer expects us to read and re-read it, each time getting a deeper appreciation of his overall purpose.

Who was the Pentateuch written for? First in time, it was written for Israel as they entered into the conquest of the land. It finishes on a climax: God has delivered his people, but not yet fulfilled all his promises to them. The first generation of readers stood at a crucial point in history. They needed to here this re-capitulation of their past so that they might go forward with faith in their God.

In the modern West, individualism and the “hear-and-now” of rolling news and instant technology seem to be contributing to robbing Christians of their appreciation of “story”. People have an idea of their own “personal journey”, but this is a poor substitute. The Bible places us as part of a story. God made a “very good” creation in which man was given a large and glorious calling to “fill and subdue” but failed through sin. The story though is guaranteed a terrific ending, because the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) will do what the first could not. Through his death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit, Jesus will ensure that the creation’s original goals are achieved. This success is not independent of our lives; but rather, just as Adam was to lead and teach his family into fulfilling the original covenant, so now Jesus is to fulfil his purposes through the lives of his redeemed people. Our actions either carry forward or hinder the story – how we live matters!

Sailhamer does not aim, in this book, to go beyond the situation of that first generation. He does, however, argue persuasively that the author deliberately and repeatedly indicates to the reader that a new and better covenant than that given at Sinai was needed. He shows, rightly in my view, that right from the beginning the Sinai covenant was portrayed as insufficient to enable Israel to fulfil its calling. It was to be a light to the nations, to bring restoration after Adam and Noah and sons’ failures; but lacked the circumcised heart needed to do so.

The issues that arise in a book of this scope with an original author are legion. From a creationist point of view, the most controversial feature is Sailhamer’s arguments that 1) The garden of Eden was the same territory as land of Canaan and 2) This is the territory whose creation, or rather organisation, is described in Genesis chapter 1 from verse 2 onwards. From this it then follows that this is the territory under consideration during the flood. This book was published in 1992 and there is little evidence that Sailhamer’s view has been gaining popularity. The arguments are mainly based upon tracing out thematic parallels. In my opinion, our age lacks a great deal of sanctified imagination which is needed when tracing the echoes and hints in Biblical narratives – the Bible is, after all, a very colourful book, not a technical manual of philosophical ideas. Sailhamer is skilful in showing where Moses is telling us that God was working towards “Paradise restored”.

However, I think that Sailhamer makes a basic logical fallacy by leaping from thematic parallels into objective identification. He himself later points out how the account of the building of the tabernacle has powerful parallels with the Genesis creation account. It never crosses his mind to then jump into suggesting that the tabernacle actually was that which was created in Genesis 1, or equalled the Garden of Eden, etcetera.

There is a lot to inform and challenge in these pages. Because it covers the whole Pentateuch, detailed argument is rarely present. Often I was left thinking that the author was being too clever for his own good and could have found simpler though less spectacular solutions to the questions the text was raising. The main value of this book for creationists as such would be to stretch and challenge us beyond providing simplistic answers to legitimate questions about the multi-dimensional Genesis text. I believe that the creationist position is more than capable of meeting the challenges; our main danger is if we reflect our opponents’ caricature of providing unsophisticated readings. The writer of the Pentateuch employed a nuanced set of strategies in laying out his case for Israel to live by faith, and the more “in-tune” we get with all these varieties of subtle messages, the better it will be for presenting a convincing case for Biblical creationism and its cosmic implications.

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