The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Caution on Sailhamer

with 7 comments

Several men of note have been falling over themselves to commend John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch.  David Murray applies a necessary brake to the adulation by identifying a significant problem.  He quotes an early paragraph:

The Pentateuch is a lesson drawn from the lives of its two leading men, Abraham and Moses. The Pentateuch lays out two fundamentally dissimilar ways of “walking with God” (Deut. 29:1): one is to be like Moses under the Sinai law, and is called the “Sinai covenant”; the other, like that of Abraham (Gen.15:6), is by faith and apart from the law, and is called the “new covenant” (page 14).

Says Murray:

I read the passage again and again, just to make sure I had not misunderstood. How can you write 600+ pages on the Pentateuch and go so wrong in such a fundamental way at the very outset? Sailhamer is saying that there were two ways to be saved in the Old Testament. Like Moses, you could be saved by obeying the law. Or, like Abraham, you could be saved by believing in the Gospel.

That leaves me with three possible conclusions. First, Moses is in hell, having tried and failed to be saved by keeping the law. Or, second, there are two groups of people in heaven who have been saved in totally opposite ways. There are those like Moses who were saved by the works of the law, and there are those like Abraham who were saved through faith in the Messiah. Hard to see how there can be much fellowship when some are praising themselves and others are praising Christ. The third possible conclusion is that Sailhamer is wrong.

Ouch.  Murray runs with the third conclusion for a few more paragraphs, then concludes:

I’m going to force myself to keep reading, hopefully to the end of the book, as I’m sure that there is much to learn from Sailhamer’s extensive work. But it’s hard to see how Sailhamer can correct this fundamental error without contradicting himself or greatly confusing his readers.

I was hoping to get hold of Sailhamer.  I may still do so, as there will doubtless be vast quantities for me to learn.  However, I am not now half so eager, as this seems like a disastrous stance, and – as Murray says – surely such a fundamental error does not leave much to build on.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 11 February 2010 at 11:51

7 Responses

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  1. Reminds me of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary who clearly taught that the Jews were saved by Law-keeping while the Christian is save by grace. Seems some notions never go away.


    Thursday 11 February 2010 at 15:57

  2. A thought on Sailhamer’s point here:

    Sailhamer states that one of the purposes of the Pentateuch is that the Sinai Covenant has failed. So, the whole point in comparing the “two ways” is to demonstrate that one always ends in failure.

    Sailhamer’s actual point in the book seems to be that the message of the Pentateuch is that “you could [not] be saved by obeying the law.” For him, there is only one way to be saved in the OT, and that is in fact what the Pentateuch is saying.


    Monday 15 February 2010 at 23:24

    • Thanks for the contribution, Ched. Maybe I should move the book back up the buying/reading list. However, even if what you say is the case, does that not still leave us – in the context of the quote above – with the question of Moses’ standing with God, and the basis of it (and all that lies behind it)?

      Jeremy Walker

      Wednesday 17 February 2010 at 16:06

      • No, and actually Murray’s reading of it (and yours, if you’ll pardon me) goes to one of Sailhamer’s main points in the early chapters of the book: we ought not confuse the intended meaning of the text with the historical backdrop used to convey that meaning. The first is the substance; the second is only the container.

        Just because Moses the literary figure stands in as a representative of the Law (and the literary failure of the Law to save the Hebrews, illustrated poignantly by his denial of entry to the Land) we should not conclude that historical Moses the man did not place his confidence solely in the provision of Yahwheh (the terms of the covenant of faith in the promised Seed).

        In the same way, the denial of Moses to the Land is only a sign. The Land is not the actual Sabbath of Yahweh; it is merely a sign used to teach us about it. Moses’ refusal from the Land while heart-wrenching for him, in the providence of God, was for our benefit – as was his entire ministry among his people.

        For whatever it’s worth, I’d recommend you get the book and chew it thoroughly.

        Nate Garvin

        Thursday 24 February 2011 at 05:24

    • I agree with Ched.

      The top post that has recieved these responses is misrepresenting Sailhamer.


      Thursday 18 February 2010 at 18:24

  3. “greatly confusing his readers”

    The only reader that is confused is David Murray.


    Wednesday 24 February 2010 at 07:00

  4. Just out of interest, if you have critiqued Murray’s critique, can I safely presume that you have read the book yourself?

    I know that I have reproduced Murray’s review without having read the book myself, and advised a cautious approach as a result, but those who feel Murray is misguided here speak with some confidence. This is not an accusation, but the thought crossed my mind that very often we defend (or attack) books (and the people who write them) based on association. Are Sailhamer’s (ardent) defenders defending Sailhamer having read it all themselves, or are they defending Sailhamer’s better known advocates? I am guessing that Ched read it since he seems to be doing some study in this area. I am pointing the finger at myself as well, so I hope to bag a copy of my own at some point.

    Jeremy Walker

    Wednesday 24 February 2010 at 08:26

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