Not many months ago I finished reading John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch.  If you are only going to read one book on the Pentateuch, this should be it.  Prior to reading this book I can honestly say I never saw much more than a chronological structure in the books, and never saw how the five books fit together.  Sailhamer has illuminated the meaning of the Pentateuch in a way I never thought possible.

Sailhamer argues that the structure of the Pentateuch reveals the meaning of the Pentateuch.  While most of us think the purpose of the Pentateuch is to record the Law of Moses for Israel, Sailhamer argues convincingly that this is not Moses’ primary intention (if it were, the inclusion of Genesis would be inexplicable).  The Pentateuch was not the first written record of the Law (Dt 27:1-8), and it was written well after the giving of the Law at Sinai, so its purpose must go beyond a mere record of the Law.  Sailhamer argues that the structure of the Pentateuch reveals that its primary purpose was to confront its readers with their inability to keep the Law, and the need to live a life of faith while they wait for the promised seed: the future king from Judah (Gen 15:6; Ex 19:9; Num 14:11; 20:12).  The golden calf incident lies at the heart of the Pentateuch, exposing the heart of Israel’s problem: their heart.  That’s why the Pentateuch ends with an acknowledgment that something needs to be done with the human heart for people to be able to keep God’s covenant (Dt 30:6).


As for the structure of the book, Sailhamer argues that Moses used several pre-existing literary sources as well as his own unique material (narrative and legal texts), and wove them together into a narrative.  These narratives are unified by poems, which appear at the end of large blocks of narratives:

  1. Gen 3:14-19
  2. Gen 49:2-27
  3. Ex 15:1-19
  4. Num 23-24
  5. Deut 32-33—277-8

The purpose of the poems is to identify the promised seed of Abraham as an eschatological king from Judah.  This shows that Paul’s interpretation of “seed” in Galatians 3:16 as the singular Christ was not an example of bad exegesis after all, but rather a careful consideration of the overall message of the Pentateuch[1].

Sailhamer points out that Moses purposely cross-references the poems.  For example, Num 24:9a quotes Gen 49:9b, Num 24:9b quotes Gen 27:29, Dt 33:13 quotes Gen 49:25, and Dt 33:16 quotes Dt 49:26.  These cross-references are authorial cues to the reader to read these poems together, and in doing so see how, together, the express a single message about the eschatological king.  In the words of Sailhamer, “It seems clear that these learned quotations of the promise narratives within the Pentateuch’s poems are intentional.  Their intent is to identify the ‘seed’ promised to Abraham (Gen 12) with the ‘scepter from the tribe of Judah’ (Gen 49) and Balaam’s victorious ‘king’ (Num 24).  The ‘king’ in each of these poems is thus linked directly to the promise of the ‘seed’ of Abraham.”  Not to say “seed” is not understood collectively as well.  But the author, through the poems, is honing in on one particular seed.”

The Law

One of the most exciting proposals in the book is the idea that the compositional structure reveals that the Mosaic Law was not God’s original intention for Israel, but was added due to Israel’s repeated failure/sin (which finally makes sense of Gal 3:19 for me).  Israel had already been given laws prior to arriving at Sinai (Ex 15:25; 18:16-24).  They went to Sinai to enter into a covenant with God, not to receive more laws.  But they left with more laws because of their unbelief and sin.

The covenant at Sinai was intended to be similar to the covenant he had with Abraham and the patriarchs.  Israel was to obey God (Ex 19:5; Gen 26:5), keep His covenant (Ex 19:5; Gen 17:1-14), and exercise faith (Ex 19:5; Gen 26:5).  They initially agreed to the terms (Ex 19:8), but proved all-too-soon that they were incapable of keeping it, asking Moses to stand before God on their behalf (Ex 19:16-20; 20:18-21).  It was after the people refused to go up the mountain out of fear (a lack of faith) that God called Moses to the top of the mountain, and spoke to Moses about the priesthood and tabernacle (Ex 19:20,22,24).  By choosing Moses to go up for them, the people were choosing to have a mediated relationship with God rather than a face-to-face relationship as God had intended.  Now, rather than Israel being a kingdom of priests, they became a kingdom with priests.

In response, God gave them the Decalogue, Covenant Code, and tabernacle.  It was the golden calf incident, however, that fundamentally altered things.  Israel broke the Covenant Code before it was even begun.  In response, God decided to renew the covenant rather than destroy Israel (Ex 33—34), but the covenant was expanded to include additional laws: the Priestly Code (Ex 35—Lev 16).  This makes sense.  Since it was the priests who were ultimately responsible for the sin of the golden calf, God instituted a legal code specifically for the priests.

The Priestly Code is followed by the Holiness Code, but separated by a short narrative about Israel sacrificing to goat idols (Lev 17:1-9).  Unlike the golden calf incident, it was the people—not the priests—who were responsible for this.  Just like the golden calf incident increased the number of laws needed for the priests, so this incident increased the number of laws needed for the people (Holiness Code).  Even the sacrifices to be offered in these law codes reflect the nature of the sin that necessitated the laws.  In response to the calf incident, priests were required to offer sacrifices of calves for a sin offering (Ex 32:4; Lev 9:2).  Likewise, in response to the goat incident, the people were required to offer goats as a sin offering (Lev 4:23; 17:7).

So much more could be said about this book (after all, it’s over 600 pages long), but a short review cannot do it justice.  I highly recommend you buy the book and consider Sailhamer’s detailed arguments.

[1]Jeremiah seems to interpret the “seed” as singular as well (Jer 4:1-2).