Last week, the most influential professor in my life died. John Sailhamer, my Hebrew and OT prof at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School throughout the 1980’s, succumbed to Parkinson’s and Lewy Body dementia, and went into the care of the God who loved him and called him to the work of understanding and teaching the Scriptures.
I dedicate this week on Internet Monk to him. I will share some of the biggest lessons he taught me about the Bible and studying the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis and the canon of the Hebrew Bible.
We begin with a post reflecting one of the greatest lessons I learned from Dr. Sailhamer: Read the stories of the Pentateuch in the light of its “big picture.”
The most influential, yet subtlest, feature of an author’s rendering of historical narrative is the overall framework within which he or she arranges it.
• The Meaning of the Pentateuch, p. 29
Sailhamer observed that there are fundament structures that are characteristic in the Pentateuch, used by the author as a framework for the stories within it.
- The first involves how the author structures his entire book around two dominant characters and their faith or lack thereof — Abraham and Moses.
- The second involves the author’s use of poems at the end of narrative blocks.
I have reworked an earlier post from 2013 to show you in more detail how John Sailhamer used these observations to develop a perspective on the overall message of the Torah.
• • •
The Big Picture of the Torah
The canonical order of the Hebrew Bible differs from the order of the books in the Christian Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible is “Tanakh,” the three consonants TNK being an acronymn for its three major divisions.
Kings The Twelve
Psalms Ecclesiastes Nehemiah
Job Lamentations Chronicles
The Torah, or Pentateuch (fivefold book), is the first major section of the Hebrew Bible. Its story takes the reader from creation to the days when Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land.
Here are a few statements about the big picture of the Torah.
(1) The Torah is to be understood as a single book (a “pentateuch” — a five part scroll with an overall unity).
The word “Torah” is often translated “Law,” but this gives an inadequate understanding of what the word means and what the book is like. It is not a book of legal statutes or moral commandments to be followed universally, though it contains many laws. The word “torah” is better understood as the teaching of a father.
The Pentateuch is primarily a book of narratives, containing many different genres of literature, including stories, genealogies, poems, sermons, speeches, liturgical rites, songs, as well as collections of laws, statutes, ordinances and commands. Together, these are designed to inculcate wisdom in those who read and absorb its teachings into their lives — originally those exiled in Babylon.
(2) The Torah is a book of narratives containing laws, not a law book.
It tells how God dealt with his people from creation to the end of Moses’ life. The sections of law are part of the story. We learn about the laws God gave to Israel under the Sinai Covenant and why he gave them. We learn how Israel was to live while under these laws and examples of how they actually lived. We find specific commentaries about the law and what it could and could not do for them.
The Torah is not a book of law in the sense that it is a manual of rules that we are to follow. It is a story-book that includes a description of the laws that were pertinent to the story. It is a book with laws, not a book of laws designed to make us all good Israelites. The Torah is the account of the people of Israel and the laws God gave them. What happened to them under the law provides the author with a perspective on Israel’s future and what she must hope for from God.
That does not mean we have nothing to learn from these laws. They reveal the character of God and provide examples from which we may learn. But we do not live “under” this law. These are the rules of the covenant that God gave to Israel under Moses in the context of the story the Pentateuch is telling.
(3) The Torah is essentially a two-part biography about faith.
Most of the material in Genesis is about Abraham and his family, while Exodus-Deuteronomy focuses on the Moses and the Hebrew people.
Abraham, chosen by God to be the founding father of Israel, is portrayed as a model of faith. He was counted righteous before God because he believed God’s promises (Gen. 15:6). Even though he lived long before the Sinai Covenant, he is described as one who fulfilled the Mosaic Law (Gen. 26:5). God’s ultimate promise was that he would bless the whole world through Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). Though flawed and sinful, Abraham and his family were heirs of God’s promise by grace through faith.
Unlike Abraham, who lived before the Law, Moses lived under the Law. God raised him up to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where he made them his chosen nation by entering into a a covenant with them. A large part of the Torah is devoted to the time the infant nation spent at Mt. Sinai, where God gave them laws for their life together and their religious practices. Though Moses was a faithful servant of God, he was ultimately prevented from going into the Promised Land because of unbelief (Numbers 20:12).
The Torah thus contrasts the life of faith apart from the Law, which leads to justification and blessing within God’s promise with life under the Law, which leads to unbelief and exile from God’s place of rest and blessing.
By giving Israel this book of stories which draws a contrast between those who lived before the Law (Abraham and his family) and those who lived under the Law (Moses and the people of Israel), the Torah has been transformed from a Law book into a book of instruction (which is what torah really means) that encourages Israel to trust in God. It urges the exiles who received this book to find their hope and future not in a Law-shaped identity, but in another, which we explore next.
(4) The Torah is a book shaped to encourage eschatological hope in God’s coming Kingdom.
When Dr. Sailhamer examined the literary structures in the Pentateuch he found the following pattern of narrative/poem/epilogue, which shapes both the smaller units and macro-structures of the entire work.
In the early chapters of Genesis, the author establishes a literary pattern:
- Stories are told in narrative prose.
- And the end of the stories, there is a poetic speech.
- The speech is followed by an epilogue.
So, for example in Genesis 1-2:
- 1:1-2:22 — stories of creation
- 2:23 — poetic speech by author
- 2:24-25 — epilogue
And, in Genesis 3:
- 3:1-13 — stories of temptation and sin
- 3:14-19 — poetic speech by God
- 3:20-24 — epilogue
And, in Genesis 4:
- 4:1-22 — stories of Cain and Abel
- 4:23-24 — poetic speech by Lamech
- 4:25-26 — epilogue
Having noted this pattern, Sailhamer than stepped back and looked at the Torah as a whole. He discovered the same literary style at work in the larger structures of the work.
- Genesis 1-48: stories from creation to Jacob’s family
- Genesis 49: poetic speech by Jacob
- Genesis 50: epilogue
- Exodus-Numbers 22: stories from Mt. Sinai and wilderness
- Numbers 23-24: poetic speeches by Balaam
- Numbers 25: epilogue
- Numbers 26-Deuteronomy 31: stories and sermons from the plains of Moab
- Deuteronomy 32-33: poetic speeches by Moses
- Deuteronomy 34: epilogue
What Sailhamer discovered when he looked at this more closely is that each poetic speech in the larger structure of the Torah contains significant eschatological passages.
Each poetic speech is a summarizing “blessing” passage in the Torah at the end of an important era.
- Gen. 49 — Israel’s (Jacob’s) blessings on his twelve sons (end of patriarchal stories)
- Num. 23-24 — Balaam’s blessings of Israel (end of wilderness journeys)
- Deut. 32-33 — Moses’ song and blessing of Israel (end of Moses’ life)
Each poetic speech is given by a main character who calls an audience together and proclaims what will happen in “the last days.”
- Gen. 49:1 — Jacob tells what will come to pass in the last days
- Num. 24:14 — Balaam tells what will become of Israel in the last days
- Deut. 31:28-29 — Moses tells what will happen after his death, in the last days
Each poetic speech contains a promise about a coming King (Messiah):
- Gen. 49:10 — Shiloh, the coming ruler, the lion from the tribe of Judah
- Num. 23-24 — The royal Star that will rise from Jacob
- Deut. 32:43 — The one who atones for sin and brings joy to the nations (see Romans 15:10)
By shaping the Torah in this fashion, the editors of its final form transformed it from a book of history into a book of eschatology. It is more focused on the future than the past. Though it contains many stories from the past, they serve as pointers to future events. The past events, in fact, foreshadow the future.
The exiled people of Israel who first received the Torah in this final form were meant to take hope from this book that illustrates:
- the failure of the Law,
- the blessings of faith,
- and the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom.