John Sailhamer Week: 2 – Opening the Door to Genesis

Lunar Eclipse 1 April 2015

John Sailhamer Week on Internet Monk (2)
Opening the Door to Genesis 

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.

• • •

Dr. John Sailhamer opened the doors to the book of Genesis for me. His teaching on Genesis 1-3, in particular, startled me out of my naive fundamentalism with regard to what the Bible teaches about creation. It set me on a path of renewed love for the Scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible, and what it says regarding the goodness of our Creator and his redemptive purposes for this world.

As I have continued to study the early chapters of Genesis, I have come to take some different positions than he set forth. It took some other teachers as well, especially Bruce Waltke, John Walton, and Peter Enns, to help me refine my own understanding (which is still developing, by the way). I should also mention a book by Seth D. Postell, called Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh. Seth was a PhD student of Dr. Sailhamer’s and credits him as “the single most positive influence on my life as a follower of Yeshua.”

However, what John Sailhamer did was to help me see the creation accounts as an integral part of the Hebrew Bible, and as an introduction to the Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Tanakh (Law/Prophets/Writings) as a whole.

Lunar Eclipse 2 2015

In his reading of Genesis 1-3, he makes observations like these:

  • The account of God creating the entire universe is limited to one verse: Genesis 1:1, where the phrase “the sky and the land” is a merism describing all that is.
  • The rest of Genesis 1 describes how God prepared a good land for Adam and Eve. The “land” (Heb: eretz) mentioned therein is not the earth as a whole, but the Promised Land. The movement is from the “wilderness” described in Gen. 1:2 (Heb: tohu wabohu) to a “good” land (Heb: tov).
  • Even the creation of such things as the heavenly bodies (Day 4: Gen. 1:14-19) is described specifically in terms of their purposes with regard to Jewish worship.
  • In the account of human creation in Genesis 1, God’s “blessing” is given and linked with a fruitful posterity. This introduces a central theme in the whole of the Torah.
  • Genesis 2 gives specific geographical references that identify the garden in Eden with the Promised Land.
  • There are many similarities between the descriptions of the Garden and the later tabernacle.
  • In both Genesis 1-2, humans are pictured as God’s priests in the world. Gen. 2:15, for example, should be understood as God placing Adam in the Garden “to worship and obey.”
  • Just as these chapters serve as a prototype for God’s good gift of the land to Israel, so chapter 3 sets the template for Israel’s future exile from the land.
  • The command given to Adam and Eve uses the same language as the command of Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:15-18.
  • Adam and Eve are exiled “eastward” and “out of the garden.” This is the direction toward Babylon, where Israel was exiled.

It was points like these that rocked my world, created a deep hunger within me to meditate on these texts more deeply, and helped me to move away from simplistic, literalistic interpretations that failed to grasp either the text or its relation to the Old Testament canon as a whole.

Here is a brief summary Dr. Sailhamer wrote in his more popular book outlining his teachings on the early chapters of Genesis. He did this because he thought he had found a way through the debate in evangelical circles pitting creationism against evolutionary teaching. I personally don’t think that part stands the test of time and further study, but I think he made a good effort.

His great contribution to me was in re-Judaizing the text for me and helping me to see it as the introduction to the Torah and Tanakh. I’m forever in his debt for opening the door for me to enter this wonderful literary world of Genesis, where I may begin to grasp more fully the goodness of our Creator and his purposes.

I maintain that the narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 are to be understood as both literal and historical. They recount two great acts of God. In the first act, God created the universe we see around us today, consisting of the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the plants and animals that now inhabit (or formerly inhabited) the earth. The biblical record of that act of creation is recounted in Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Since the Hebrew word translated “beginning” refers to an indefinite period of time, we cannot say for certain when God created the world or how long He took to create it. This period could have spanned as much as several billion years, or it could have been much less; the text simply does not tell us how long. It tells us only that God did it during the “beginning” of our universe’s history.

The second act of God recounted in Genesis 1 and 2 deals with a much more limited scope and period of time. Beginning with Genesis 1:2, the biblical narrative recounts God’s preparation of a land for the man and woman He was to create. That “land” was the same land later promised to Abraham and his descendants. It was that land which God gave to Israel after their exodus from Egypt. It was that land to which Joshua led the Israelites after their time of wandering in the wilderness. According to Genesis 1, God prepared that land within a period of a six-day work week. On the sixth day of that week, God created human beings. God then rested on the seventh day.

The second chapter of Genesis provides a closer look at God’s creation of the first human beings. We are told that God created them from the ground and put them in the garden of Eden to worship and obey God (not merely to work the garden and take care of it). The boundaries of that garden are the same as those of the promised land; thus the events of these chapters foreshadow the events of the remainder of the Pentateuch. God creates a people, He puts them into the land He has prepared for them, and He calls on them to worship and obey Him and receive His blessing.

• John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account

18 thoughts on “John Sailhamer Week: 2 – Opening the Door to Genesis

  1. Charles, I quoted those verses as parallel to Genesis 2:10-14. In that passage about the garden, four rivers are named and only one of them is unknown or incapable of being placed.

    1. Piston (unknown)
    2. Gihon – mentioned as flowing through “the land of Cush” (Ethiopia). Likely the “river of Egypt.”
    3. Euphrates
    4. Tigris

    Thus, this parallels the boundaries of “the land” God promised to Abraham and his descendants in Gen. 15:8.


  2. >> To me the garden was perfect already and totally efficient in itself.

    Likely so. The directive in the second story was to “keep” the place, to take care of it, not to farm it for profit. Farming is hard work. Even so, the garden would have reverted to wilderness without being kept. Maybe the reason people prefer the first story is because we have done such a rotten job of keeping the earth. Much easier to justify exploiting and destroying the planet if you can point to a directive that gives you dominion over it, especially if you extend that to people.

    My job on the golf course was greenskeeper. I “kept” the greens and everything else, got my hands and my clothes dirty. It’s an old-fashioned word now that I used on purpose. Other people doing my job called themselves “superintendents”. They didn’t get their hands dirty so much as they took dominion over those that did. When we put the course up for sale and shut it down when it was costing more to keep it open, I gradually let it go back to what would have become wilderness in a hundred years. Ended up just cutting trails thru it for me and the doggies and any prospective buyers to walk. Even trails don’t take care of themselves, nor do parks, nor do gardens, or orchards, or golf courses for that matter. You have to keep them.


  3. Yes, that is a given but Abram is not Adam and claiming that Eden filled those boundaries without backup is too much of a stretch for me. Gen. 15:18 doesn’t even imply that Eden was within those boundaries, tho I think it probable that it was. I don’t think anyone can say where Eden was with certainty and it makes no difference to the point of the story, unless you are twisting the story to fit your theology. Why not leave it vague like the Bible does? I liked Sailhammer better when he was pointing out the recurring patterns in Torah. That can be checked out and it’s either there or it’s not.


  4. Oh sorry indigestion indeed as I have had it all day. Really the dirty water from the sink can be so hard to drink. Oh well, didn’t mean I wasn’t thirsty…..


  5. Charles I could actually agree with you except the need to till and work. I have never seen it that way ever. To me the garden was perfect already and totally efficient in itself. We As I have seen it were meant to enjoy it with Him as He created it. If I had wanted to dig and plant seeds then it was to enjoy as much by Him as myself. If not then from the beginning we were trying to earn a wage. Can’t see it…..Jesus was gift just as much as the garden so when we leave excepting gift then not work but joy like I have had when working with my hands at times.

    It is only after leaving I got to break my back and sweat. As the man on the mountain that puts dry food out for the ones I feed at night says we can thank Adam for that…….Mankind and he worked 2 jobs till health stopped him now past retirement.

    How often have I heard the cemetery instead of seminary by someone on stage. I always thought how awful and full of judgement was such a comment. The man who has is looking like me. Indoctrination is a side effect but not an ending. This man had it taken from him that which he placed a lot of work in towards the end. How it is so sad. May such find the garden again and peace and may I wave at him from the back of the crowd as it might be he won’t be able to see me. It’s okay because I’m hoping that some of His creations could use my company as much as I could use theirs.

    I’m afraid that a time for posting is near an end. I will read more for a time yet. I’m not sure yet but it has been on my mind so. Maybe here , all of here, I’ve gone my distance…not sure yet….On my mind…..w


  6. –> “In my role as a teacher and facilitator I really try to guide people past the obvious…”

    Good for you, Oscar. I do the same. I think that’s a healthy way to teach. Otherwise, I think there’s a danger we begin the drift toward Pharisee-ism.


  7. I have been in DTS pastored churches for over a decade and have known some fine, fine men to have come out of that seminary but where I part ways with them anymore is over inerrancy and overly literal interpretation, and the doctrines that flow from that hermeneutic.

    I agree that Pete Enns has helped to push the envelope with regard to reconciling the obvious “humanness” of the
    Bible with the divine. I guess that’s why I, too, find myself in the post-evangelical wilderness. And also why I’m thankful to you, CM, for helping us find signposts with which to navigate through it.


  8. Charles, see for example Genesis 15:18 –

    On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:


  9. >> I would say that in those verses . . .

    What verses, Eeyore? Where does it give specific geographical references that identify the garden in Eden with the whole land of Israel? If anything the geographical references I find put it up north of Mesopotamia. Not that it makes any difference to the point of the story, and I have heard claims that Eden was somewhere within the Promised Land, which is reasonable, but not that the garden encompassed the whole shebang. What verses?


  10. Oscar, I’m afraid as long as you maintain yourself in a teaching position, you will always face the possibility of push back, even with ‘safe’ subjects, and from unexpected sources.


  11. When I viewed the post on Friday, I saw Dallas Theological listed in his resume and was rather incredulous that he could survive that. I would have to be generous and confess that I have areas in my faith where I traverse a fine line myself.


  12. John always tried to walk a fine line. He taught in evangelical seminaries and colleges and was trained at dispensationalist Dallas Theological Seminary. Inerrancy and “literal” interpretation and, in my view, a failure to appreciate the human side of making scripture, were always the context in which he taught. I always thought his teaching essentially destroyed that point of view — it certainly did for me — but he was somehow able to keep going with the contradictions. I see the same kind of tightrope walk with a teacher like John Walton at Wheaton when it comes to Genesis. I think someone like Pete Enns has taken the next necessary steps to balance critical perspectives that were heretofore considered anathema with a truly evangelical spirit. Of course, that’s why Pete found himself in the post-evangelical wilderness.


  13. “I maintain that the narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 are to be understood as both literal and historical.”

    I am unsurprised that this act of obeisance to literalism didn’t persuade anyone. The hangup isn’t over the word “beginning” but over “day.” But even apart from that, fealty to “literalism” is a rhetorical cudgel, not an actual hermeneutic.


  14. I have long been suspicious of the standard interpretation of the creation account given in 99.9% of churches these days, including my OWN! So last night in our men’s small group the text and discussion just happened to be about the fall in Gen. 3.

    I tried to introduce the idea that the account wasn’t just a rote retelling of events, but that it was written in a way that would promote introspection and discussion by the intended audience, but even THAT small step away from the standard teaching got some pushback.

    In my role as a teacher and facilitator I really try to guide people past the obvious, but I have come to realize that the obvious is more comfortable for MOST, especial so for the more educated, if you can believe that! Some of the most highly educated are staunch “young earth-ers”!

    Thanks for these posts. I will continue on the path of urging people to think more deeply about a book that was written by an ancient people in a manner that would influence ancient thought processes and have deeper meaning to a culture that is totally foreign to believers today.


  15. Charles, a bit of indigestion today?

    Seriously, there are good reasons for seeing Adam in priestly terms, even if he fulfilled that calling by working with his hands. And as for the verse in question, you’ll have to read Dr. Sailhamer’s grammatical and syntactical reasons for yourself.

    I also think we miss the mark when we think of “the garden” as a plot for growing beans, tomatoes and corn. Solomon was famous for his botanical gardens and Babylonian kings had “gardens,” i.e. the famous “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” that would be better described as “parks,” arboretums, or botanical gardens. I think that’s what’s in view here. So it’s not only priestly but also royal imagery.

    I wrote about the garden in this previous post:—gen-2


  16. “What I do want to hear from the Professor is how he equates the Garden of Eden with the subsequent land of Israel. Is he getting this from literal Scripture somewhere or is it a metaphor? Or an interpretation? Or an interpolation? Fifteen acres is more than I can handle well. Eight thousand square miles or more seems a bit of a stretch. If I had had to take care of a garden the size of the Garden State, I might have et the apple myself.”

    I would say that in those verses, God was addressing Adam *as humanity’s representative* (in Adam’s case, literally, as he was the only human present at the moment). The command was to Adam *and to his progeny*, with the expectation that Adam and Eve would have children and expand their work to the rest of the world outside the Garden. Paul uses Adam’s role similarly in Romans 5.


  17. >> Gen. 2:15, for example, should be understood as God placing Adam in the Garden “to worship and obey.”

    That just plain ticks me off, Professor Sailhammer. Here is what Gen. 2:15 says: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” Admittedly I do not begin to be proficient in Hebrew, but I skimmed 52 English translations of this verse and they all said the same thing with some word variance. Not one spoke of Adam being given the job of worshipping and obeying. If I thought my job here was to worship and obey, I would be an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim, the kind of Muslim that falls on their face five times a day, not the kind that straps on a suicide vest.

    I don’t mean to imply that I am a world class gardener, but I certainly do understand that to be my primary job here on Earth, and not just these fifteen acres but the world in toto and the garden inside along with it. And you say I’m doing it all wrong? It may well be that those Jews who survived the Babylonian exile understood their task both individually and as a nation being to worship and obey, and this may be what it took to set the stage for Jesus as Messiah. But Adam was not a Jew and neither am I. I’m a child of God, courtesy of that same Jesus, and my Father does not expect me to grovel in the dirt in fear and trembling. He does appreciate it when I go out after a wind storm and clear the fallen branches off the trails as I bless the land and the world at large so He and the deer don’t trip. You can walk those trails too.

    What I do want to hear from the Professor is how he equates the Garden of Eden with the subsequent land of Israel. Is he getting this from literal Scripture somewhere or is it a metaphor? Or an interpretation? Or an interpolation? Fifteen acres is more than I can handle well. Eight thousand square miles or more seems a bit of a stretch. If I had had to take care of a garden the size of the Garden State, I might have et the apple myself.


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