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.
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At the heart of Dr. John Sailhamer’s life and teaching was a relentless focus on the text of the Bible. This single-minded attention in method helped me learned to appreciate the literary artistry of the scriptures and the “world” into which the Bible invites us.
He helped me understand that all “history” is interpretation. With regard to the Hebrew Bible’s historical narratives, he showed me that the author’s (or final editor’s) intention in selecting material, arranging it, and creating verbal links to other texts within the OT canon has created certain perspectives which are commended to us as God’s Word, God’s story, a divinely inspired point of view on the history of Israel.
The goal of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is to find the author’s intent in his verbal meaning. One must seek to understand the words and sentences the author uses. We do that by understanding his words within the context of the grammar of biblical Hebrew, or a good translation, and the literary shape of the whole of the Pentateuch (verbal meaning). Our clues to the author’s big idea are to be sought in those things about which the author most often writes and which seem important to him. Ultimately, we discover the meaning of a book such as the Pentateuch by reading it and asking the right questions. Behind our quest for the (human) author’s intent is the conviction that the divine intention of Scripture (mens dei) is to be found in the human author’s intent (mens auctoris).
As noted above, the exegetical warrant form my understanding is the message of the Bible, and the Pentateuch in particular, is to be found in a fourfold linkage of perspectives at four textually based levels: verbal, narrative technique, narrative world, thematic structure. An exegetically warranted interpretation of a biblical text such as the Pentateuch must be grounded in each of these levels of narrative.
• The Meaning of the Pentateuch, p. 610
In this way did Dr. Sailhamer encourage me and all his students to “meditate on the Torah of the Lord day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes along these lines from Dr. John Sailhamer:
The Pentateuch may be compared to a Rembrandt painting of real persons or events. We do not understand a Rembrandt painting by taking a photograph of the “thing” that Rembrandt painted and comparing it with the painting itself. That may help us understand the “thing” that Rembrandt painted, his subject matter, but it will not help us understand the painting itself. To understand Rembrandt’s painting, we must look at it and see its colors, shapes and textures. In the same way, to understand the Pentateuch, one must look at its colors, contours and textures.
• The Meaning of the Pentateuch, p. 19
He was truly an artist of biblical interpretation, who appreciated and passed on his love and delight in the artistry of Hebrew Bible to his students and friends.
I wish I could also capture and express to you the enormous grace, humility, and humor by which he did so.
He was a beloved teacher, a prime mover encouraging me to a deep love for the scriptures and, though I had little idea of it at the time, a guide leading to my post-evangelical journey, which I am still on because of the Bible, not in spite of it.
May he rest in God’s care until we all come to the good land God has prepared for us.
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Photo by Ghatamos at Flickr. Creative Commons License