When a book is highly recommended by many respected preachers, bloggers, and authors, I am rarely disappointed. Hence my eagerness to read John Sailhamer’s widely-touted book, The Meaning of The Pentateuch. Imagine, then, my huge disappointment when I read in its opening pages the following sentences:

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).

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.

I’m going to run with the third conclusion, as two groups of biblical texts spring quickly to mind. First, we have Christ’s infallible commentary on the “Meaning of the Pentateuch,” which is that it was all about Himself.

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:20).

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me (Luke 24:44).

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me (John 5:46).

Jesus even presents the glorified Abraham as pointing sinners to Moses and the prophets for the way of salvation (Luke 16:29-31).

Second, we are told four times in Hebrews 11 (vs. 24, 27, 28, 29) that Moses walked by faith. In fact we are specifically told that he had saving faith in Christ (v.26).

Putting these two groups of texts together we must conclude not only that Moses wrote about Christ, but also that he believed in him for salvation. In other words, or in Christ’s words, or in Moses’ own words, the “Meaning of the Pentateuch” is that salvation is by faith in Christ – always has been and always will be. This is why Calvin entitled Book II of his Institutes: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, first disclosed to the fathers under the Law, and then to us in the Gospel. In fact if you really want to find out the “Meaning of the Pentateuch” you could do no better than read Book II of the Institutes, especially chapters 7-11. That’s only 100 pages as opposed to Sailhamer’s 600 plus, and it is much more readable and preachable. 

I’m not denying that there are verses in Scripture (e.g Galatians 4:24-31) which seem to support Sailhamer’s view of Moses. However, our interpretation of such passages cannot fundamentally contradict the very basic truth of Old Testament salvation being by grace, through faith in the Messiah. Some of these difficult New Testament passages are referring to the ceremonial law (which Christ abolished by his death), and some describe the Old Covenant as misunderstood by the Jews (as a covenant of works) rather than as a further revelation of the covenant of grace (as God intended it to be understood). In other words, Paul was describing the situation as he found it, rather than as it should have been.

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.

  • Mike D

    Thank you for your comments regarding the NT teaching on the OT – especially the point regarding the passages that show that the law was not given as a covenant of works but a further revelation of a covenant from the beginning. Had the law given at Sinai been a covenant of works, then why would God pledge to write it on the hearts of His people in the New Covenant? And the fact that God had already established a covenant of faith with Abraham as the author says – why would God then revert to a covenant of works at a later time? As David, the man who called Jesus “my Lord,” said in Psalm 119:32, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.” May the Saviour of the new covenant, the grand Object of our faith, enlarge our hearts to run in the way of His commandments – both Old and New.Thank you for your labors, brother…

  • Nathan Eshelman

    Thanks Dr. Murray.This is so disturbing- and it is the result of an attempt to do historical-redemptive theology without taking into account the whole of the Scriptures. We have made a hermeneutic out of our own scholarly ways- and skipped the one that Christ gave us in Luke 16! Quite sad, really.