December 15, 2017

John Sailhamer Week: 3 — Focus on the Text

Tree of Life. Photo by Ghatamos

John Sailhamer Week on Internet Monk (3)
Focus on the Text

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

Comments

  1. “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.”

    Thank you for sharing this, CM. He’s right, of course, though I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me to think of Scripture in this manner. The Creator has created a work of art using human authors as his medium and, as with most works of art, there is a meaning (or multiple meanings) the artist wants to convey and there is a meaning the one studying the artwork gleans; often they are the same but not always.

  2. Having almost finished reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” in which Nouwen shares his spiritual journey and epiphanies while viewing Rembrandt’s actual painting of the same name, I can say the analogy of looking at the Pentateuch the same way we look at a Rembrandt really resonates with me right now. Very good insight.

    • By the way, Nouwen’s book may just supplant Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel” as my favorite ever Christian book. It’s dynamite!

    • I had the same thoughts of Nouwen while reading this, Rick. And “The Return of the Prodigal Son” is high on my list of favorite books, right up there with “The Ragamuffin Gospel”.

  3. I had the privilege of studying under John Sailhamer at Trinity. I wanted to love Hebrew, but frankly it put me to sleep, until my first day in Dr. Sailhamer’s Hebrew Exegesis class. He was able to inspire and ignite a passion for the Hebrew text in his students. He was easily the most brilliant man I ever met. He combined genius with a remarkable humility and love of God. Evangelical scholarship needs more men like John Sailhamer.

    • When were you at TEDS, Mike? I graduated in 1988 then hung around the community for a few more years as a pastor in Waukegan.

    • William H. Martin Jr says:

      Mike I did not know this man you talk about. I have found humility to be one of the greatest strengths I have ever encountered and have found it but very few as I could easily count it on one hand. I have marveled at it and it came so naturally to those that had it.

      I wonder was this man able to put in his own words that which had been the light to make him so passionate to make a language come alive to which seemed so dead. I am not a scholar or someone who was able to study such as the 10 dollar words so much used even Pentateuch which could have an easier word to describe what it is. I am sure he did put it in easier terms so that it was remembered as such who took such things.

      If I was hungry could I be fed. If I was thirsty could I be quenched. Or would it be under shroud or curtain even today that a poor man like me whose hands crack and bleed and burn with cold and sweat to dizziness all his life understand. Even though He meets me and under it all I am sure who he is and how He loves. At times I even see it through it all veil torn in two.

      I wonder why so much that even in this day and age why. Why are we here when such was an example that lived here and walked here and the iron put him to the tree. Is it so hard to understand who we are and what we meant. My sadness arises from this and carries me to the dirt from which I came. It isn’t a sinner’s prayer or even a gift of bread and wine if we can’t understand. Really the Most High made it so we might have to study it so we might have it right or is it just gift that we must except and put down selfishness in order to know the strength of humility.

      What was it Mike W and Mike Chap that has really stuck with you from a man such as this. I wonder what stuck with those 12 from long ago. Was it the study or the gift of that which He was that permeated their entire being to be what they too had become. Just an observation from a simple man….really….. The Spirit of God does and is moving the way He has been intended to. Moving…….Moving……..I am……I am…….Thank You Father…..all of us

  4. >> 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.

    Back to patterns and the big picture, which I find most helpful. The pattern I’m beginning to see is that I probably gain more from Sailhammer’s perceptions of the Bible as literature than I do his theology. Looking forward to the rest of the week.

    • William H. Martin Jr says:

      More so than perceptions as to what became him in the love of which he was partaking that became the man and to which he was trying his best to share….Even when the mind takes over in the understanding the heart of who we are in Him shines through to awaken the parts that could use some exercise. In exercising there is an importation of the one who awoke that from the beginning before we ever were. Jesus who am I?????? Tile setter saying these things you got to be kidding me. Can’t be….Me? nahhhhhhhh Can’t be. This ain’t right I quit

  5. Mike, this is good stuff. It reminds me of my two most influential professors at Gordon—Marvin Wilson in Old Testament and Arno Kolz in history.

    Dr. Kolz [insert heavy German accent] insisted that “All history is interpretation!” He also stressed the difference between the original event (German Historie) and the telling of it, or interpretation (Geschichte). The Nineteeth-century notion that the study of history can be exercised as a science, and that we “can know history as it actually happened” is not really attainable, though we should use scientific and responsible methods in studying and interpreting it. And, as interpretation, later generations find new meaning that would not have been apparent to the original participants. Kolz also insisted that history cannot be written until at least fifty years after the event (I would go later than that), because those of the same generation are too emotionally involved and because much cannot be known at that time about related events and cultural movements that may have caused the event in question.

    Dr. Wilson had a similar approach as Dr. Sailhamer, and taught OT from a Jewish perspective. Aside from the Bible, he taught foremostly from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man. It was Dr. Wilson who introduced me to Chaim Potok’s novels, and if you have a copy of The Gift of Asher Lev handy, look between pages 127 and 137 (paperback) for a scene where Asher is asked to demonstrate art to children in his children’s Hasidic Jewish school. On the chalkboard he draws a ram in three different styles (the sacrifice of Isaac being one of the only legitimate subjects for art in a Hasidic school), each interpreting the ram differently, each very much a ram, yet each very different from a photograph of a ram or a ram itself. Then he draws the children’s teacher, Miss Sullivan, in three styles—of Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso. The teacher’s jaw dropped at the drawings, and although none of these styles was photographic each said something beyond what a photograph could possibly do. And, to prove Sailhamer’s point, Asher Lev asked the class what else is considered interpretive. Hands shot up. These Hasidic kids could relate it to the study of Torah, and they rattled off names of rabbis who had interpreted differently in the Talmud.

    So, yeah, long story short, there is more than meets the eye, and one can write it or one can paint it. But if different people write it or paint it, it’ll look differently each time, as through a glass darkly—yet each interpretation may add to the overall understanding (oh, the artist or the writer may get burned at the stake, but that’s another problem).

    I’m also interested in how this may relate to what Plato said about form and matter. But that’s a ramble for another time.