The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch | Book Review

Title: The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch
Author: Kevin S. Chen
Publisher: IVP, 2019
Price: $35 (amz)  
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 338
In The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch, Kevin Chen aims to show that the book of Moses paints a developed portrait of the Messiah. In this “messianic vision,” the specific prophetic texts about Messiah that are found in Genesis–Deuteronomy are woven into the literary fabric of the book and organically connect to the central message and movement of the Pentateuch taken as a whole. 

After articulating his hermeneutical approach, Chen examines nine themes that contribute to the messianic vision of the Pentateuch: The seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the lion of Judah, the Passover and the Song of the Sea, the giving of the law at Sinai, the bronze snake in the wilderness and Balaam’s oracles, the promise of a coming prophet like Moses, the blessing of Judah in the song of Moses, and the repeated breaking of the laws of the mosaic covenant.

There are a series of hermeneutical commitments that are necessary for Chen’s approach to the Messiah in the Pentateuch to work and be persuasive to readers. 

The Pentateuch as a Single Book
A clear foundational assumption for a messianic vision that spans the Pentateuch as a whole is the wholeness of the Pentateuch itself. Much of Chen’s exegesis and argumentation will not be compelling without this orienting starting point: Genesis–Deuteronomy form a complex but unified composition that has a coherent development from beginning to end (see 23–27). Most of the analysis in this study at some point draws on this critical foundation. This is not only a thin commitment to include all five books (Gen–Deut) but rather a thick commitment to reckon with these books as a cohesive composition that requires each of its parts in order to communicate its meaning. As a composition, the “book of Moses” (2 Chron 25.4; Neh 8.1; Mk 12.26) is a “unified literary work that is written and organized purposefully such that it bears a coherent message from its author” (25). 

The Priority of Authorial Intention
With this “book-level” scope in view, Chen then argues that “the Pentateuch itself sets forth an authorially intended, coherent portrait of the Messiah as the center of its theological message” (5). Chen’s understanding of authorial intention includes both the human and divine author’s intent which he views as “one and the same” (5–6). This commitment orients Chen’s focus on the textual features and narrative patterns that contribute to the messianic meaning of the Pentateuch. Accordingly, he typically avoids solutions that involve a later biblical author or biblical reader’s “typological” or retrospective reading of the Pentateuch. Rather, Chen aims to show that any “narrative patterning” or typological connection with Christ is something inherent already in the meaning of Pentateuchal texts (see his critique of typical typological approaches, 12–23). 

One of Chen’s motivations for this focus is the relationship between the testaments. As he summarizes, “The bottom line is that if a Messianic exegesis of the Old Testament can be legitimately set forth, the fruit will be powerful evidence for the truthfulness of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ” (23). 

The Prominence of Strategic Poetic Texts 
Viewing the Pentateuch as the complex yet coherent “book of Moses” that has a discernible purpose, Chen also emphasizes the crucial important of the structure of the work as a whole. Though it is important to recognize the large amount of space devoted to the giving of the law at Sinai after the exodus, Chen argues that seeing the Pentateuch as a book allows you to see a unique structural pattern that involves large blocks of narrative followed by strategically positioned poetic texts. Drawing on Sailhamer (see below), Chen places great interpretive weight on the four large poetic sections across the Pentateuch: The blessing of Jacob in Gen 49.2–27; the song of Israel after the exodus in Exod 15.1–18; The curse/blessing of Balaam in Numbers 23–24; and the song/blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 32–33. These poems are spoken by important figures at significant moments in redemptive history and occur at strategic places within the narrative flow of the Pentateuch.

The literary genre of poetry also forces readers to shift their interpretive process by slowing down to consider richly dense imagery, the meaning of the poetic discourse, and the interpretive relationship these poetic texts have to surrounding narratives. In these poems, the most significant messianic images are found. Significantly for the shape of the Pentateuch, these poetic texts are often at the center of inner-textual/inter-textual links between small and broad sections from Genesis to Deuteronomy. For Chen, the strategic positions and distinctive literary features of these poetic sections justifies the granular analysis of these texts and the interpretive weight given to them.

The Organic Interface between Inner-textual and Inter-textual Connections 
A key component of Chen’s approach to reading the Pentateuch involves reckoning with a given text’s literary context and mining this context for meaningful interconnections. Drawing on the commitments noted above, Chen consistently aims to bring the meaning of a book or larger discourse setting to bear on how terms and themes are to be understood.

Related to this is the metaphor of messianic prophecy as “white light” that is “dispersed” throughout the Pentateuch as through a “prism” (see 5–12). This admittedly complex scientific analogy serves Chen’s argument that “Messianic prophecies in the Pentateuch are not presented to readers all at once” (6). In this model, “each prophecy, wherever it is found in the Pentateuch, also contributes to the fuller vision of the Messiah that emerges when it is appropriately related to the others and to the Pentateuch as a while (7, emphasis added). Recognizing the complex and composite interrelationship of these inner-textual links is an important piece of this vision of the Pentateuch. Two passages might be linked, but the subsequent passage might only utilize selected portions of the previous text (e.g., the promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1–7 that draw on parts of the promises of Gen 3:15). In turn, a later text might then draw on both passages in order to make a fuller statement that involves both the shared and distinct messianic elements of the two previous texts (e.g., the blessing of Judah in Gen 49:8–10 and the curse/blessing of Balaam in Num 24:8–9).

For Chen, “this network of Messianic prophecies” is like a “complex array of interrelated lenses that the author of the Pentateuch has carefully designed in order to project for his readers a coherent, sweeping vision of the Messiah” (9). Accordingly, “these intricate intertextual relationships thus provide important evidence for the presence of an authorially intended, unified Messianic theology in the Pentateuch” (9–10). Chen further argues that the “complex network of Messianic prophecies and instances of intentional foreshadowing” form a “coherent web of texts” that are synergistic (288). Moreover, “at times the Messianic import of one passage depends on or is clarified by an intertextual relationship to another Messianic passage (or passages)” (288). This methodological commitment means that Chen defaults to seeing a close relationship between individual predictive prophecies and also an organic relationship between poetry and narrative within the Pentateuch. 

The Function of the Mosaic Covenant within the Shape of the Pentateuch 
For Chen, one of the most significant interpretive questions “back then and ever since is not whether the Pentateuch gives extensive attention to the Sinai/Deuteronomic law but how these laws relate to the important theme of the Messiah” (4). Here the nature of book-level meaning is paramount. Chen asks, “What does the Pentateuch as a unified literary whole really mean, especially with respect to the Sinai/Deuteronomic law and Messiah?” (4). Noting this is an important contemporary challenge, Chen also observes that many of the theological and hermeneutical differences within Judaism and early Christianity involved “rival interpretations of the Pentateuch” (3). A core issues is “not simply the importance of God’s laws, but the reality of our inevitable failure to observe them” (5). 

After his development of messianic themes, Chen also devotes his final chapter to the pattern of covenant failure in the narratives of the Pentateuch (270–86; cf. 27–30). Chen summarizes his position: “Insofar as readers mistakenly view the Pentateuch as a legal code, its inherent Messianic glory will not shine through it” (289). In this model, the Pentateuch’s own “theology of the Sinai/Deuteronomic law” both affirms its “divine origin and consequent importance of keeping it” while also demonstrating its “inadequacy as a means of salvation and blessing, in contrast with the Messiah and the new covenant ‘in the last days’” (289).

Regardless of whether you find this way of understanding the giving of the law and the mosaic covenant compelling, Chen’s discussion shows that this theme should not be taken for granted as primary but should be related to the distinct themes of future messianic hope and the nature of salvation by faith in the Pentateuch. 

The Influence of John Sailhamer and a Compositional Approach 
In his study, Chen self-consciously builds on the compositional approach of John Sailhamer. As he notes in the preface, his book is “an attempt to continue and extend the work of John H. Sailhamer” (ix). Chen situates his work within Sailhamer’s scholarship on hermeneutics and the shape of the Pentateuch (e.g., Messianic Vision was published with IVP 10 years after Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch). Chen sees his book as a kind of follow-up to Meaning of the Pentateuch that fills out Sailhamer’s understanding of the Pentateuch with a special focus on the comprehensive nature of messianism within the poetry and narratives of Genesis through Deuteronomy.

In this sense, while clearly influenced and drawing upon Sailhamer’s scholarly legacy, Chen also develops Sailhamer’s work in fresh directions and is willing to engage it critically in specific ways (e.g., his understanding of the function of the head-crushing image in Gen 3.15, see chap 1; or his analysis of the “song of the sea” in Exod 15, see pp. 164–67, 166n34). 

Final Reflections 
Within the broader field of Old Testament studies and biblical theology, Chen’s work represents a kind of “messianic maximalism.” Chen ultimately concludes that “Moses really did self-consciously write about the Messiah as the primary focus of the Pentateuch (Jn 5:46), even as he simultaneously told the story of creation, the patriarchs, and the birth of Israel” (288). Indeed, “the meaning of the Pentateuch that Moses intended is the gospel of the Messiah” (290). In this regard, Chen does not usually provide an interactive dialogue with alternative approaches at each step of his study. While this might limit the scope of the book, it also enhances its focus and allows Chen to fully develop the detailed argument of his study: that the Mosaic Pentateuch bears a messianic message on its own terms. 

For these reasons, Chen’s book is a valuable contribution to the study of the Pentateuch as a single book, the meaning of the messiah in the OT, and the beauty and sophistication of biblical literature.

Book Review
June 25, 2021


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