Kevin S. Chen, Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch

Chen, Kevin S. Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 338 pp. Pb. $35.00   Link to IVP Academic   

The thesis of Kevin S. Chen’s Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch is that Moses self-consciously wrote about the Messiah and that the Messiah is the primary focus of the Pentateuch. He argues a misguided equation of the Pentateuch with the Sinai/Deuteronomic law prevented Christian readers from seeing the messianic vision that was in the Pentateuch from the beginning.

Chen, Messianic Vision of the PentateuchWhat is distinctive about Chen’s approach is his insistence on authorial intent. Biblical theologies often treat these Messianic texts using typology, which would see messianic references as unintentional. Chen’s goal is to not to discover historical analogies (typology) but to exegete textual references to Messiah that were part of an author’s strategy (14). For example, “a typological approach allows for seeing the ‘seed of the woman’ as a type of Christ while at the same time remaining noncommittal regarding whether Genesis 3:15 is actually a direct Messianic prophecy” (15). Citing Johann Enersti (writing in 1809), some things are “true doctrinally, but not grammatically or exegetically.” Chen seeks messianic prophecies in the Pentateuch which are true grammatically and exegetically because the author intended them as messianic prophecies.

Some readers will disagree with Chen’s views on Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch (25) as well as his insistence the Pentateuch has a single compositional strategy. Here he is following his mentor John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1995) and The Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic 2009). More challenging is his argument for messianic prophecy as the main theological theme of the Pentateuch rather than Law.

Chen introduces his argument with a reflection on John 5:46. In a dialogue with Pharisees Jesus says, “if you believed in Moses, you would believe in me; for he wrote about me.” In the context of healing on the Sabbath, Jesus declares Moses wrote (primarily) about the Messiah, not the Sabbath law. In a similar context in John 9, the Pharisees find it impossible for a person to be a faithful follower of Moses and a follower of Jesus at the same time because they equated faithfulness to Moses and his writings with attention to keeping the Pentateuchal law (2). (It is possible to include John 12 here as well, a passage rich with messianic implications). This raises the question: “is the main point of the Pentateuch the giving of the Sinai law, with the messianic passages playing a secondary role question mark or is it the other way around?” (4). For Chen, a coherent portrait of the Messiah is the center of the theological message of the Pentateuch.

Chen argues the translation “Law of Moses” distracts readers from the meaning of torah. Rather than “law of Moses,” he suggests it is better to read the phrase as “instruction of Moses” despite the deeply entrenched English translation “Law.” In the book, he distinguishes between the “instruction of Moses” (the Torah) and the Sinai Law. Chen sees this distinction in Paul’s letters as well. In Romans 3:21, for example, “Pentateuch’s message of faith and the system of Sinai/Deuteronomic” stand in contrast. For Paul, Chen says, the Pentateuch teaches the new covenant of the Messiah (29).

There are several texts in the Pentateuch Chen considers direct prophecy concerning the Messiah (for example, Genesis 3:15; Numbers 24:9). Using the metaphor of light passing through a series of lenses, Chen these texts form a complex array of interrelated texts designed to project a coherent sweeping vision of the Messiah. Other texts contain authorially intended foreshadowing of the Messiah, such as Genesis 28:10-22 (Jacob’s Ladder).

The book discusses nine passages spanning the whole Penateuch Chen considers intentional prophecies concerning the Messiah:

  1. The Seed of the Woman (Genesis 3:15)
  2. The Seed of Abraham in the Patriarchal Narratives
  3. The Lion of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12)
  4. Passover and the Song of the Sea (Exodus)
  5. Shadows at Sinai (Wilderness period)
  6. The Bronze Snake and Balaam’s Oracles (Numbers 24)
  7. The Prophet Like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)
  8. The Blessing of Judah (Deuteronomy 32:43)
  9. The Repeated Breaking of the Sinai/Deuteronomic Law

Rather that survey the whole volume in detail, I offer a few comments on the first three chapters.

In chapter 1, Chen argues the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15) is a direct messianic prophecy which boldly sets forth the key parameters of the messianic vision of the Pentateuch. It predicts the coming of a man who will defeat the serpent at the cost of his own life, securing victory over humanity’s ancient enemy. Using the broader context of the Pentateuch, Chen sees this prophecy as implying kingly and priestly roles for the messiah that Adam failed to achieve. The seed will rule and subdue all of creation as both priest and king. Salvation will come through the seed of the woman rather than through the Sinai/Deuteronomic law.

The seed of the woman prophecy resonates through the rest of the patriarchal narrative (chapter 2). Moses links promised seed directly to Abraham. Grammatical and intertextual considerations strongly suggest Abraham’s seed refers to a specific individual (Gen 15:3-4; 22:17b-18, for example). Chen argues these passages refer to the same seed as Genesis 3:15. Covenant promises are from Abraham to Isaac and then to Jacob, who receives the same blessing from his father that the Messiah will fulfil.

Although the principal lines of his argument are clear, some details seem coincidental. For example, Chen connects the pleasing aroma of Noah’s sacrifice after the flood (Gen 8:20-22) and subsequent Noahic covenant with the Jacob’s “scent” in Genesis 27:27. Both passages use the noun רֵיחַ, the only two places where the word appears in Genesis. Chen thinks this is “highly suggestive.” The scent of Jacob and his clothes is the same scent of an acceptable animal sacrifice (this is the common phrase in Leviticus and Numbers to describe an acceptable). Chen then connects this acceptable sacrifice to the death of the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) and the near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). But not all uses of רֵיחַ in the Pentateuch are pleasant. Exodus 5:21 the word refers to Israel’s reputation in Egypt (“you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh”).

In chapter 3, Chen suggests Genesis 49:8-12 is a “goldmine of Messianic prophecy in the Pentateuch” (144). A powerful king will come from the line of Judah in the last days (Gen 49:1) and this lion will reign over Israel and the nations and bring a return of Eden’s abundance. For Chen, this passage in an intentional compositional strategy which recalls earlier messianic prophecies in Genesis 3:15 and 27:27-29. Chen focuses on 49:8, “your brothers shall praise you” as a way of reading the whole Joseph narrative. Certainly, Joseph’s brothers bow to him, and he is greatly praised, but is it possible the author of the Pentateuch used a descent/ascent theme to predict he death and resurrection of the Messiah? Chen says the theme of Genesis 37-50 “is not Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s second-in-command but its eschatological projection: the resurrection of the Messiah” (129). Further, he says “the eschatological rule of Judah over his brothers and the nations in Genesis 49: 8, 10 matches the messianic rule described in Genesis 27:29” (131).  Again, is it possible Moses had the resurrection of the Messiah in mind when he included the Joseph story as a part of the book of Genesis? Did he intend for the “lion of Judah” to refer to a future Messiah or to the fact king David will come from the tribe of Judah?

By way of constructive criticism, I find myself in agreement with the larger ideas, but I question the smaller details. I agree, for example, Genesis 3:15 is a messianic prophecy. But I am not as sure about the details suggesting the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I resist the suggestion Joseph looks forward to the resurrection of the Messiah. I am more open to a developing theology of the Messiah, where later writers in both the Old and New Testaments use these ideas from the Pentateuch and apply them to the Messiah after the idea of a messiah developed in early Judaism. Even though Chen disavows typology in his introduction, the argument of the book still strikes me as a form of typology. I am not sure this is a bad thing and typology is certainly popular among those doing biblical theology in an evangelical context.

Conclusion. Chen’s Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch is a compelling argument for Messiah as a theological theme of the Pentateuch. Although he does not offer any reasons for the texts he chose, the nine texts Chen focuses on are important messianic texts in both Jewish and early Christian exegesis. Although some readers will question his conclusions or accuse him of reading the New Testament into these passages, he is not out of step with the goals of evangelical biblical theology.


NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

6 thoughts on “Kevin S. Chen, Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch

  1. If you are a Dispensationalist, from what I have read of your review, you may find Chen’s thesis a bit off-putting – at least, it seems that way. You review of Chen has intrigued me to probably get the book. While I believe we should take the O.T. on its own terms, we should also recognize its indirect character of Law-Failure-Sacrifice. Christ was the referent of: Do this and you will live (Gal.3.19). He was the promised One to whom the promise referred. The plan of the ages was about Jesus incarnated, adding materiality, and saving mortals (Eph. 1.7-10). However, Chen does sound like, in spots, to have some thin ideas from your review. I could not agree with all of Sailhamer’s thinking either. Thanks for the review.

  2. I do not think it is a dispensationalist thing, I think I might just be a little more “historical critical” in my approach to the Pentateuch (or the OT in general).

    My main objection (and it is a soft one), is the use of typology. Early dispensationalists loved typology and engaged in all kinds of wild allegorical (in my opinion) over-readings of the Old Testament. Things like finding Jesus in every color of the Tabernacle, etc. My over-reaction to that kind of wooly-headed eisegesis is to dislike anything that smells like typology. The newer biblical theology people love typology, and I have been reading quite a bit of their work, so maybe my hard heart is softening a little, but not much.

    What sets Chen apart from the usual typology study is his insistence the original author *intended* a prophecy about Jesus. Personally, I just cannot get my head around Moses intending Genesis 3:15 as a prophecy of the Messiah, mostly because I do not think the idea of a messiah existed when Moses wrote. The idea develops over time, so that by the end of the OT canon, Genesis 3:15 does look like the messiah in some way fulfills that verse. Your observation connecting him to Sailhammer is good, since he consciously follows his mentor and tries to extend his method.

    Maybe for me, typology looks back to earlier texts and reads them from the perspective of later salvation history.

    Thanks for the comment!

    • It seems very obvious to me that the text doesn’t give the later readers of it the same detailed information had by the O.T. individuals. I believe more and more that the inspired words of the N.T. unlock many of the secrets of the O.T. and was meant for us to use as a key – “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Mt. 13.52). Your neck hairs might be bristling now.
      Gen. 4 contains two instances which, I believe, clearly shows those actors knowing more than what is usually credited to them. Eve said that she had gotten the Lord at bearing Cain. She was mistaken but the text shows she expected the promised divine seed to come.
      Abel offered the firstborn animal, why? Able knew more details of the requirements for sacrifice than explicitly laid out for future readers. These implications that suggest more cognizant O.T. individuals than usually credited by modern readers. Cain’s sin was also not offering an animal sacrifice. It was not about him conquering sin but obeying the “Lord,” Who, by the way, directly interacted with them – the preincarnate eternal Son.

  3. Carson, Moo, Motyer Introduction to the New Testament. DanielThompson

  4. As I read this post I feel that I would have to agree with your view Professor Long, that in the grand scheme of the work, the Pentateuch does bring about a Messianic central theme, however, the many details seem to be confusing. I don’t know that we will ever understand and hammer out the details in the intent of Old Testament authors related to God’s gift of His son and how His plan came to fruition. However, I find the mystery related to the Bible and God thrilling and a comfort in a strange way.

    Additionally, it is abundantly clear from the word that Moses is used as a vessel to communicate the coming and significance of Jesus. In the passage above we see Moses preparing the way for Jesus through prophecy through both the prophecy of the woman’s seed and “the coming of the “Lion of Judah” in Genesis 27:29 (ESV Study Bible). Even many years after Moses’ life and death, he is used to convey the importance and meaning of Jesus’ life and sacrifice in Hebrews 3. For example: the author of Hebrews compares and contrasts Moses to Jesus to communicate the honor of Jesus, his great faithfulness, and place at the right hand of God (Hebrews 3:2-6, ESV Study Bible). Although Moses is used by God in very different ways between the Old and New Testament, Moses’ life and example are utilized to communicate the life, purpose, and importance of Christ as the Son of God and as Savior of the world.

    By way of the word, research, and discussion with professors and peers, I am consistently reminded that the Bible is an illustration of God’s omnipotence and great handiwork not only in the past, but in the present. His power and grace transcends words on a page. And he works with purpose from the very beginning to bring every good work to fruition. This is encouraging for my own life.

    • Hi Abby,
      While we may never know all the details of the bible, the more we study and are illumined by the Spirit, the truth becomes less of a mystery. If the N.T. is correct (it is), then statements like: “So that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father,” help focus on the incipient nature of the Son in the O.T. He was a mystery Who is now revealed.

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