Did Moses really write about Jesus (John 5:46)?
While few evangelicals want to disagree with Jesus, our interpretation of the Torah often betrays us. Some see no Messiah in the Torah—or even in the majority of the OT. Others may believe that Christ fulfills and transcends certain texts that were never about him in their original context. But is this what Jesus is claiming? Rather, Jesus appears to say that those who read the Torah, as it is intended to be read, will see the Messiah. In fact, key to Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees is that they are both reading the same book but with vastly different assumptions about it.
The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch
This takes us to the heart of Kevin S. Chen’s The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch. For Chen, “the Pentateuch itself sets forth an authorially intended, coherent portrait of the Messiah as the center of its theological message” (5). The Messiah is indeed spoken of in the Torah.
However, for the Pentateuch to be “about” the Messiah in any meaningful sense, how could so many contemporary scholars miss this point? The reader must—as per Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees—identify the point of the Pentateuch. Is it a retelling of Israel’s early history and description of laws at Sinai? Or is it telling this story to make a particular point?
For Chen, a disciple of the late John Sailhamer, the Pentateuch must be read textually. While that may sound obvious, a thoroughly textual reading recognizes that the Torah is more than a messy “collection of stories, laws, poems, and genealogies that have been gathered together haphazardly” (25). Rather, it has been carefully crafted as a unified text. Thus, its very composition has intentionality. To read it righty, we should read it slowly and in light of itself.
But how does the Torah speak of the Messiah? Using the idea of a prism, Chen notes that the message of the Messiah is scattered throughout the Torah like a rainbow of colors rather than a single white light. It is through reading the Torah textually that this Messianic vision is seen.
For example, when the Torah’s structure is recognized, the repeated poems (particularly “mega-poems” in Gen 49; Ex 15; Num 23–24; Deut 32–33) are seen to be highly important to its message. In fact, each pauses the narrative to zoom out and consider the end times. Reading these poems in light of each other reveal a particular focus on the Messiah, which is affirmed by how later OT and NT texts read them.
Chen’s book contains nine chapters, excluding introduction and conclusion.
Chapter 1 considers the early chapters of Genesis (1–3). In it, Chen recognizes that Genesis 3:15 is indeed a Messianic prophecy, but notes that it builds upon the portrayal of Adam as priest and king, indicating that the coming Redeemer will also be both.
Chapter 2 traces the seed through Abraham’s line. Chen argues that depending on the surrounding context, the seed of Abraham is in some places singular (Messiah) and in others plural (his descendants). Some passages that are commonly seen as concerning Abraham’s son Isaac, or Isaac’s son Jacob, are in fact exclusively about the Messiah. This chapter also considers whether Melchizedek and the sacrifice of Isaac were authorially-intended to foreshadow the Messiah.
Chapter 3 is a thorough treatment of Genesis 49:8–10, which argues that it is “an exclusively Messianic prophecy” and actually predicts his death and resurrection” (108).
Chapter 4 considers the Passover and Song of the Sea (Ex 15). Though neither explicitly speaks of Messiah, both intentionally foreshadow the Messianic kingdom.
Chapter 5 traces motifs in the Pentateuch, such as manna, the rock of Israel, Bezalel, and Day of Atonement. While many see Christ as a greater fulfillment of some of these ideas, Chen’s goal is “not simply to point out parallels” but to investigate whether “each intentionally foreshadows the Messiah” (170).
Chapter 6 argues that the Bronze serpent is not merely similar to Messiah’s death and resurrection, but that its placement in the Pentateuch—particularly near Balaam’s oracles about the Messiah—encourages a Messianic interpretation of it.
Chapter 7 is devoted to Deuteronomy 18:15–19 and argues that the text does not merely anticipate the prophetic office, but actually predicts a unique eschatological prophet who will lead Israel in a second exodus.
Chapter 8 studies Deuteronomy 32–33, the final major poetic text in the Torah, and concludes that Deut 33:7 is in fact a Messianic prophecy.
Chapter 9 turns from Messiah to consider the Law. Chen reads the giving of the Law in light of the Pentateuch’s narrative and composition. Keeping the larger context in focus reveals that the Pentateuch maintains the goodness of God’s laws, but depicts and anticipates Israel’s failure to obey. The only hope, according to the Torah itself, is a new covenant that will be established by a new exodus and savior like Moses.
This Book Will Challenge You
Key to Chen’s presentation is intentionality. Many reach some similar conclusions to Chen by means of typology. That is, they believe the OT passage in its original context may not be about the Messiah, but that—in light of NT teaching—he takes the ideas and fulfills them, often in a greater way then their original referent ever did. However, Chen’s view is radically different. That is, he believes the Torah, read on its own right, will lead to these very conclusions. That the Pentateuch is indeed Messianic. While affirming the OT’s prophetic nature has apologetic benefits, Chen’s primary purpose is to encourage us to be all better readers of Scripture.
The goal and methodology of this book are both dear to my heart. I was already persuaded by Chen’s perspective, but his book vastly expanded my confidence that the Torah is Messianic.
However, Ssome will struggle with this book for a few reasons. First, it is extremely thorough and will require more of the reader than many biblical studies books (and that’s saying a lot). Second, it is best read with patience, an open Bible, and a willingness to trace down Chen’s many references. Third, its perspective runs contrary to the scholarly consensus and the assumptions of many readers. Many readers will require a radical shift of methodology in order to track with Chen’s approach, lest they find his arguments very strange and unconvincing. Finally, proficiency with Hebrew is not required but is certainly advantageous (on that note, I’m grateful that the editors went with Hebrew text, not transliteration).
It should be noted that these are all observations, not criticisms per se. My greatest critique is that while there are very strong arguments in favor of the Torah predicting the Messiah, sometimes these get obscured by Chen’s attempt to argue for obscure, unique, or hypothetical points. An uninitiated reader may come away overwhelmed with the numerous possible Messianic texts rather than being convinced by a few abundantly clear ones. In other words, this is not necessarily an introduction to the topic.
Worthy of reading and rereading, Kevin Chen’s The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch is a highly valuable resource that any student of the Torah will want to consult. While one need not agree with his every argument, his insights of the Torah are provocative, deep, and profound. Moreover, this book has the potential of reshaping one’s entire hermeneutic. After such a transformation, what Jesus claims about the Torah will come as no surprise.
Many thanks to IVP Academic for providing a free copy of this book. I was not required to write a positive review.