T. Desmond Alexander (PhD, The Queen’s University, Belfast) is senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College in Belfast, Ireland, and has co-edited the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch and the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, and he is the author of From Eden to the New Jerusalem.
In this new (third) edition of From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch  (which is about 14 pages longer than the second edition , and 157 pages longer than the first edition ), adds information about Pentateuchal Criticism [PC] (the title of Part 1) and some “refined judgments” by the author throughout the book. He says,
“The present volumes seeks to
(1) guide the reader through the maze of modern approaches to the Pentateuch, and
(2) focus on the main themes of the Pentateuch, viewed as a unified literary work, by drawing on the best insights of recent research into Hebrew narrative techniques” (p xiii).
Part 1; Pentateuchal Criticism
Being an introduction, one should expect some discussion on Pentateuchal studies. Alexander spends six chapters going through the history of these studies, introducing the reader to source-, form-, Traditio-historical-, and literary-criticism, and brings the reader’s main focus to the Documentary Hypothesis. Basically, DH espouses that “Moses had compiled Genesis from older documents” (p 8). The proponents of the DH, in general, say the narrative is not unified, some things are needlessly repeated, different uses of God’s name are used (compare the Hebrew of Gen 1 with Gen 2), etc. All of this would eventually bring us to (what some are familiar with now) the New Documentary Hypothesis: “the Pentateuch was composed of four documents that were combined by a redactor” (p 15). These sources would be called JEDP, the Yahwist source (J), the Elohist source (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly source (P).
While one should be aware (and probably already expects) that these chapters are not an easy read. However, I actually found these chapters to be quite interesting, much more than I thought they would be. On the one hand, these chapters are quite detailed, showing the intricacies of PC and just what one would expect to find when studying the Pentateuch. Many (but not all!) large, scholarly works will be brimming with information on the legitimacy of the DH, and one should be aware of what they will find when they read those works.
But here Alexander does not side with the DH espousers, but shows criticisms against it. Chapter 5 is titled “The Sinai Narrative – A Test Case” where Alexander “examine[s] afresh the composition of the Sinai Narrative in Exodus 19:1-24:11” (p 64). I found this chapter to be very interesting as Alexander shows the divine structure of the chapters here in Exodus. He shows the divine speeches, how they fit with the positioning of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), and how Exodus 19 is a single account.
Admittedly, this section will not float everyone’s boat, but in dealing with introductions it’s still important and informative to those who are interested in a deeper study of the Pentateuch. It’s still ideal to be familiar with the discussions, knowing how to discern books, discussions, even sermons that have concepts of the DH backing them up.
Part 2; The Main Themes of the Pentateuch
This is where the book will become ‘alive’ for many (and probably most) readers. For though as interesting as reading various criticisms and critiques of the Pentateuch may be, reading the very words Moses wrote is far more interesting (as it should be!). Here Alexander looks at a broad range of themes beginning in Genesis and “ending” in Deuteronomy (they don’t really “end” in Deuteronomy. The biblical authors pick up the Pentateuch’s themes and carry them on throughout the Old and New Testaments. But, for our purposes…):
- God’s Temple City
- The Royal Lineage in Genesis
- The Blessing of the Nations
- Paradise Lost
- By Faith Abraham…
- Who is the Lord?
- The Passover
- The Covenant at Sinai
- The Tabernacle
- Be Holy
- The Sacrificial System
- The Clean and Unclean Foods
- Toward the Promised Land
- Love and Loyalty
- Why Israel?
- The Pentateuch and the Biblical Metanarrative
The Chocolate Milk
In looking at Pentateuchal themes, rather than being a collection of different sources, Alexander shows how the Pentateuch is a unified work. God placed man in a garden to be fruitful, to multiply, to replenish the earth and have dominion over it. They would reproduce, grow the garden, and thus bring the knowledge of God throughout the rest of the earth. Thus even still after the fall, Cain builds a city. Nimrod builds cities. Babel-Babylon is built. Abraham’s descendants will become a great nation. The Pharaoh enslaves those descendants so that they will build him a great city. When saved by Yahweh, the Hebrews build Him a dwelling place, and eventually a tabernacle. Once more, we are looking forward to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12.22).
The final portion of each thematic chapter in Part 2 was the New Testament Connections section, which I always enjoyed reading. Alexander summarizes how a particular theme (‘Be Holy’) is seen in the NT and is fulfilled in some way in Jesus. What defiles a person is not what they eat, but what is inside of them (Mk 7.20-23). We are “to purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit” (2 Cor 7.1). Peter (in 1 Pet. 1.15-16) quotes Leviticus by saying, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” The morality we find in the Pentateuch isn’t always so far removed from our world. Though we do not have to perform animal sacrifices, we are still to be holy just as the Israelites were holy because the same God who rescued them from slavery has done the same for us (Rom 5.21; 7.25).
The Spoiled Milk
One disappointment I had was that more of the Pentateuch wasn’t covered. As important as the themes are (I never really thought much about a lot of the themes mentioned here and their impact on the Five Books of Moses), I think the name of the book may be a bit misleading. Perhaps I’m used to books like deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament and Kostenberger, Kellum, and Quarles’ The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown which both look at themes of the New Testament and summarize each letter (though deSilva has a stronger social-cultural-rhetorical flavor). While one book cannot do everything, I’m left wondering about much of what happens in the Genesis story after Abraham (though Alexander does spend six chapters on Genesis and doesn’t forget about Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph). Not to mention special laws in Leviticus (three chapters), or most of Deuteronomy (only two chapters are spent discussing this huge book).
The only criticism I have about the Old Testament Summary section was that it really wasn’t a summary of how the theme is seen in the Old Testament, but more how it is seen either in that individual book (‘Murmurings’ in Numbers) or in the Pentateuch. Again, perhaps misnamed, but it seems like “Pentateuchal Summary” would be more apt.
All in all, this is an excellent introduction to the Pentateuch. Alexander has cross references to boot, and will give me plenty of work as I work my way through the Pentateuch. In this, I hope you will feel as I have, and that you will have a desire to read through the Pentateuch again and again, seeing and learning more about our loving God who has saved us from our sins and who we will see again in the New Creation.
“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” – Rev 21.22
[Special thanks to Trinity at Baker Publishing for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]