Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Write-Up: From Paradise to the Promised Land

T. Desmond Alexander.  From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch, Third Edition.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.    See here for Baker’s page about this book.

In From Paradise to the Promised Land, T. Desmond Alexander explores what he considers to be the themes of the Pentateuch—-the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible—-as well as the application of those themes in the New Testament.  The third edition contains a lengthy and helpful summary and discussion of modern biblical scholarship regarding the Pentateuch, covering form, source, and tradition criticism.  Alexander’s conclusion in that discussion is that the Pentateuch contains a variety of traditions, many of which may be quite old (as in second millennium B.C.E.), but that the Pentateuch was not edited in its final form prior to the sixth century B.C.E., the time of the exile and the beginning of the post-exilic period.

According to Alexander, the Pentateuch is about God coming to dwell with humanity, as well as the promise of a royal seed who would bring blessings to the peoples of the earth.  God dwelt with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which was like a temple, but they forfeited God’s presence and blessings through their sin.  God chose Abraham’s seed to bring blessing to the peoples of the earth, and God would later dwell within Israel through the Tabernacle, a precursor to what God planned to do for all of humanity.

Regarding the promised royal seed, God said that a seed would crush the head of the serpent from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15), that kings would be descended from Abraham (Genesis 17:6), and that a singular seed would possess the gates of his enemies (Genesis 22:17).  Plus, Abraham does kingly things, and Alexander regards this as an indication that God’s plan was to use a royal figure to bless humanity.  Alexander argues that God initially planned for the royal seed to come from Ephraim (a tribe descended from Joseph), since God chose Ephraim over his older brother Manasseh, Joshua was an Ephraimite, and God’s sanctuary of Shiloh was located in Ephraim.  But, according to Alexander, God changed God’s mind, Shiloh was destroyed, and God chose Judah (David’s tribe) as the tribe from which the royal seed would come, in accordance with Genesis 49:10.  Alexander seems to believe that the Pentateuch predicts the coming of an eschatological Messiah.

My main problem with From Paradise to the Promised Land is that Alexander often disregards the diversity of the Bible and fails to engage alternative points-of-view.  Let me clarify that I am not saying this in reference to his chapters on modern biblical scholarship, for those chapters were excellent in summarizing and engaging various scholarly arguments, and Alexander also arrives at the judicious conclusion that the Pentateuch contains diverse traditions.  But my impression was that Alexander largely departed from this approach in the rest of the book, as he discussed what he considered to be the themes of the Pentateuch.  Granted, Alexander acknowledged at the outset that he intended to pursue a synchronic, holistic approach to the Pentateuch, but I believe that the diversity of the Bible can challenge Alexanders’ arguments about what the key themes of the Pentateuch actually are.  Does the Pentateuch envision God dwelling with all of humanity?  That is not explicit within the Pentateuch itself, and, if one wants to consult the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible, one will arguably encounter a variety of eschatological expectations, some of which are more hostile to Gentiles and nationalistic.  Does the Pentateuch present the promise of a royal seed—-a Messiah—-bringing blessing to humanity?  I do not find that to be explicit in the Pentateuch, either.  The Pentateuch’s references to kings may simply refer to the kings of Northern or Southern Israel, not the hope of a coming Messiah.  Moreover, Alexander fails to consider how Saul and the anti-monarchic voices in the Hebrew Bible would fit into his scenario.  God in the Pentateuch intended to bring the royal Messiah from Ephraim, then changed God’s mind and decided that the royal figure would come from Judah instead?  Why, then, did God choose Saul, a Benjaminite, to be king?  And what about the voices within the Hebrew Bible that oppose Israel even having a king?  Alexander should have engaged these questions.

From Paradise to the Promised Land did have its assets, however.  There were gems, such as Alexander’s comparison of the original Passover ritual to save Israel’s firstborn with the rituals of anointing priests, as Alexander argued that the firstborn were becoming a sort of priesthood through the Passover.  There was Alexander’s interpretation of God’s promise that Abraham and Sarah would become the parents of a multitude of nations, as Alexander contended that Abraham was a father of Gentile nations in the sense that his seed would have a positive impact on them; similarly, Joseph in Genesis 45:8 is called a father to Pharaoh, even though Joseph was not Pharaoh’s literal, physical father.

Alexander’s chapters on the sacrificial system and clean and unclean foods were also worth reading, in my opinion.  My problem with his chapter on the sacrificial system is that he maintained that the burnt offering was substitutionary—-that the animal was dying in place of the person offering it.  I did not think that Alexander supported that point, and his reference to the ransom in Exodus 21:30 did not help his case, since the ransom in that verse appears to be money, not a burnt offering.  Alexander did well, however, to note that blood, as life, had a cleansing effect in purifying people and objects of defilement, as well as to note that, the greater the sin, the greater the defilement was on the sanctuary.  On clean and unclean foods, Alexander explored different explanations for the designation of animals as unclean and clean, and he settles on the view that the dietary laws served to remind Israelites of their status as God’s chosen people, separated to be holy.

From Paradise to the Promised Land is intended to introduce people to the contents of the Pentateuch.  In terms of whether I would recommend this book for an Introduction to Hebrew Bible class, I would offer a tentative yes.  If I were a teacher, I would not rely only on this book to introduce students to the contents of the Pentateuch, but I would require them to read parts of the Pentateuch first, then I would refer them to Alexander’s book so they could read attempts to explain the Pentateuch’s content.  Of concern to me is the book’s evangelical Christian emphasis: while that may be appropriate for an evangelical seminary, I question whether it would suit a secular university.  Still, there are pieces of Alexander’s book—-his discussion of modern scholarship and his chapters on sacrifices and clean and unclean foods—-that are not overly preachy and that would arguably be appropriate within a secular academic context.  I would also add that his chapters on modern biblical scholarship can assist graduate students studying for comprehensive examinations in Hebrew Bible, or seeking a summary of what modern biblical scholarship has been saying about the Pentateuch over the past few centuries.

I would like to thank Baker Academic for sending me a complimentary copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.


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