Cover Image: From Paradise to the Promised Land

From Paradise to the Promised Land:
An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Pentateuch

T. Desmond Alexander (Paternoster, 2002)

Blurb Review by Dr. Jamie Grant

Review by Dr. Jamie Grant

Simply put, T. Desmond Alexander's book From Paradise to the Promised Land (FPPL) provides the reader with an excellent critical and theological introduction to the Pentateuch. This second edition of Alexander's work not only provides us with a substantially expanded discussion of the significant theological themes found in the first five books of the Old Testament but also gives a thorough introduction to the basics of source, form, traditio-historical and literary critical studies of the Pentateuch. In short, this book is an excellent introduction which goes far beyond introductory questions and which should be compulsory reading for any Christian with a desire to grapple with the theology of the Old Testament.

FPPL divides into two parts: Part One deals with a variety of critical approaches, and Part Two examines the main themes of the Pentateuch. There are six chapters in Part One of the book and seventeen in Part Two. After a brief introduction, Alexander deals in turn with the rise of the documentary hypothesis followed by the progression from source criticism to form and traditio-historical criticism in chapters 2 and 3. In the first of these studies Alexander presents a thorough discussion of the development of the documentary hypothesis from its early origins to its latest sophistication. The discussion of how the J, E, D and P categories developed is fair, balanced and thorough-beginning with the 18th century theories of Jean Astruc and charting the development of the idea through to contemporary proponents such as Van Seters. This section is very well grounded in the secondary literature-with frequent footnotes highlighting key works in English and German-enabling the interested reader to dig further. To describe this analysis as 'an introduction' to the documentary hypothesis is slightly unfair to the content of this chapter-what we actually have here is a thorough-going discussion of the high points in the development of the source-critical approach. Alexander's even-handed style enables the reader to form their own opinions on the matter, and the fact that he simply charts the progression of the idea gives the opportunity to consider the strengths and weaknesses of this method prior to any analysis being provided for us. Chapter 3 consists of an equally robust discussion of the developments arising out of source criticism, namely, form criticism and the tradition-history approach. As Alexander himself points out, there is a certain sense of inexorability about the process by which scholars who read the Torah in an ever-increasingly atomistic fashion should ultimately ask the question: 'If smaller written sources lie behind the Pentateuch, what lies behind the smaller written sources?' And so the quest for an oral tradition which constituted 'the source for the sources' began with the development of form criticism. Alexander's balanced analysis of Gunkel's theories and the influence that they exerted upon some of the key OT scholars of the last century (Gerhard von Rad, Martin Noth, Albrecht Alt) is, once again, commendably rigorous. The remaining three chapters of this section (chapters 4-6) discuss the weaknesses of the documentary hypothesis, take the Sinai narrative as a test case, and consider the future of Pentateuchal Studies, respectively. The development of Alexander's argument is as lucid in these pages as it is in the previous ones. Limits of time and space do not allow detailed presentation of content, but the essence of his case is that-whilst scholarly discussion has focused almost exclusively on the question of how the Pentateuch was written-the question that the reader is drawn to ask by the text is: Why was the Pentateuch written? What is its purpose?

In essence Alexander argues that there are more good reasons to read the Pentateuch as a narrative whole than there is to see this text as the piecemeal product of countless authors and editors (not that he would deny editorial activity in the formation of the text). There is a coherent story that runs from Genesis to Deuteronomy, and as part of that narrative we see the repetition of certain key themes and ideas. So, however the Pentateuch was formed, what we now have is a story and we cannot properly understand the teaching thrust of the document without an awareness this holistic narrative ('the whole is much greater than the sum of its part' [p. 5]). To cite Alexander:

It is methodologically unsound to explore the pre-history of the text without having established a clear understanding of how the present text is constructed as a literary work. To do otherwise is to set the cart before the horse. Similarly, on pedagogical grounds, it is surely improper to expect students to appreciate and apply critical methods before they have understood the content and literary structure of the received text. Unfortunately it is frequently the case that students are introduced to scholarly opinions regarding the process by which the text was composed without knowing what the text itself is saying (p. xv).

(If I have a quibble with regard to this book, and it is no more than a quibble, it lies with this very issue. Alexander rightly points out that study of the text should precede study of critical issues and yet Part One of this book discusses critical issues prior to the discussion of the actual content of the Pentateuch. This in no way harms the worth of the book, but could certainly be described as idiosyncratic given the strength of Alexander's argument that discussion of content should precede discussion of the scholarly arguments in the secondary literature).

The second, and larger, section of the book constitutes a revision and expansion of the first edition of FPPL. In it Alexander discusses the main themes that run throughout the books of the Pentateuch: for example, royal seed theology, Israel as a blessing to the nations, the land, the faith of Abraham, covenant, holiness, sacrifice and so on. In line with the above quotation, this section furnishes the reader with a good understanding of the key content of the books of the Pentateuch. Some of these themes run throughout each of the five books, whereas others are encapsulated within a single book, but each of these themes is essential to the developing narrative.

The tone of this second section is, perhaps, more in line with the book's self-designation as an 'introduction' to the Pentateuch. Here Alexander charts the development of these theological propositions largely by reference to the biblical text alone and without detailed interaction with the secondary literature (although there is an extremely thorough bibliography that is divided into sections according to subject-matter). This second part of the book reads very freely and the thematic development is clear, logical and engaging. Anyone wishing to grasp a sense of the 'big picture' of the Pentateuch will find Alexander's discussion extremely helpful.

Basically, FPPL is a thoroughly excellent work and a worthy addition to any personal library. With regard to its 'biblical theological' content, I think that there are two points which should be made:

1. Following his presentation of each of the themes in the second part of the book, Alexander discusses briefly the New Testament implications of this motif. Obviously, as this is a book about the Pentateuch, these sections are not extensive, but provide a good starting point for anyone wishing to trace the trajectory of these theologically significant ideas into the NT. The kernel of good biblical theological discussion is found in these sections.

2. The other factor that must be borne in mind from the perspective of biblical theology, is the foundational nature of the Pentateuch. The five 'books of Moses' are absolutely fundamental to our understanding of the rest of the Bible and, indeed, to our understanding of Christian theology. FPPL helps the reader to come to a good grasp of the theology of the Pentateuch, providing a firm foundation upon which to build. It is, perhaps, in this sense that Alexander's work will have its most profound impact upon the praxis of biblical theology.

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