Review of From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch, 4th Edition by T. Desmond Alexander

August 28, 2023

Desmond Alexander. From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch, 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022, pp. xxv + 422, $29.99.


There are certain volumes which have imprinted themselves as being par excellence textbook material with respect to faculty and students alike. T. Desmond Alexander’s From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch, now in its fourth (!) edition, is one such work. Initially published over twenty five years ago (Baker, 1995) From Paradise to the Promised Land is sui generis with respect to its pedagogical sensitivity and academic integrity.

In this carefully revised, expanded, and updated fourth edition, Alexander does not disappoint in continuing to well-serve his audience through introducing the major themes of the first five books of the Bible alongside substantial, erudite engagement with modern critical approaches to the composition of the Pentateuch, effectively guiding readers through this stimulating, not insignificant portion of Scripture (see the back cover). According to the author, “the present volume seeks to (1) focus on the main themes of the Pentateuch, viewed as a unified literary work, and (2) guide the reader through the maze of modern approaches to the study of the Pentateuch” (p. xvii). Unquestionably, Alexander succeeds in achieving these objectives. The question stands, though, as to what changes, specifically, have been implemented in this edition?

Prior to elaborating on these particulars, however, a brief overview of the text, as a whole, is in order. From Paradise to the Promised Land is comprised of two parts: (1) The Main Themes of the Pentateuch (eighteen chapters). This section covers (for example) the royal lineage in Genesis, why Israel?, the covenant at Sinai, and other related things, (2) Pentateuchal Criticism (six chapters) focuses on the Documentary Hypothesis and the future of Pentateuchal studies. A recommended reading section is also included which is comprised of a seven page overview of different Pentateuchal commentaries and a (select) twenty-five page bibliography of different articles. Three thorough indices (author/Scripture/subject) round out the text. One particularly nice touch for all serious students is that many key Hebrew words (in transliteration) also appear within the subject index, thus making for easy reference tracking (more on this later).

As in the previous three editions of Paradise to Promised Land, the text itself is very user-friendly. Writing-wise, Alexander pitches his style just right for this readership. There is also an effective use of bold face type, special shading, good use of white space, ample headings sub-headings, etc., and multiple charts, diagrams, tables, and figures. Each graphic is crisp and clear. One new-to-this-edition illustration is ‘Mount Sinai as Archetype of the Tabernacle’ wherein Alexander delineates the boundary lines of the Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, and the Courtyard of the Tabernacle as they relate to and compare with Mt. Sinai (p. 101). Such stimulating visual content throughout the text is not only a treat to the eyes but also the mind as the images duly convey much that is of great theological import in a highly compressed yet relatable way.

The “New Testament Connections” at the end of every chapter (section one) do a great job of helping students connect the dots to the Pentateuch and the biblical metanarrative (cf. pp. 222–26). The ‘set off’ text for chapter summaries (section one) are also beneficial to students. If only the author had included some type of end-of-chapter questions as this provision would have been an especial boon for busy ministers, pastors, and church leaders, to help accommodate the volume to a group Bible study or the like. Perhaps future edition(s) might make this change.

With respect to the primary differences between the fourth and the first, second, and third edition(s), one notes that Alexander’s review and critique of modern critical approaches to the composition of the Pentateuch, i.e., part two (see above) is placed at the end of the book—rather than at the beginning, as in the previous three editions. As Richard E. Averbeck states in his endorsement (see the back cover), this is a “good move. Alexander’s discussion in this section sorts out the current plurality of critical positions in a readable way and offers sound, reasonable response to them.” Alexander’s shift of having this material at the end of the text also allows for a clearer exposé (‘show’ vs. ‘tell’) of how “the Pentateuch cannot be understood solely by reconstructing the process by which it was composed; the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts” (pp. 231–32). Would, though, that the author had thoroughly engaged with the discipline of rhetorical-criticism (rhetoric as persuasion) as it receives only the briefest mention in his overarching discussion of literary criticism (p. 232). Arguably, rhetorical criticism is the true “future of Pentateuchal studies” (cf. pp. 331–59) as it leverages the crème de crème of the literary-critical discipline but also moves beyond it, effectively ‘filling the void’ between various diachronic and synchronic approaches. It is most regrettable Alexander missed this opportunity.

One minor critique is the lack of any sort of commentary in the “recommended further reading” (pp. 361–92). Surely some annotations would have helped fledging student(s). Could not have this section, perhaps, have been replaced by a complete bibliography of the text at hand (thus negating the need for such details in the footnotes) and then some select reference(s) be made to specialized books offering further assistance? One thinks, for instance, of Kenton L. Sparks’ The Pentateuch: An Annotated Bibliography (Wipf and Stock, 2019) or John F. Evan’s volume, A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works 10th ed. (Zondervan, 2016).

A more significant criticism, though, is the lack of sustained interaction with Hebrew-language resources. To be clear, while it is certainly most welcome (and appreciated) to have special reference(s) made to ‘abad, gôy, ḥāram/ḥērem, qādaš, śādeh, ṭāhôr, ṭāmē’ and the like within the text itself, would not students benefit from having had some reference(s) to the standard, user-friendly (read English speaking) lexicons, such as NIDOTTE and the like?

To conclude, despite these infelicities, I heartily recommend T. Desmond Alexander’s From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch without hesitation.

Its primary users are most likely to include Bible college/Christian university college and seminary students along with Christian educators and, one hopes, invested pastors/laypeople.

Dustin Burlet

Millar College of the Bible

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