T. Desmond Alexander, (Ph.D. Queen’s University), is senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College, Belfast. Dr. Alexander accepted this appointment in September 2009, after serving as Director of Christian Training for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for ten years. He had previously lectured in Semitic Studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast. He has written and contributed to a wide variety of academic and reference books on the Bible. Alexander has attempted in this work to answer two questions by examining the over-arching story line of the Bible, or the meta-story. The two questions being addressed are: Why does the earth exist as well as what is the purpose of human life? He answers these questions broadly while looking at how the entire story interrelates through the conclusions illustrated in John’s revelation of a New Jerusalem and finding their relation to God’s original design in Eden.
“Why does the earth exist? What is the purpose of human life? As arrogant as it may seem this short book attempts to answer both of these questions” (9).From the outset of this work, Alexander contends that there is “an unparalleled meta-story from an anthology of literature, the Bible…linked by common themes and centered on a unique deity” (10). In short, there is a collection of texts that, by God’s providence and inspiration, have been gathered and built upon to tell one unified story from beginning to end. In order to identify and construct this meta-story, one must see that the entirety of the Bible is ripe with inter-textual reference within which the story must be understood. Alexander goes on within his dialogue with the reader to prepare them to follow his methodology of interpretation by outlining the storyline by beginning at the end. By beginning at the end he asserts, “As is often the case, a story’s conclusion provides a good guide to the themes and ideas dominant throughout” (10).
Identifying the denouement of the story in Revelation chapters 21 and 22, Alexander states that these forward looking passages not only look forward to the city God will build for his people for eternity, but more importantly to his argument that these texts show God completing the creation work he began in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. According to Alexander these two sets of biblical chapters form the bookends, an inclusio of sorts wherein they contain the biblical meta-story.
As Alexander builds his case he carefully constructs the biblical storyline by pointing out that the end of Revelation shows us that the earth will be God’s dwelling place, a holy city that covers his creation and inhabited by holy people who regained their status as royal priests under the kingship of God in Jesus Christ. What is interesting is how he finds these themes identified through scripture and built upon in Genesis where two people were placed by God in a garden to work and keep it holy so that God may continue to dwell with them.
As the garden was made as an earthly temple to work, keep and subdue the creation under the royal priesthood of Adam, Alexander shows us how the rest of the story unfolds as the serpent enters and dismantles God’s holy garden by tempting Adam and Eve to sin temporarily dethroning the Sovereign God over all creation (74).
Alexander builds on the plotline of the Bible by showing us how God has patiently and methodically restored his creation under his Lordship away from the control of Satan as he began to reinsert himself among his creatures that bore his image, the people of Israel. Israel was God’s chosen tribe that would be his priests among the nations that worship and serve God in holiness and community, thereby allowing a holy God to once again dwell among them within the tabernacle (34). Alexander explains as scripture shows us the tabernacle was replaced with a fixed dwelling, the temple (42).
As the story progresses and God makes covenant with his people he also leads them out of captivity into a place of rest in the land of Canaan but God left their midst as a result of the unholy lives in the vicinity of the tabernacle and Jerusalem is established as a permanent temple resulting from King David’s desire to restore honor to God (43).
What we find as the story progresses is a snowball effect of themes and motifs. We find that the temple is where God dwells and that place must be holy. We also find that Adam and Eve were established a viceroys of God’s in the garden, to be holy, and to worship God so that God would dwell with them. We see the tragic events in the garden as Satan tainted the earth with sin and dethroned God so that ultimately God would have to accomplish his plan of a creation temple through the sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ and defeat of Satan’s reign (111). As Christ is sent as the lamb to slaughter, he brings with him several very important accomplishments. Christ defeats Satan’s power of God’s people by delivering his people out of bondage (125). God’s blow to Satan establishes his victory and reaffirms his sovereignty over creation, but ultimately he establishes the church as the Kingdom of God. The church are those who will inherit the New Jerusalem and the church are the new royal priests as being image bearers of God who will work to establish the Kingdom of God until the return of Christ.
Identifying the Book Ends
As I read the book I began reading at the beginning. This appears to be an obvious approach, but then I skipped to the conclusion and then reread the introduction. My reason was to adhere to the same method Alexander used to identify the thesis of his book which he said hinged on reading the Bible through the lens of the “bookend” in Revelation 21 and 22 (192). Alexander wastes no time showing readers the similarity to the beginning of the Bible where God. He cites numerous resources that affirm his understanding that the end will be like the beginning restored to the original pristine state. I was not able to easily grasp that in the body of the text unless I dived into the footnotes. I maintain that the footnotes are a little extensive and may have served well to elaborate on several points through the body of the work as it claims to be an introduction to, not introductory biblical theology. After seeing where his influences came from and reading further into the first chapter Alexander rightly claims that the dwelling place of God is significant in the outworking of the storyline. This claim begins to add weight to his claim that the meta-story does indeed answer both why earth exists and the purpose of human life but are not fully developed. He did a fine job of helping the lay reader understand the connections between why Eden is significant as a garden temple and the New Jerusalem as well as every temporary dwelling place in between. On page 20, Alexander clearly defines Eden as the sanctuary where god dwells with man. This is and was the original intent of Eden (20). This statement stakes the ground where the rest of the story is built upon. Alexander could have possibly emphasized this fundamental claim a bit more to ensure we see that as the goal throughout the storyline. He makes some astute observations along the way which help to defend the claim that Eden is description of the New Jerusalem. For example, Alexander observes that no sacrifices were necessary in Eden which could deter some from concluding that it was designed as a temple sanctuary. But he clarifies one important detail: there was not yet any sin, so there was no need for sacrifice (21). I would not have picked up on that unless I was looking at Genesis through the eyes of a restored creation account from Revelation as he did.
Alexander clearly made his case that redeemed humanity was to do the work of declaring the Kingdom of God and that this Kingdom would inherit this New Jerusalem after death by identifying the royal priesthood theme in Genesis, and Ancient Near East culture (84). This priesthood is not a new concept but the original intent of Adam and Eve, and cannot only be obtained through the atoning sacrifice and submission to Jesus Christ and living by His Spirit, the tree of life (155).
I certainly gained an enormous appreciation for biblical theology from reading this book. I do not have any areas of disagreement generally on the meta-storyline he proposed. What I do wonder and seemed to wonder throughout the book, is how he got there? I concede that it must take far more biblical knowledge and memory to develop this than I spent learning from his book, but I ask how can someone grow in their ability to do biblical theology in a God honoring manner without understanding the transitions and where the conclusions came from? An example to consider is how did he conclude with assurance that the church became the temple by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, absent an identifiable trajectory (68)? I know after reading this, had I not read backwards I would not have had the foresight to see where the trajectory was going. I think it would help readers to elaborate a little more along the way, perhaps showing us how he outlined the contrasts between Adam and Eve and the church so we can see the specific differences and similarities which led to his conclusions.
As I turned the last pages of Alexander’s work, I was satisfied with what I learned but desired a little more “how to”. Considering the volume was so short, it packed a lot of details of the grand story of the Bible to consider, as it brought the reader along from the Sacred Garden to the New Jerusalem built by God in the coming future (175). As an introduction to Biblical Theology it was extremely helpful to the novice theologian I consider myself to be, simply because it coached the reader on the process and thesis development and illuminated the fulfillment of his thesis in his conclusion. It was helpful to see this done in a volume that is less intimidating than others and certainly affirmed my desire and conviction to pursue further detailed studies in biblical theology.
My final note on this work comes from the back cover, Alexander says, “Good theology always has pastoral implications, and this study is no exception. The truths revealed are extremely important for shaping our lifestyle choices.” I could not agree more. He certainly accomplished that in this work by connecting the art of story and science of biblical theology that points to the glory of God’s sovereign design and rule on earth and promises we have of his new city he is building for children of the faith.