T. Desmond Alexander (aka “Desi”) is senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The following interview revolves around his latest book, The City of God and the Goal of Creation. https://www.amazon.com/City-God-Goal-Creation-Introduction/dp/1433555743
David George Moore conducted the following interview. Dave’s videos can be seen at www. mooreengaging.com.
Moore: Give us an idea of how you first became interested in tracing the theme of city in Scripture.
Alexander: My interest in the city as a biblical theology theme probably arose when I was working on my book, From Eden to New Jerusalem. In it I write about various biblical theology themes, using the final chapters of Revelation as a guide. One of the themes that I explored was the concept of temple. In Revelation 21, temple and city come together. Revelation ends by focusing on a remarkable city where God dwells with his people. Importantly, this is presented as the climax of God’s plan for creation. As I reflected on this, it became evident that running throughout the Bible is an expectation that God will dwell with his people in a holy city. In the Old Testament we see this focused on Jerusalem. But as the Old Testament prophets predict, there is a much greater city of God to come.
Moore: You mention that the Garden of Eden is akin to “later Israelite sanctuaries.”
Please describe that for us.
Alexander: One of the important developments in recent years regarding our understanding of the opening chapters of Genesis is the idea that God created this world to be his dwelling place. My PhD supervisor, Dr Gordon Wenham, highlighted this in an article that he wrote in 1986, entitled ‘Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story’. Since then, many other scholars have picked up on this idea. The Garden of Eden story contains various features that link it to descriptions of the tabernacle and Jerusalem temple. For example, the entrance to the Garden of Eden is located on its east side, as is the case for both the tabernacle and temple. The tabernacle and the temple have features that resemble a garden; the lampstand or menorah is made to look like a branched tree. In the Pentateuch the Levites, who serve in the tabernacle, are given instructions similar to those given to Adam, when God instructs him to ‘serve and watch/guard’ the garden. These, along with other parallels, provides grounds for seeing the Garden of Eden as a proto-sanctuary.
Moore: To what degree does the reality that God is preparing a city remind us that we are to be in close proximity to other people?
Alexander: The concept of city is closely associated with the idea of people living together in community. For some people the term ‘city’ conveys very negative connotations. We often associate cities with crime and concrete. Yet, cities also provide wonderful opportunities for people to flourish in community. Cities provide facilities that are missing in rural communities. The biblical concept of the city of God brings together everything that is good about living in community. God’s city will be no concrete jungle, but a golden paradise.
Moore: Modern-day America is wildly affluent. How does the teaching about Babylon help us live wisely?
Alexander: In the Bible Babylon is presented as the antithesis of the city of God; Babylon is symbolic of godless humanity. Unfortunately, because our human nature has become perverted as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden, we have a desire to amass wealth to make us feel secure. The Bible draws attention to how this desire is reflected in the citizens of Babylon. In Revelation Babylon is associated with luxurious living, but it comes at the price of exploiting other human beings. When judgment is pronounced upon the city of Babylon, we read that ‘[t]he merchants of the earth will also weep and mourn over her, because no one buys their merchandise any longer’ (Revelation 18:11; HCSB). Strikingly, the list of merchandise ends by mentioning ‘slaves and human lives’. The biblical teaching on Babylon reminds us that wealth can easily become a substitute for God (compare Matthew 6:24).
Alexander: As we read through the Old Testament, it is clear that the ancient city of Jerusalem occupies an important place in God’s plan of redemption. The capture of the city by King David marked the end of the long process by which the Israelites took control of the promised land. Jerusalem’s unique status is underlined by the building of a temple where God comes to dwell. God’s presence transforms the city and we see this reflected in various psalms (e.g Ps. 48). Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, especially its kings and leading people, act corruptly. With good reason, the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BC condemns the Jerusalemites for their immoral behavior. Remarkably, Isaiah anticipates the creation of a New Jerusalem that will be fully righteous and where God will dwell in harmony with his people. Isaiah associates this New Jerusalem with the re-creation of the heavens and the earth (Isa. 65: 17-18). And this is the New Jerusalem that the apostle John sees Revelation 21-22. New Jerusalem is all that old Jerusalem failed to be.
Moore: The concept of God’s holy mountain looms large (no pun intended) in your book. Unpack a bit why it is significant in Scripture.
Alexander: A recurring feature within the Bible is the idea that God’s presence is to be found in an elevated place. We see this stated in a number of psalms. The author of Psalm 24 asks: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?” (Psalms 24:3; HCSB). These questions relate to Mount Zion in Jerusalem. But long before the Israelites arrived in the promised land from Egypt, they looked forward to dwelling with God on his holy mountain. When they celebrated God’s victory over Pharaoh’s army, they sang to God: You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of Your possession; Lord, You have prepared the place for Your dwelling; Lord, Your hands have established the sanctuary. (Exodus 15:17; HCSB). And before they get to Mount Zion, they meet God at Mount Sinai, an event that both anticipates and prepares for their living on God’s holy mountain in the promised land. While these examples are all taken from the Old Testament, it is also worth observing that in the book of Revelation New Jerusalem is also associated with a mountain. The apostle John describes how an angel carried him in the spirit ‘to a great and high mountain’ to see the holy city, Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10).
Moore: What are a few things that you hope your readers will gain from your book?
Alexander: There are many different things which I hope readers will gain. I hope that the book will give them a vision of the big picture, enabling them to see how God has been at work in our world from creation to the present day. I hope that they will see how the whole Bible comes together in a remarkable way around the concept of God’s holy city. I hope that it will encourage them to live in this world as faithful citizens of the world to come. I hope that it will focus their thoughts on Jesus Christ as the one who sanctifies us so that we may dwell eternally on God’s holy mountain. I hope that readers will be persuaded to look forward confidently to a future life in a remarkable garden-city on a renewed earth, where God will dwell in all his glory and majesty. I hope that it will inspire within them a greater confidence to echo the words of John Newton in heartfelt praise to God: ‘Solid joys and lasting treasure, None but Zion’s children know.’