Tentative Thoughts on the Rationale of 1 Chronicles

Wow! How about that book of 1 Chronicles!!!

That’s something I don’t hear very often. Ever.

I’ve just about finished reading it in the Hebrew. More names than you can shake a stick at (is that an Australian expression?), and great for practising your Hebrew numbers, Hebrew students! 1 Chronicles 24-25 will make sure you know all your numbers from 1-24, and there are lots of other places where your numbers in the hundreds and thousands will be tested.

Having said that, it is not a book that attracts a lot of attention, and until recently would have been entirely left out of first-year Old Testament subjects.

I think I can tell a bit more now about how 1 Chronicles works.

  • It is important to keep its historical setting and focus in mind. 1 Chron. 9:2-34 makes its post-exilic setting clear. It is a ‘second temple’ book, and shares this focus with Ezra and Nehemiah. Though the idea is currently out of vogue, we can see why it was thought for a long time to share an author with those two books.
  • Genealogies are everywhere, reminding us that in the disorienting situation after the exile, it really mattered, firstly, to be able to prove that one was of genuine Israelite stock, and especially to prove one’s ancestry if you were claiming the right to function as a priest or Levite. Ezra 2:62-63 shows what happened when this could not be proved; one was disqualified from functioning in such a role. More than this, ancestry was the connection from a somewhat lean and mean post-exilic life to the one-time kingdoms of Judah and Israel. It was important, in other words, for community identity. Who are we? We are that Israel that once was, and we have the genes, or the genealogies, to prove it!
  • A phrase I kept noticing as I read was, ‘roʾšê hāʾābôt‘ (I’ve corrected this from the automatic output from transliterate.com, I hope correctly), meaning “family heads.” This exact expression occurs 8x in 1 Chronicles, more than any other OT book, including strategic places such as 1 Chron. 9:34, which looks to me like the end of the entire first block of the book. If we add to the search the term for ‘house(hold)’ to the terms for ‘father’ and for ‘head’, looking for phrases like ‘roʾšê bêt-hāʾābôt‘ (1 Chron 7:40), we find more than thirty occurrences in 1 Chronicles. Nearly all of the remaining uses of these terms in such combinations are found in 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, the book of Numbers, and interestingly, Exod 6:14, in the genealogy of Moses.
  • What do I make of that? I think that post-exilic Yehud (or ‘Judah’) was experiencing a degree of leadership power vacuum, and I think the family head figures who as elders had really pre-dated monarchic authority in Israel were probably needed once again. In 1 Chronicles they seem to divide authority and high profile in Yehud with priestly and Levitic figures. They had come out of the shade of a monarchic system and regained their importance.
  • But the ancient monarchy dominates 1 Chronicles! Chapters 11-29 are all about David, at first glance, and the Saul narrative in chapter 10 is just there to show why he was illegitimate in contrast to David’s legitimacy. That’s twenty chapters, then, lionizing David’s importance – for a reading community that had no king at all!
  • I notice, though, that David’s primary achievement according to 1 Chronicles 11-29 is to lay the groundwork, and Moses-like, to receive the divinely-given pattern for the temple and its procedures (1 Chron. 28:11-19). Solomon will build it, but it’s David’s temple, and it’s the clearest legacy of Israel’s monarchy in post-exilic Yehud. The temple and the priesthood mediate the monarchy, as it were, and represent a divine prototype. The temple is fully authorized by God. Perhaps the idea was even that the spiritual significance of the Davidic monarchy in pre-exilic Jerusalem had devolved onto the second temple. It was now God’s covenantal instrument within the new Israel, and like those of David’s generation, the current one should be really generous in their financial support (1 Chron 29:1-9; Ezra 2:68-69).

So 1 Chronicles functions on the basis of the correspondence principle that drives many OT books, as I feel more and more aware. The story it tells has a cast that is very relevant to its first audience. A long, arguably pretty creative and quite rose-coloured account of David’s reign is relevant because it offers authorization and functional precedents for a temple-centred community. The founding of the first temple is related for what it means for the second temple, centuries later. This principle can be witnessed again and again in the OT. For example, many of the emphases of the book of Deuteronomy, relating issues surrounding the first conquest of Canaan, seem to have one eye on issues of renewed life in the land after the exile. Compare also the similarity of the language in Joshua and Ezra.

But is it still relevant, 1 Chronicles that is? Well, I can understand why it isn’t studied as much as Psalms, for instance. It is not as immediately accessible to the non-Jewish Christian. But if the historical narratives in Samuel-Kings ought to be studied when we are thinking through our theology of political leadership (which should not be such an unfamiliar term), the corresponding narrative of events in Chronicles, with all its embedded lists and genealogies, can remind us that we also need a theology of worship. If the capitol building, or in Australia, a grassy mound with a parliament concealed underneath it like a grandiose hobbit-hole, is worth serious thinking, and if Christians ought above all to think about matters civic and political from a theological point of view, as if God actually exists and reigns, then the temple, or its New Testament equivalent, the (living, rather than architectural) church and its functions requires theological consideration too.

I have encouraged the pastor at our church to think about taking a Sunday or two to think about a theology of worship, and maybe it’s something that could afford to happen at yours too, no? If we are happy to assume that 1 Chronicles, for all its strong authorial flavouring, reflects the mind of God in some way, then maybe we should treat worship as though it matters, down to the finest detail.

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