Farewell, For a While, to Chronicles

I’ve had the personal goal for a while, a pretty nerdy and distinctly Old Testament one, of reading through the entire Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) in its original languages. I began in 1998, at bible college in Queensland, Australia, when I took my first Hebrew subject. I expect to finish this year. I have about eight chapters to go – the final chapters of Ezekiel. I’m no high church guy, and I’m not deliriously excited to be about to read eight or nine chapters of temple dimensions, but amidst the detail I almost always find a gem or two, and I suppose this will be no different.

This morning, I finished 2 Chronicles.

A friend said to me at church two Sundays ago, “I’m reading Chronicles, but it’s hard to stay interested when I’ve just read Kings and I’m reading all of the same things over again!” Or words to that effect.

But in fact, if you begin to run the exercise of placing Chronicles passages side by side with their corresponding passages in the books of Samuel and Kings, the challenge moves from a lack of interest to almost too much. Because it’s very interesting what the writer/s of Chronicles do with their source material (including, it seems, Samuel/Kings in some form). For one thing, a set of very distinctive themes are highlighted, themes particular to Chronicles in contrast to Samuel/Kings. (This exercise works well for the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke, too.)

Oh, I read that good blog posts need pictures to keep people interested. I don’t have a picture of the books of Chronicles handy, so here’s a picture of the cold air outbreak that is going to leave snow on our home mountain in Melbourne by the morning:

Cold Outbreak Melbourne Tues 12-07-16

(Another life goal is to see it snow outside my front door – in Australia. It isn’t easy, you northern hemisphere people. We have to wait decades, even down here in the far south!)

Right, back to the task at hand! Here are some insights into what’s the same, and what’s different, when you compare these two OT histories:

1. Things You See in Chronicles that You’ve Seen Before

Chronicles is the great coming-together of nearly all the traditions we recognise from elsewhere in the OT:

  • a Priestly emphasis of an Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers kind, as well as leading roles in the history for priestly figures
  • a Deuteronomic tone and language as in Deuteronomy and in parts of Samuel & Kings
  • a Psalms tone emerging in songs and a focus on praise
  • History-writing motivations, naturally, as also represented in Samuel-Kings material
  • a Prophetic stream represented in the prominence of prophets and their role at times in turning the hand of the king. See the intervention of prophets in 2 Chron. 12:5-8 and 14:7-10, both without parallel in Kings.

2. Things That Come as a Surprise after Samuel-Kings

  • There’s no indication of the reign of Ish-Bosheth (or Chronicles’ own name, actually the original one, Esh-Baal, 1 Chron. 10:39) son of Saul, which lasts two chapters in 2 Samuel, from 2:8-4:7, and in time terms, 7 years and 6 months by the implication of David’s reign for that length of time in Hebron in 2 Sam. 5:5. I had wondered why no bible charts ever listed Esh-Baal’s name between Saul and David. It’s all down to Chronicles (as Wellhausen once noted – see p. 173 in the old W. Robertson Smith edition).
  • Any sense that the Babylonian conquerors of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar leave anyone living in the land (2 Chron. 36:20-21). This is another of those ideas whose source I had wondered about. OT scholars would talk about “the myth of the empty land”,  primarily in order to pooh-pooh it – that is, the idea that poast-Nebuchadnezzar, Judah was left completely empty. I thought they were setting up a straw man; where did anyone ever get the impression that there was no-one left in the land? Admittedly, 2 Kings 24:14-16 (in the defeat of Jehoiakim/Jehoiachin in 597 BC) and then 25:11-12 (for 586 BC) did make it sound like anyone important was deported, but then the explicit numbers in Jer. 52:28-30 are very modest, claiming only 4,600 deportees in all. Ah, but I guess a lot more people read 2 Chronicles 36 than Jeremiah 52, right?
  • Benjamin’s inclusion with Judah in many situations where Judah would have been mentioned alone in Kings. Historically, Benjamin was actually one area whose population apparently didn’t suffer drastic decline following the fall of Jerusalem in 586, and Mizpah, a town in that region, would act as the provincial capital thereafter (Jer. 40:6-10). So in the exilic and post-exilic milieu into which Chronicles was born, Benjamin was a bigger player than it had once been.
  • Numbers that in some cases already looked generous in Kings, e.g. for army ranks, become truly epic in Chronicles. Uzziah of Judah, for example, forms an army of 307,500 men in 2 Chron. 26:14, only imaginable if it was a militia scenario and military service was compulsory for virtually all able-bodied males. In another example, in the late conflict between Pekah of Israel (allied with the Arameans) and Ahaz of Judah, 2 Chron. 28:6 says, “In one day Pekah son of Remaliah killed a hundred and twenty thousand soldiers in Judah – because Judah had forsaken the LORD, the God of their ancestors.” By comparison, the notorious first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916 (if my trusty internet source is to be trusted), 20,000 British Empire soldiers died, with the aid of a lot of modern-era machine guns. Clearly there is something going on other than one-count-per-man going on in the use of numbers in Chronicles.

3. Observations and Conclusions

I believe that the relationship between historical events and their narration in biblical historical narratives can be described in terms of a feedback loop. I think of a pair of stars that share stellar material:

512px-Artist’s_impression_of_a_vampire_star_and_its_victim

(By ESO/M. Kornmesser/S.E. de Mink (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1230a/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The original events have a real and substantial contribution to the account, for a lot of reasons I won’t try to enunciate here. But in turn, the present concerns of the author and the situation of the target audience also have a strong influence and almost a kind of veto on the way the history is told. Like the two stars in the artist’s image, they feed off one another (bear with me here; I think in the image the big one is just pillaging the small one).

In the case of Chronicles, this is very strong. For instance, the writer is seeking to strongly authorize the (second) temple system in post-exilic Jerusalem including its personnel and programs, and so these feature very strongly in the Chronicles narrative in a way that legitimates them in their present society, not just as they were in the days of, say, Solomon.

So post-exilic concerns strongly shape historical retelling in the case of Chronicles, sometimes to an extent that we might not be comfortable with in a work of history today. But we mustn’t be surprise to find that different ages and cultures have different ways of doing things, must we?

Because this feedback process is quite complex, it is hard to identify where present narrator concerns stop and ancient events start. Of course, they mutually interpenetrate! We have limited resources for dividing historical detail from creative license, because we don’t know what unique information sources were available to the writers of Chronicles and not to the writers of Kings.

So I am quite wary of dismissing outright what I read in Chronicles, but sometimes, as I read these twin books, I thought, “I can hear the post-exilic community talking right there!”

What’s the spiritual value of the books for the spiritual reader? There is a praiseworthy occupation with the praise of God. There is a notable confidence in the power of God. There is a passion for the purity of obedience and worship. And, in a chronological step beyond Kings permitted by the unfolding of promise in exilic history, there is the long-awaited (though ultimately bitter-sweet) experience of restoration to the land of promise, showing that God does not enjoy punishing his people, nor prolong it endlessly, but loves it when they “turn and live” (Ezek. 18:32).

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