Part 1: The Literary and Historical Nature of Chronicles
Someone had to do it. Chronicles is one of the last bastions of unexplored biblical territory. It has been lurking on the edges of the canon for thousands of years. Being ever the contrarian, I will deal with it.
Why this historical lack of interest in a biblical book? Besides being one of the last Old Testament books written or compiled, it’s title is off-putting: it is sepher hay-yammim in Hebrew, or “Day Book,” or “Chronicles of the days,” suggesting royal archives of inconsequential stuff. The title in the Septuagint is even worse: there, it is paraleipomenon, “Things Omitted,” presumably addenda of stuff left out of Samuel and Kings. It has not been considered a primary sourcebook for either the history or the theology of ancient Israel, and until recent years, scholars have relegated it to the extreme sidelines of biblical inquiry.
This characterization is unfair. Chronicles is one of the most fun, and inspiring, books of the Bible. It nonchalantly re-writes the gloomy history of Samuel and Kings with songs, and joy, and levitical singers destroying the enemy with the force of their singing. It takes an idolatrous king, Solomon, and makes him the model for all the kings which came after. It blithely skips over the most egregious of David’s sins, while retaining the narrative framework surrounding those sins. It singlehandedly erases the history of the northern kingdom of Israel, reducing it to a few footnotes, bare mentions, in the overwhelmingly important history of the kingdom of Judah. Most importantly, Chronicles re-writes history only tangentially as it happened, but more importantly as it should have happened. The Chronicler is a preacher, and he is writing a preacher’s history. He intends to inspire a downtrodden and depressed post-exilic community with stories of the past, with the singular intent to instill trust in God’s covenant promises for the future. The Chronicler was the banner-bearer of post-exilic messianism.
In this post, I am going to look at the Chronicler as a historian. In the next blog, I will look at his literary method.
The Chronicler as a Historian
The first and most obvious way to look at the books of Chronicles is as a history. Whatever else the Chronicler is, he is first and foremost a historian. The question is not whether the Chronicler is a historian, but what kind of history he is writing.
No sooner do we look at the book of Chronicles as a history, however, when we perceive that it is a rather strange history, indeed. First of all, the first nine chapters of the book are exceedingly dull (from our standpoint) genealogies, which on the surface have little to do with the narratives that follow. Second, 1/2 of Chronicles is word-for-word from Samuel and Kings, suggesting to many that the characterization of the LXX, “Things Omitted,” is not far off the mark. Third, 2/3 of Chronicles is taken up with the reign of exactly two kings, David and Solomon, and the last third is the other 20 of them, the “and so forth” section. Fourth, most mention of the northern Kingdom of Israel has been left out, for they are of no consequence to the Chronicler’s historical method. Finally, the Chronicler is heavily evaluative of all of the kings of Judah, more so than the Deuteronomist: he ignores the sins of some kings, while focussing on the foibles and pitfalls of others.
It has become commonplace for many to deemphasize the Chronicler as a historian and focus attention upon the Chronicler as a theologian and an exegete. The Chronicler is an interpreter of Samuel and Kings; he is also a theologian of more than modest skill. But, as with all historians, he is a collector, an organizer, and evaluator of the events of the past from the standpoint of the present. “How did we get where we are, and what lessons from the past may we learn for the present?” the Chronicler asks. But more than this, the Chronicler selects and interprets events of the past which help him make his case for his present, post-Exilic community.
Let us look briefly at the Chronicler’s principle of selection. The first and most obvious is his almost complete omission of the history of the northern kingdom. One sees this even in the genealogies of chapters 1–9. The Chronicler is re-telling the history of Judah. He begins with creation, then moves quickly through some of the genealogies of Genesis, mentions the twelve sons of Jacob, but then focusses the majority of his attention on Judah and Levi, the predominant remainder of the tribes of Israel left in the post-exilic era. Chapter three specifically deals with the genealogy of David and the Davidic line, down until about 400 B. C. The overwhelming sense one should get from this is that God is not finished with the Davidic covenant and the line of David yet. The other focus in the genealogical section is upon the tribe of Levi and the line of the priests. Even in the genealogies, the Chronicler tips his hand: like Jeremiah 31-33, he is dealing with God’s “two chosen families,” Aaron and David, and he holds out the promises to David and Aaron as still in effect and constitutive of faith in the post-Exilic era.
The Chronicler is writing about kingship and temple, so the narratives begin with the death of Saul and the choice of David in chapter 10, and the story ends with the demise of kingship in the exile. The entire book deals with Judean kings, and how they measured up to the covenant with David dealing with righteous rule and temple worship, and also the covenant at Sinai. Because of many who thought of Chronicles as the introductory book to Ezra and Nehemiah, and those latter books having no concern with Davidic kingship, it was assumed for much of the 20th century that Chronicles also shared the same concerns. It was a book about priestly duties and concerns only. With a new appreciation for the theological point of view of Chronicles as an independent work, his concern with both elements of the covenant with David—kingship and temple—has come more clearly into focus.
Another way in which the Chronicler shows his selection criteria deals with what parts of the accounts from his sources he wishes to relate. One of the best ways to read Chronicles is by looking at the synoptic history, Samuel and Kings. The historian of Samuel and Kings, often referred to as the Deuteronomist due to his dependence upon the theological perspective of the book of Deuteronomy, has no problem with reporting all of the sins of even the two paradigmatic kings, David and Solomon. The Chronicler, on the other hand, charges Solomon with not a singe sin, surprising in view of Solomon’s notorious idolatry, influenced by his many foreign wives, reported in some detail in 1 Kings 11. Likewise, David is presented as almost a two-dimensional cut-out hero. The sin with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah is completely left out of Chronicles, while the verses surrounding this in in 2 Samuel 11:1 and 12:26–31 are largely retained by the Chronicler. If not for the single sin of numbering the people, quoted from 2 Samuel 24 in 1 Chronicles 20, David would have no sin at all in the Chronicler’s history.
What is one to make of such heavy editorial selectivity of his sources? Why are David and Solomon virtually sinless in the Chronicler’s history? The Chronicler was certainly aware of the Deuteronomist’s history. This means he must have been aware of the serious sins of both monarchs, which the Deuteronomist is not shy about reporting. I think the answer to this question is in the Chronicler’s reason for compiling his history in the first place. Unlike the Deuteronomist, who lays the blame for much of Israel and Judah’s fate in exile on the kings, the Chronicler is not attempting to levy blame on the kings of Israel. His historical setting is far different from that of the Deuteronomist, who wrote in the middle of the exile of Judah. He is dealing with Judeans returned from exile, but having lost their independence, their worship, their king, and their temple. The Chronicler is concerned with how a depressed and depopulated Judah can be restored in the post-exilic age—king, temple, land, and worship. The key lies for the Chronicler in whether the Jews are willing to “seek the Lord.” The term “seek” (dāraš) occurs 38 times in Chronicles! The Chronicler’s history is built around this concept, and the narrative begins in chapter ten with it: Saul was rejected, and died, because he did not seek the Lord (10:14), but sought a medium (10:13). David, on the other hand, sought the Lord (13:3). David, the one who initiates proper kingship, and Solomon, the temple builder, seek the Lord and are blessed with long and prosperous reigns. The various other kings of Judah are evaluated on the basis of the extent to which they “sought the Lord.”
The application to the post-exilic age is, I think, clear. How can a devastated Judah be restored? How can kingship, land, and temple worship be restored? If the people of Judah seek the lord like David and Solomon did, God will once again bless them and restore them to their former glory.