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The Problem with Literalism: Chronicles (2)

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September 14, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
The Problem with Literalism: Chronicles (2)

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Last week we looked at one example of how the author of Chronicles was moved by the spirit of God to report Nathan’s prophecy to David. Although both 1 Chronicles 7:14 and 2 Samuel 7:16 report the same speech event, the words that Nathan speaks in the two accounts are significantly different. The Chronicler reshapes the words of Nathan’s prophecy in order to communicate his inspired message: a word of divine comfort to the postexilic Israelites that they are still the people of God.

Nathan’s prophecy serves as an entryway to seeing more clearly the Chronicler’s overall message to his beleaguered audience. The Chronicler does more than just change the wording in some verses here and there. His message, which we began to see last week, shines through from beginning to end.

Chronicles and Samuel/Kings differ significantly in how they portray Israel’s monarchy as a whole. These two different accounts were not given to us by the Spirit of God in order for us to blur the distinctions and make the two into one. The distinct message of 1 and 2 Chronicles is God’s word to the postexilic Israelites. It is worthy of our full respect and attention.

To see more clearly the scope of Chronicler’s theological message, let’s look at two big- picture issues in Chronicles.

What Happened to the North?

Second Chronicles 10:1-36:23 deals with the period of the divided monarchy, where the nation of Israel was split into two halves, north and south, after Solomon’s reign. The Chronicler covers this time period in 27 chapters, compared to 36 chapters in Kings (1 Kings 12-2 Kings 25). Also, nearly half of what we read in Chronicles is not found in Kings. Those are facts. Now, how do we account for them?

The biggest reason for this difference is that the Chronicler essentially leaves out the entire history of the northern kingdom. Unlike Kings, where the author more or less alternates between northern and southern kings, the Chronicler is only concerned with the southern kingdom—often referred to as Judah in the Old Testament with its capital in Jerusalem.

When different people recount the same historical events, there will always be differences between them. No one expects Chronicles to follow Kings precisely. But we have to admit that leaving out half of Israel’s story of the monarchy is significant.

The reason why this author focuses almost exclusively on the southern kingdom is because his postexilic community was made up of Judahites. The northern kingdom had long been out of the picture (see sidebar above)

The nation of Israel is now the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah is the focus of Israel’s present and future hope, and keeping this in mind will help explain why the Chronicler presents the history of the monarchy so differently that what we find in Samuel/Kings. He does not report the past literally. He reports the past to say something of deep theological significance about Israel’s present and future.

David and Solomon Have No Troubles

One of the better-known differences between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings is how David and Solomon are portrayed ideal moral and kingly figures.1

Samuel/Kings portray David and Solomon as great kings, but these books are not shy about exposing their failings. In fact, it is their failings that help explain why Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. Explaining the “why” of the exile is the main message of Samuel/Kings. Solomon’s reign began well (see 1 Kings 1-10), but ended with trouble. He did not eliminate all of the pagan high places; he also instituted enforced labor and had numerous wives. Kings reports these failings but Chronicles does not.

Likewise, the Chronicler essentially ignores David’s failings–the most famous of which is his sin with Bathsheba.

The Chronicler is not merely giving us a different angle on David and Solomon’s reign. He is painting a very different theological portrait. He wrote a second history of Israel to portray David and Solomon as models of the nations present restoration in the postexilic period.

The Chronicler is not looking back to Israel’s past for its own sake, but is using the reshaped past to speak to the present and future. As Ray Dillard puts it,

…the Chronicler portrays [David and Solomon as] glorious, obedient, all-conquering figures who enjoy not only divine blessing but the total support of the people as well: he presents us not only with the David and Solomon of history, but also of the David and Solomon of his messianic expectation.2

A good place to see the distinctive message of Chronicler’s is to look at the transfer of power from David to Solomon. The two inspired biblical accounts tell significantly different stories. In 1 Kings 1-2, we see messy politics and strife: an aging, bed-ridden David, who is faced by internal political struggles (his son Adonijah’s attempt to seize the throne). David maintains control but only through the last-minute involvement of Nathan and Bathsheba. Solomon is anointed king by Nathan and Zadok (the priest) in a ceremony, but Solomon’s troubles continue: Adonijah did not give up easily his claim to the throne, and that rebellion had to be squelched after his anointing.

By contrast, the Chronicler portrays a wholly peaceful transition of power from David to Solomon (see 1 Chronicles 28-29). There is no strife, no intrigue, no competition. No longer feeble and bed-ridden, the Chronicler’s David essentially hands the throne over to Solomon smoothly in a public ceremony (David is not present in 1 Kings 1). There is no dissention at all. Solomon receives the support of all the people, including David’s other sons and even the officers, some of whom had sided with Adonijah in 1 Kings.

Again, these two accounts of Solomon’s succession are not two complimentary angles on one story, but two versions. The transition of power is utterly different. The two accounts are incompatible if we approach the Bible expecting historical accounts to provide no more or less than literal accuracy. “Literalism” cannot explain why these two accounts are so different.

Chronicles, although undeniably written as an account of history, is not a journalistic, objective, blow-by-blow account so his readers can know what happened back then. And he is certainly not writing to distort the past by white-washing it. The Chronicler is presenting an ideal David and Solomon to cast a vision for the future.

Chronicles is no less the word of God because of its reshaping of history to make this theological, pastoral, point. Rather, reshaping the past to speak to the present is precisely what this author was inspired to do.

We will look more next week at other ways that the Chronicler portrays David and Solomon and the grand vision he casts for the postexilic Israelites.


1. A useful evangelical source describing these differences in more detail is Raymond B. Dillard, 2 Chronicles (WBC 15; Word: Waco, 1987), 1-5.

2. Dillard, 2 Chronicles, 2.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Bryan Hodge - #30198

September 15th 2010

“The actual authors of the books would have been horrified at such thoughts, would have offered their lives to defend against such blasphemy. So if I am oblivious, so are Moses, Elijah David and all of their ilk.”

Let me know what else they think. I would love to find out if they like New Coke or Coke Classic. When you talk to them find out for me. Seriously, are you really suggesting that you know what they would have thought?

The central theme of the books of the Hebrew Bible are perfectly consistent with the NT gospel. They deal with God’s preservation of His people from chaos and death through His Word and King. I can’t really give a massive biblical theology here, but I don’t think your objection is as weighty as you might think. Of course, the authors of the Hebrew Bible most likely did not see God as Triune, but they also most likely did not see Him as forgiving a massive amount of the Gentile world either. Since the God of the OT is the God of the NT, I’m sure they were pleasantly surprised.

My point is simply that Christianity cannot be refuted by claiming inconsistency to the OT. You may not believe it, but we are not inconsistent for believing what we see as its fulfillment.

Bryan Hodge - #30204

September 15th 2010


Just to clarify. I don’t believe that what does not depict details is necessarily a parable. If I watch Braveheart, Mel Gibson has altered details to fit a message he wishes to convey. Movies do this all of the time with historical data. That does not mean that the movie is a parable. It just means that details are altered and added to convey something the director views as more important than passing on historical data.

pf - #30468

September 16th 2010

Bryan, if all the individual facts about a story are not true, then the story itself is probably not true. You believe the bible is telling true stories, you wouldn’t be a christian if you didn’t believe that Jesus did the things the gospels say he did.

Christian history is inextricably bound with its theology. Throw out the history, there is no theology. If you think the Hebrew bible and NT have consistent views, well, the mind boggles…

And saying I have a fundamentalist view of the scripture is idiotic, it’s a lazy and stupid way to dismiss an argument without responding to it. I’ll restrain myself from responding further in respect to our host.

Bryan Hodge - #30477

September 16th 2010

I think we disagree about what is considered biblical history. You seem to think the retelling of details of an event is history and I think the theological reconstruction of events to teach theology is the goal of the biblical accounts. I don’t divorce history from theology. I do reject ideas that suppose that historical details are the usual purpose of a biblical narrative. There simply is no necessary link between many details and theology. There is a cross and a resurrection. I can describe that theologically a thousand different ways. Its description does not need to correspond with the exact details as it took place. Once again, you don’t like being a fundamentalist in your view of Scripture, but sadly liberals take these very same ideas of history, theology, and the purpose of the biblical text. I’m sorry you feel that is a slam, as you probably don’t like those with whom you share your ideas. I’m simply identifying your belief system. It’s not just something I’ve identified as odd. Many scholars have noted that liberals and fundamentalists expect the same things from Scripture and completely misconstrue its purposes (see Enns, I&I 49). We should simply get our understanding of the Bible from what the Bible does.

Dunemeister - #30695

September 18th 2010

It should be pointed out that no interesting history is a mere chronology of “facts.” Every historian of whatever type selects historical details in order to tell another story. That story might be about the vanity of historians (War and Peace) or about the glories of a ruler (these usually justify or omit the terrible things they do). Whatever the purpose, the historian selects certain details and gives himself licence to creatively adapt the records to suit his purpose. That does NOT mean that they are not doing history, that their histories are unreliable or that history is impossible. It just means that selection—and therefore distortion—is an essential part of telling history.

phileasfogged - #31171

September 20th 2010


Chris from PBU…

I was just wondering if you think it’s plausible that the Chronicler and the way he writes can be likened to the ‘Q’ theory of the Gospels. The Chronicler has Samuel and Kings at his disposal and also other, undiscovered documents. For example, 1 Kings 22:45 says that ‘the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, and his power that he showed, and how he waged war, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?’ So there are other undiscovered sources out there that the Chronicler could have had to use to his liking.

With that being said, I think your approach to this Old Testament literature is thought provoking, and I believe that reading scripture literally 100% of the time can lead to some dangers. It is in our 21st century preconditioned mind to read the Bible literally 100% of the time. This seems to be the major issue regarding the inspiration/inerrancy debate.

No writer, whoever it is, whether writing history, fiction, or poetry, writes unbiased. Everyone is biased.

Thanks for giving us some commentary on the differences between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles.

Jeff - #31553

September 23rd 2010


Again, I think the case here is pushed too far. Yes, there are differences. Yes, the Chronicler had a different purpose. But, the point of Chronicles was to encourage a discouraged group of people. That’s all it is.

And, further, this does not mean there are logical contradictions. It is almost as if you are saying, “Aha, clear, blatant contradictions that cannot be harmonized.” I have no problem letting differences stand between texts - nor do most conservative evangelical scholars. But, the differences are not “contradictions” - they are easily explainable. The Chronicler emphasized the positive; the Samuel-Kings author wanted to emphasize another side - “why the nation went into captivity.” The omission is a theological construct but it is not a big deal nor does it take away from the historical reliability of the work.

I think you are making too much of these points here.

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