The Problem with Literalism: Chronicles (2)

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September 14, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

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

The Problem with Literalism: Chronicles (2)

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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Paul D. - #29916

September 14th 2010

Thanks for the excellent article. The Bible seems far more interesting when you realize that the authors had bigger fish to fry than simply giving a literal account of history.

Bob R. - #29918

September 14th 2010

“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.”

I believe we call this revisionist history in today’s world. It also illustrates how the Biblical writers wrote history thematically, not as an attempt to provide a straightforward recitation of objective facts. Their purpose was not to be objective but to prophetically show how God intersects man’s history.

Why do so many folks insist on superimposing today’s historical standards on the Biblical text?

Bryan Hodge - #29921

September 14th 2010

I don’t know if you already recommended this book, Dr. Enns, but Abba BenDavid’s Parallels in the Bible published by Carta is a great resource if one can get a hold of it. I had a Hebrew Synoptics course back at Trinity and it was fascinating to see the differences (and similarities) between the Chronicler and the Deuteronomist. I think anyone who looks at the two texts side by side, seeing the differences in red, will have to conclude as you have here. It really opened my eyes to what the biblical writers were doing with history.

pf - #29938

September 14th 2010

Pete, good stuff. I agree with your point about how the authors of different books fitted the story to meet their agendas. But how can you acknowledge something so obvious and yet maintain that the books are “inspired?”

Because if what you are saying is right about the history—and I think it is—then that also would imply that god shared the author’s human agenda. It also would imply that god expects us to garner mysterious larger truth from partisan documents that contain false history. It makes no sense at all.

You can wax poetic about the mysteries and inspirations and wonder of the almighty, who is so good as to make us struggle to understand his majestic ways. Or you can just grasp the simple truth: the writings reflect the views and culture of the authors, and not some message from a deity.

HornSpiel - #29951

September 14th 2010

pf, I gather that you are a skeptic. You are welcome here, though for the most part this is a debate between people of faith.

You say it makes no sense that ... god expects us to garner mysterious larger truth from partisan documents that contain false history.

How about a parallel with our national history. We in the U.S. make out that our own founding fathers are greater than they really were. Think Washington and the cherry tree and or inspiring stories of the young Ben Franklin. Is this wrong? What is the point? For our nation to achieve a higher purpose we need to believe it was founded with a higher purpose. And it may well have been, despite the failings of our founders.

Or how about in my own life? I want to inspire others, especially my children. should I emphasize my failings, or do i emphasize how God has helped me, and intervened, and providentially guided me?

Is it not possible that the human writer shared God’s agenda? That God accommodated the telling of the story of Israel to natural human ways of inspiring a people? Not to tell them a lie, but to communicate a divine truth that is in danger of being lost in the human static.

Bryan Hodge - #29952

September 14th 2010


How exactly would a deity communicate to humans apart from the language that they speak? And by “language” I am including all of the genres, imagery, historical and cosmological understanding of the world, etc. What you seem to want the Bible to be is inspired without communicating to its audience, which is as much worthless as it would be uninspired.
In any case, the question of inspiration is not negated by what Dr. Enns, and most OT scholars within the evangelical camp, believe about its communicative purposes. They are not only compatible, but the most reasonable of all views concerning inspiration. I’m surprised you would suggest otherwise.

John VanZwieten - #29971

September 14th 2010

Dr. Enns,

Would you care to compare/contrast what you are presenting about Chronicles to the idea of “revisionist history?”

MF - #29973

September 14th 2010

Dr. Enns,

Do you view your analysis of Chronicles above as significantly differ from Richard Pratt’s in his commentary on Chronicles (e.g., here)?

nedbrek - #29976

September 14th 2010

Two issues:
1) I don’t see that a big a difference between the two accounts.
2) This is the same line of reasoning Crossan uses to discard Biblical doctrine (I mentioned this before, but lost the trail of it).  He presents the Gospels as “updated good news”, which gives him license to update it himself (of course, tossing out things like judgment and Hell, and focusing on his own branch of politics).

How is this different?  Is Crossan wrong, and why?

Bryan Hodge - #29979

September 14th 2010


1. I would suggest BenDavid’s book above. You will see the differences if you go through it, as well as looking at the overall literary purpose of the Chronicler as opposed to the Deuteronomist. Material is added and taken away, even though the Chronicler has the text of Sam-Kings in front of him, which becomes obvious when comparing them.

2. Crossan’s authority is within the religious experience of the believer and the community. Evangelicals see their authority in the Scripture. Hence, the Scripture is inspired, not the community or individual interpreter. Could not one simply answer by saying then that Crossan is not inspired, Chronicles is? Or in terms of the Gospels (Crossan is not inspired, the Gospel of Matthew is).

Rick - #29982

September 14th 2010

“Again, these two accounts of Solomon’s succession are not two complimentary angles on one story, but two versions.”

Not all agree with you. Some do see them as complimentary, just with the authors emphazing different aspects due to differeing purposes.

I don’t necessarily disagree with your overall point, but as some have already mentioned in this series, we need to be careful not to overstate a case.  Discussing the differences and purposes is helpful, but clearly they have been recognized for thousands of years- without causing much turmoil.

pf - #29989

September 14th 2010

Hornspiel, your point about our founding fathers is exactly what I am talking about. Legends about the founders have been invented, and we recognize them as stories that were invented in the sevice of tribalism. It’s the kind of thing humans have always done—glorify their leaders to make them feel better about their particular tribe.

Like the glorified story about George Washington and the cherry tree, ancient writers wrote glorified stories about king David and others. Both sets of myths were used to bolster tribal allegience.

Is it possible that the human writer shared god’s agenda? Anything is possible, of course. But I don’t see how inspiring humans to write books as confusing and contradictory as the bible would communicate a divine truth.

Why not just write one accurate account? You could say it is god’s mysterious way and who are we to question him, and besides if you squint and look it it sideways in 3D after rubbing eggs in your eyes the books technically don’t contradict themselves.

Or you could admit the simple truth, that the books just reflect the views and culture of the authors.

pf - #29990

September 14th 2010


how would a deity communicate to humans? Good question, since we have no evidence ever that any has done such a thing. And “the bible says it” isn’t evidence. If you believe that celestial beings mated with gods as it says in Genesis, then you have no reason to doubt other ancient stories about divine beings on earth.

“What you seem to want the Bible to be is inspired without communicating to its audience, which is as much worthless as it would be uninspired. ” What I want is not important, but my point is that the bible would be much more credible if it told a consistent story.

nedbrek - #29991

September 14th 2010

Bryan Hodge (29979) “I would suggest BenDavid’s book above.”

I don’t see it at my library.  Is there a summary somewhere?

“2. Crossan’s authority is within the religious experience of the believer and the community. Evangelicals see their authority in the Scripture. Hence, the Scripture is inspired, not the community or individual interpreter. Could not one simply answer by saying then that Crossan is not inspired, Chronicles is? Or in terms of the Gospels (Crossan is not inspired, the Gospel of Matthew is).”

Crossan says that the (inspired) Gospel writers do not tell play-by-play history - same as Enns says for Genesis and Kings/Chronicles (also claiming a similar sort of inspiration).  This allows them (Enns and Crossan) to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take as true facts, and which to dismiss as mythology/culture/science of the time and supplant with modern thinking.

John VanZwieten - #29996

September 14th 2010

This allows them (Enns and Crossan) to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take as true facts, and which to dismiss as mythology/culture/science of the time and supplant with modern thinking.

Did you think that thought with your heart, or with your head?  If the latter, then you pick and choose as well.

beaglelady - #30003

September 14th 2010

Why not just write one accurate account?

Because readers in different times and cultures decode accounts in very different ways.

e.g. The 23rd Psalm assumes some knowledge of a pastoral lifestyle; otherwise it is nonsensical.

And we have different standards of journalistic accountability.  We don’t consider Matthew and Luke to be plagiarists.

Chris Massey - #30004

September 14th 2010


It definitely makes sense to me that a post-exilic author would want to focus on the good in an effort to rebuild national identity. And politically, I can understand why Judeans would ignore the history of the northern kingdom, given the schism with Samaria and the Judean rejection of Samaritan claims of Jewish ancestry.

But I’m less comfortable with the idea of ascribing these motives to God. I accept that God could inspire an author to write history in a non-factual way to achieve a certain goal. But it seems that as we move through the OT, God is accommodating all over the place. He accommodates his origins account to ANE cosmology in Genesis. He accommodates his history to the political goals of the post-exilic Judean community in Chronicles. He accommodates his moral principles to the slavery-accepting, sexist norms of the ANE in Leviticus. He accommodates his principles of justice to the need for a national (genocidal) war hero in Joshua.

The accommodation always seems suspiciously consistent with the errant ideas or motives of the human authors.

I want to believe these texts are inspired. But after a while, it just seems like so much special pleading to salvage the doctrine of inspiration. Help me out here.

Bryan Hodge - #30014

September 14th 2010


I don’t think you understand my point. My point is how a being that is outside of culture, and therefore language that is based in culture, can communicate to that group without using their language. I’m simply trying to point out your suggestion as absurd. You want to make this into a polemic, but I am simply saying that the most logical approach to inspiration is one that understands God as using human language, and therefore cosmology, history, tradition, legend, imagery, genre, etc., in order to communicate. In this, the Bible is completely consistent, and your anthropological approach is nothing short of oblivious to what the various purposes of the books actually are. In fact, these books often degrade Israel and their leaders for poor theology and behavior rather than glorify it/them. Either way, your objection falls flat, being the non sequitur that it is.

Bryan Hodge - #30015

September 14th 2010


I can’t speak for Dr. Enns, but I am pretty sure he’s not neo-orthodox in this thinking. Crossan is neo-orthodox. The difference between Crossan’s uber Bultmannian approach and the one suggested here is that it takes the historical data, usually that which is in agreement with other texts, and understands it as history rather than parable. Crossan’s problem is that it’s almost all a parable to him; but Dr. Enns’s approach, as far as I can tell, and what I would also say, is that where the referents are being described figuratively, they are not to be taken as concrete descriptions. Where they are described concretely, they are to be taken as such. That’s not Crossan’s hermeneutic.

BenDavid isn’t a book that can be summarized, as it doesn’t really argue anything explicitly. It is the Hebrew text of Sam-Kings put side by side with Chronicles and all variations or additions are in red ink, the omissions are simply shown in spaces.

Bryan Hodge - #30016

September 14th 2010


My question would also go to you: How does God communicate without accommodation all over the place? The point one uses language is the point at which accommodation takes place, so if the Bible uses language, it’s always accommodation. The issue is whether what is intended to be communicated is accomplished sufficiently.

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