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.

Notes

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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Pete Enns - #30018

September 14th 2010

Folks,

Thanks so much to all of you for your thoughtful comments and questions. Some of them I have addressed, at least in principle, in earlier posts (i.e., the incarnational analogy) and my essay on an incarnational model of Scripture. I will also get to some of these issues, at least in some sense, later in this series.

But for now, take this for what it’s worth: let Scripture be. Just watch how it behaves. Don’t defend it. Don’t judge new ideas by how well they fit into existing points of view, no matter how dearly held, for Scripture itself may force you to think differently. Don’t feel all issues have to be resolved as soon as they are raised. Sit with the discomfort for a while and you may find doors opening for you to much better places.


Chris Massey - #30019

September 14th 2010

Bryan,

I think you’re sweeping the difficulty under the rug by simply describing it as “using human language”. No doubt, to communicate with humans, God must use their language and will mostly likely talk in concepts, idioms, themes familiar to them. That’s not the issue I wrestle with.

My concern arises when the texts seem to be not just talking in human ways, but doing very human things. For example, in the present discussion, it seems a very human thing to do to smooth over the unsightly aspects of a nation’s history to foster a new national identity (as Americans do with their founding fathers). I’m not saying God wouldn’t do this, but it makes me wonder when other OT texts also seem very human and even harder to justify. For instance, exulting in the thought of an enemy’s babies being killed,  or giving rules about how to take captive women as forced sexual partners.

If God accommodates so much that the texts wind up reflecting not just ANE language, but also ANE morality and motivations, how does one distinguish inspired texts from merely human texts?


Scott Jorgenson - #30020

September 14th 2010

Chris Massey, my feelings too.  You’ve put your thumb on the main reason why I no longer hold to an evangelical doctrine of inspiration.  (By “evangelical doctrine of inspiration” I mean the idea that God is involved directly in the production of the words of scripture in some sense - either as an author/dictator, or editor/supervisor, or reviewer/approver, or original teller of a message the biblical authors retold, or etc.)

Check out neo-orthodox views on inspiration instead.  For example, I now see scripture as human witness to the progressive unveiling of God, as experienced and understood by various communities of his people at various times and contexts.  Scripture is then inspired by God in the sense of being our written connection to that original unveiling, such that what it witnesses to, works inspirationally within us.

Think of a painting or photograph of a beautiful sunset from a mountaintop.  The human work of art is inspired in the sense that the majestic scene it represents is a work of God in which we find inspiration, conveyed to us through the work of art.  Maybe that’s a poor analogy, but it helps me, a layman in these things.


Chris Massey - #30022

September 14th 2010

Pete,

Thanks for the words of encouragement.
I’m learning to be patient with my discomfort. I could be here a while.


Karl A - #30049

September 14th 2010

Enjoyed the post.  This is all certainly thought-provoking.  BTW, the post refers to a sidebar that isn’t there.


Bryan Hodge - #30050

September 14th 2010

“I think you’re sweeping the difficulty under the rug by simply describing it as ‘using human language’. “

Of course, it’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I could easily say that I think your making rough what is smooth to fit your modern conventions of thought, but this is not the place to work all of that out. I was simply under the impression that you were addressing the post. The post is about what the biblical authors are doing, not whether they are agreeable to twentieth century sensibilities. The latter is a matter of one’s theology of God. Only when that theology conflicts with the Bible’s do we begin to argue that the biblical writers simply are doing what humans do in making ideological errors, etc. Once again, that’s for another time. My point, in line with the post, is simply that language cannot be divorced from what humans do, so we are left with God either communicating or not communicating. Which is better is a matter of personal opinion.


HornSpiel - #30057

September 14th 2010

pf - #29989,

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

I not not only admit but heartily agree—-except for that little word just.

>

I agree we are animals. I disagree that we are just animals. I agree the Bible is a human document. I disagree that it is just a human document.

Why not just write one accurate account? Again the little word just. It’s not as easy as you imply.
Who is to judge what is accurate, you? Could such a document be an actual product of the age in which it was written or an abnormality? Most importantly, would such an account convey the truth that God want us to know?

The Bible teaches us that what we can know about God is not obvious from simple observation. It takes at least faith and reflection. There is no just about it.


Paul D. - #30080

September 15th 2010

@pf

The chronicler never says “this book is the inspired word of the LORD”, and though Biblical inspiration is a common Christian doctrine, it is by no means a requirement for being a Christian. In fact, it foists upon the Bible a claim that the Bible’s authors themselves do not make.

God can use Chronicles to enlighten us. Same with the Book of Tobit or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. That doesn’t mean it has has to be considered Inspired Word™. You can believe either way.

Enns wrote: “But for now, take this for what it’s worth: let Scripture be. Just watch how it behaves. Don’t defend it. Don’t judge new ideas by how well they fit into existing points of view, no matter how dearly held, for Scripture itself may force you to think differently. Don’t feel all issues have to be resolved as soon as they are raised. Sit with the discomfort for a while and you may find doors opening for you to much better places.”

Best advice I ever heard.


John VanZwieten - #30102

September 15th 2010

Karl A,

The sidebar comes up (for me at least) when you mouseover “divided kingdom” here:

What Happened to the North?

Second Chronicles 10:1-36:23 deals with the period of the divided monarchy


Here’s the sidebar text if you can’t see it:
The nation of Israel was united from about 1050 B.C. to 930 B.C. under three kings: Saul, David, and then Solomon. After Solomon, festering political tensions erupted and the united nation split into two. The northern kingdom was made up of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and established its capital in Samaria. In 722 B.C. the Assyrians captured the northern kingdom and deported its population (see 2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom, made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin with its capital in Jerusalem, continued until the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. at the hands of the Babylonians (see 2 Kings 25). In 539 B.C. the southern kingdom was given permission by the Persian king Cyrus to return to the land, thus beginning the postexilic period.


nedbrek - #30125

September 15th 2010

Bryan Hodge (30015) “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.”

Ok, so you’re saying Crossan has gone to far in marking things as parable.  But what is the criteria?  I say very little is parable, Enns says some is parable, Crossan says it is all parable (he makes heavy reference to writings of the time, particularly Gnostics - although I disagree with his dating schemes).  I actually think Crossan is more consistent - if you’re going to toss things, toss it all.


beaglelady - #30128

September 15th 2010

if you’re going to toss things, toss it all.

Does that apply to you also, since you say that very little is parable, which would imply that some is parable?


nedbrek - #30133

September 15th 2010

The parables are identifiable from context.


b allen - #30140

September 15th 2010

Are they always or are some still on the table?


John VanZwieten - #30150

September 15th 2010

Nedbrek,

I don’t get where you find Dr. Enns calling anything in Chronicles a “parable.”  I don’t read that at all.


pf - #30156

September 15th 2010

Bryan Hodge, you said, “...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.”

That’s way too complicated to be logical. And you are mixing up means of communication with type of communication. God might speak to people in a language they understand. But there have been a million langauages, is there any logic behind the decision to choose Hebrew/Aramaic?

Yes, God could inspire people to use literary conventions, but that says nothing of the content. Two gospels record that the resurrected Jesus met his disciples first in Jerusalem and two record that he first met them in Galilee. You could praise God for inspiring people to write such vivid stories with wonderful themes, or wonder what logic is there to create stories with different sets of facts.

You said: “...the Bible is completely consistent, and your anthropological approach is nothing short of oblivious to what the various purposes of the books actually are.”


pf - #30157

September 15th 2010

Hodge,

You said: “...the Bible is completely consistent, and your anthropological approach is nothing short of oblivious to what the various purposes of the books actually are.”

I wasn’t aware I was using an anthropological approach, whatever that means. And I don’t think christians have any clue as to what the purposes of the books actually were. Christians believe that the Hebrew scriptures were written to point the way to Jesus, that the Hebrew covenant with God was just a pale imitation of the real narrative that the Jews have been superceded by gentiles who had faith in the trinitarian god. 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.


nedbrek - #30159

September 15th 2010

John VanZwieten (30150) “I don’t get where you find Dr. Enns calling anything in Chronicles a “parable.”  I don’t read that at all.”

Parable - an ahistorical story told to make a theological point.  If the story of Chronicles is not historical (consistent with history - I believe it is, but Enns is saying it has been intentionally altered to be a “distinct message”).


John VanZwieten - #30178

September 15th 2010

nedbrek,

Can you honestly not see the difference between a parable which has no basis in history, and the Chronicler presenting non-literalistic history?

I think part of your problem (and maybe it’s a common problem with literalismists) is that you don’t seem to have enough categories of story.  To you it must either be super-literal history, factual in every detail to present-day newspaper standards, or it’s “ahistorical.”


Bryan Hodge - #30195

September 15th 2010

“The parables are identifiable from context.”

I would argue the same for everything else; but context is literary, linguistic, historical, mythological, cosmological, etc., not just something explicit saying, “I’m going to tell you a parable now.”


Bryan Hodge - #30196

September 15th 2010

“But there have been a million langauages, is there any logic behind the decision to choose Hebrew/Aramaic?”

Sure, it’s the language the people group through which God decides to work speak. Sounds logical to me.

I think your understanding of language may be modern in that you view it as objective and empty, something that can be filled with whatever ideas one wishes to understand and express. Language is contingent upon culture and culture is made up of much much more than most moderns realize.

“Two gospels record that the resurrected Jesus met his disciples first in Jerusalem and two record that he first met them in Galilee. You could praise God for inspiring people to write such vivid stories with wonderful themes, or wonder what logic is there to create stories with different sets of facts.”

The problem you seem to be having is that you have the same fundamentalist view of Scripture that our more conservative interlocutors have. You seem to think that the Gospels are trying to tell you how many angels were present rather than something theological about the resurrection with the details subjugated to the theological or even literary purposes of the book. We need four Gospels for their theology, not their history.


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