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.