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The Problem with Literalism: Chronicles (3)

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September 21, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
The Problem with Literalism: Chronicles (3)

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

Last week we looked at two examples where the Chronicler’s portrayal of Israel’s monarchy is significantly different from what is recorded in Samuel/Kings: his exclusive focus on the southern kingdom of Judah and the transfer of power from David to Solomon.

These examples show that these two historians have very different reasons for writing their histories. The writer of Samuel/Kings is focused on why first the northern kingdom was taken captive by the Assyrians (722 B.C.) and then the southern kingdom by the Babylonians (586 B.C.) The Chronicler’s focus is on the returning southern kingdom and their future as the people of God. These differing purposes account for why the history is told differently.

Although there are many more differences, this week I want to look at one final difference in particular and make a concluding comment in the Chronicler’s “messianic expectation.”

The Importance of the Temple

As we saw last week, the Chronicler omits the failings of Solomon in order to present him as a model for the kind of ideal king the postexilic Israelites are yearning for. They are looking for someone who, unlike the pre-exilic kings—is fully faithful to God and leads the people in obedience.

The Chronicler omits other things about Solomon, not just his failings. He minimizes Solomon’s kingly role and focuses on his role in Israel’s worship, especially Solomon’s wisdom to build the temple.

The temple is the topic in 1 Kings for only four chapters (5-8). In Chronicles, the temple covers fifteen chapters, 1 Chronicles 22-2 Chronicles 7. Those chapters add a lot of material that is unique to Chronicles and also omits a lot of what we see in 1 Kings.

1 Chronicles 22-29 is added material that is unique to Chronicles. These chapters give David a role in the temple building that is not seen in Samuel/Kings. Here David takes a hands-on approach to building the temple: he makes preparations (chapter 22), organizes the Levites, priests, and singers into groups (chapters 23-25), and even solicits donations (chapter 29).

Then in 2 Chronicles 1-9, which parallels 1 Kings 5-8 more closely, the Chronicler omits those parts of 1 Kings that focus on Solomon’s kingly role: the establishment of his throne (1 Kings 2); his wise decision concerning the prostitutes (3:16-28); the list of officials and governors (4:1-19); Solomon’s daily provisions (4:20-27); extolling Solomon’s wisdom (4:29-34); the building of Solomon’s palace (7:1-12).

Clearly, the Chronicler is very interested in David and Solomon’s role in the temple specifically, not so much in their kingly duties.

False worship was a huge factor in the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. and in sending Israel into exile. Proper temple observance, led by faithful kings, will be the key to postexilic Israel’s continued status as God’s people. David and Solomon’s role in the temple in Chronicles serves as a model for Israel’s postexilic rejuvenation.

This is the hope that is both taken up and fully transformed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Chronicles, Jesus, and the Messianic Hope

Chronicles looks to the past to give hope for the future. The postexilic Israelites were yearning for a king to rule and guide them as the people of God. They were through with kings who had a half-hearted love of God, the kind of kingship that helped land them in Babylonian exile to begin with. They wanted a new kind of king, one who fits the ideal picture of what a king of Israel should really be like. This is why the Chronicler portrays the reigns of David and Solomon the way he does: to speak to that future hope.

To put this another way, Chronicles is a highly messianic book. In fact, perhaps no book in the Old Testament has more of an explicit messianic focus.

“Messiah” for Old Testament Israelites simply meant “anointed.” Kings were anointed, literally with oil, to rule Israel (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:1; 16:3; 1 Kings 1:34; 19:15-16). Technically speaking, all kings were by definition “messiahs.”

When we speak of a “messianic hope” in the Old Testament, it is a hope for an “anointed one,” a king descended the previous kings, but who will “get it right.” For Chronicles, that means a king who will honor temple worship, follow the law, teach the people to do likewise, and be God’s instrument for reestablishing Israel’s national glory among the nations.

The Chronicler likely wrote no earlier than the late fifth century B.C., during the Persian period when there was an optimism that God would set things right fairly soon. But Persian rule gave way to Greek rule, and then eventually to Roman rule. Israel was a servant to the nations rather than being a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). As long as this situation remained, Israel could not really be “Israel.” They were not able to fulfill their mission to the world. The realization of their messianic hope remained unfulfilled even 500 years after they had returned to the land (539 B.C.) and rebuilt their temple (516 B.C.).

In Jesus’ day, the messianic hope still shone bright. In fact, “messiahs” were popping up left and right, and they all were after the same thing: reestablishing Jewish faithfulness to the law, to the sanctity of temple worship, and gaining independence from the Romans. These messiahs would turn up with a following, holding a torah in one hand and a sword in the other. All were trying to bring about what we see in seed form in Chronicles.

This messianic expectation is the context of Jesus’ coming, and what does he do? Not what his followers expected. Even his disciples expected Jesus to march into Jerusalem to take his seat on the throne (and they wanted their piece of that pie, too!, see Mark 10:35-45). Judas eventually betrayed Jesus because Jesus’ messianic movement was not what he had signed up for.

Jesus did not preach maintaining the Jewish law; he gave a new law that exceeded it (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). Jesus did not uphold temple worship; he criticized it and declared that he was the temple (John 2:12-25). Jesus did not march into Jerusalem to grasp the power of an earthly throne; his kingdom was not of power but of service, even self-sacrifice (Matthew 20:20-28), a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36).

Jesus did not fulfill the messianic expectation of Chronicles; he transformed it. Jesus is the new king in the line of David and Solomon. He is not like the kings of Samuel/Kings. He is not even like the idealized king of Chronicles. Jesus further reshapes Israel’s notion of what their king should be. He fulfills the ideal, but beyond expectation.

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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merv - #31240

September 21st 2010

I am almost to Chronicles in my regular Bible reading.  Now I can’t wait to get there—- thanks!

Going in knowing I’ll have nine chapters of genealogies to wade through .... thanks for that ‘heads-up’ reminder as well.  I wasn’t aware of any of these nuances last time I read these books.


conrad - #31242

September 21st 2010

That is a very good blog.

davey - #31245

September 21st 2010

One might wonder, then, if those who wrote Chronicles would have recognised Jesus as the fulfilment of what they wrote. They might well have called for his crucifixion along with the rest as a misleader of the people.

merv - #31256

September 21st 2010

Davey, it seems a safe bet that they would NOT have recognized him (along with 99% of their countrymen who indeed did miss it when Jesus was around.)

Since even Jesus own disciples had to be stubbornly (and repeatedly ) drug to the conclusion of just what kind of Messiah Jesus was (and wasn’t), I think it safe to say he caught everybody by surprise, and it is only in retrospect that Paul or Thomas, or you & I can now connect the dots (that had to be connected for us by Jesus and then his earliest followers.)  To say it should have been obvious for them is like saying it should have been obvious for pre-Copernicus folks that the earth moves around the sun.


DWD - #31273

September 21st 2010

I know Jesus was a good Jew, keeping all the usual observances and worshipping in the Temple, but I always like to think about how his actions went against both the expectations of the general populace as well as those who set the religious standards, like the scribes and Pharisees. Contrary to what evolutionary programming would lead you to expect, Jesus didn’t seek power, security, recognition, success for his “tribe,” or even family - instead he spent his life serving others, and he met hate and injustice with complete vulnerability.  It’s like he overcame the limitations of his own humanity when he did not succumb to temptation by his adversary, and especially, when he submitted to the Cross. Though I believe we humans are products of evolution, I think God has always intended us to grow toward Christlikeness, and God has given us both his example and his grace to enable us to do so.

Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa - #31283

September 21st 2010

I think that one of the reasons why the Chronicler focuses so much in the Temple is because the priests who composed the books of Chronicles were from the South, whose center was precisely the Temple.

I do follow Richard Elliot Friednman’s theory that the books of Samuel and Kings were composed by the priests of the North (Shilo priests).  They wrote the Deuteronomistic tradition, which happens to include also the books of Samuel and Kings.  Since they are priests of the North, they are not so focused on the Temple.

The priests of the South (in Jerusalem), did give the Temple great importance, especially the rituals.  Notice that they place a lot of emphasis on the Levites, whose emphasis is not made in Samuel and Kings.

Derek Leman - #31298

September 22nd 2010

Hmm, enjoying the series, but “Jesus did not uphold the Law”? And “Jesus did not uphold Temple worship”? That is a surprisingly conventional view for you. I’d expect you to be more aware of the complexity of Jesus’ stance on Judaism. Meanwhile, zeal for his Father’s house consumed him, we read in Jn 2. And don’t swear by the Temple, it is holy, says Mt 23. And reading the Sermon on the Mount as overturning, rather than intensifying, Torah seems short-sighted.

The fact that Paul’s gospel to non-Jews is law-free (with regard to identity markers like circumcision) has led to confusion just such as these statements you made. But would the Son really disagree with the Father the way you are suggesting and supersessionist theologies have suggested throughout church history?

Derek Leman

DWD - #31301

September 22nd 2010

Derek, how the Gospels and Paul describe Jesus’ relationship with the Law and the Temple is one of those areas in which there is “tension” between two viewpoints. Jesus comes to fulfill the spirit of the Law and does not wish to disturb even a “jot or tittle” of it, yet holds many of its precepts lightly, such as working on the Sabbath and eating with sinners. He preaches in the synagogue, keeps Passover and worships in the Temple, yet declares himself to be the true Temple and blasts the Pharisees who debate the letter of the Law in every aspect of Jewish life.
Though I believe Jesus himself had a consistent attitude toward the Law and the Temple, what has been recorded about his words and actions often seems contradictory and does require a lot of interpretation. I don’t think Jesus’ character is fully revealed in the Bible, leaving us to dig and ponder to get the best possible understanding of the message. Perhaps God intended it that way? What do you think?

conrad - #31304

September 22nd 2010

Reconciliation and cooperation are necessary in a human race that has “eaten from the tree of knowledge”.
A lone human cannot survive because survival dependent on ever more complex projects that require multiple humans working together.

Jews and Romans really needed each other.
The Romans provided sinew and muscle and the Jews could have provided better plans.
They did not cooperate and both nations fell.
If the advice ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”... had been heeded their world would have been better.

Don Johnson - #31353

September 22nd 2010

On Jesus and Torah, Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew.  If he would have contradicted ANYTHING in Torah, he would have shown himself to be a false prophet and therefore could not be a messiah let alone THE Messiah; this is why the Pharisees were trying to trick him up, so they could ignore him once he flunked keeping Torah, but he NEVER did, and if you think he did, this is a clear clue that you are misunderstanding something.

Eating with sinners was not forbidden in the Torah, but was certainly frowned on by the so-called ORAL Torah of the Pharisees.  He does on the Sabbath exactly what the Father continues to do on the Sabbath, so again he does not contradict Torah, but might be seen by some Pharisees back then as contradicting THEIR “oral” Torah.

HornSpiel - #31404

September 22nd 2010

Thank you for this post. Although it does not touch directly on the relationship between science and Christian faith, it does teach us how to think about Scripture.

It is a common belief among evangelicals that a high view of Scripture requires denying that it records a human perspective of events and affirming it is divinely objective. What that subtly teaches is that God thinks the way we do—-God puts his cachet on our straight-forward interpretation.

However, equally pernicious temptation is to think an extensively researched and nuanced interpretation must be the proper view. Pride is the .ultimate sin.

Just a few musings.

Pete Enns - #31488

September 23rd 2010


Thanks for your comment. Let me suggest one thing, vis-a-vis your first paragraph: how to think about Scripture overall is crucial to how one approaches the science/faith discussion. Hence, a series like this one. Scripture’s own categories of engagement are not as tame as some make them out to be.

hashavyahu - #31527

September 23rd 2010

This had been a really helpful series.  I understand why Dr. Enns decided to do it this way since he was seeking to present digestible examples to lay readers, but it is worth pointing out that to a large extent, Dr. Enns’s is pitching soft balls here.  There are other aspects of Chronicle’s presentation of history that are irreconcilably at odds with other presentations of the same history elsewhere in the OT.  One prominent example is the distinction between priests and levites, which appears in Chronicles, Ezekiel, and the Priestly source of the Pentateuch, but does not exist in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history.  Along with this, the history of the centralization of worship, which begins with the Solomonic temple in the Deuteronomistic history, begins with the tabernacle in P and Chronicles.  As far as I can tell, these differences cannot be subsumed under the concept of “messianic history,” which is probably why Dr. Enns did not mention them.  But the material point remains: if you take Chronicles and P literally about the history of Israelite worship, you cannot take Deuteronomy and Sam-Kings literally and vice versa.

John Anngeister - #31547

September 23rd 2010

Pete, thanks for opening up this view of the two Davids, and the Chronicler’s aims with his idealized David.  The evidence that many who took literally the messianic idealism of Chronicles missed the point of the incarnation is I think very significant.

I found your series through Daniel Kirk’s blog (cited by you elsewhere), where he is also treating problems of inerrancy and history.  I have linked to your post from my own little blog where I am approaching the problem from a slightly different angle.

It appears to me that the inerrancy principle obstructed the god-given thought processes of the pre-Christian eschatology schools of Judaism.  Both history and revelation indicate that those popular works failed God and the people by placing an unreal trust in their canonical scriptures for infallible guidance as to the future king.  The truth was ‘flying under the radar’ of scripture inerrancy, and the visions of the apocalyptic men only contributed to ‘setting up’ Jesus for rejection in many minds.

Jeff - #31556

September 23rd 2010

I am not a literalist nor in any way in disagreement with your general interpretation of the point & message of Chronicles relative to Samuel-Kings. But, I find this protesting too much.

Later you point out, in one of the responses:  “Scripture’s own categories of engagement are not as tame as some make them out to be.”

Agree wholeheartedly here. However, one might state the opposite. “Scriptures categories of engagement are not as severely contradictory as you are making them out to be.”

Sure, there are “contradictions.” But, these are not insurmountable unless one has such a wooden reading of Scripture as to make it ridiculous. But, even most would-be “literalists” - in fairness to them - would not be that extreme. I guess if we are worried about 5 guys in a rural corner of northeast Alabama - okay.

Seeing in these passages a basic harmony with just a different emphasis & remaining consistent historically, is logically viable & exegetically sound. And, there is nothing wrong with expecting theological history to be generally consistent (they are different witnesses, with different agendas, yes, but still generally consistent).

There seems to be a bent to insist on contradictions that are not that problematic.

John VanZwieten - #31561

September 23rd 2010


I think part of what Pete is saying that any attempt to “overcome” differences in the passages would itself be unfaithful to what the text itself is saying.  Certainly Pete is not saying “because there are differences or even ‘contradictions’ you can’t rely on scripture”—as some might say. 

Rather he is saying, “pay attention to the differences; they help us understand the point of the scripture passage (which is of course not to be a newspaper account of events).”

Pete Enns - #31621

September 23rd 2010

In the abstract, we can discuss all manner of possibilities. But when studying the Chronicler in detail and in depth, most scholars (including most evangelical ones) have drawn certain conclusions. No one is “making these things out” to be anything. Evidence is being assessed and explanations are offered. The ones that account for the data best tend to take on life. Those those don’t fade away. The Chronicler a a creative, theologically driven historian who departs significantly from Samuel/Kings to the extent that the events they describe cannot be harmonized is an explanation that is very, very hard to deny.

hashavyahu, you speak truth.

Robert Byers - #31667

September 24th 2010

Pete Enns.
you seem to be trying to say these books are not from Gods hand and wrongish and so likewise genesis.
First these are from Gods insight and the humans mere copiers.
They were not written in the persian perioud hundreds of years later. Thats old bible denying criticisms from the 18800’s.
There are two accounts because they are about two different peoples after the split.
it could only be this way.
There are no contradictions but merely higher attempts to describe motives and actions and so conclusions on future events.
Its exactly as it would be if both stories of different peoples is important.

John VanZwieten - #31698

September 24th 2010

Robert Byers wrote:

First these are from Gods insight and the humans mere copiers.

This is an extreme and unorthodox view of biblical inspiration.

Bryan Hodge - #32128

September 27th 2010

“There are other aspects of Chronicle’s presentation of history that are irreconcilably at odds with other presentations of the same history elsewhere in the OT.”

I think we need to be careful with our language here. The presentations of history are completely reconcilable because their presentations are theological/ideological. The literalistic reading of these presentations as corresponding to the historical events as they took place in detail would render the accounts irreconcilable. I know that’s what you probably meant, but many reading here might miss your meaning (if that is what you meant).

“the history of the centralization of worship, which begins with the Solomonic temple in the Deuteronomistic history, begins with the tabernacle in P and Chronicles.”

I’d probably dispute this statement. In Joshua we see Israel going off to kill the Transjordanian tribes for building what they think is an altar as an alternate place of worship, and Deuteronomy 4 itself argues against worshiping God apart from the presence of the law as it was represented on Sinai, which is the event that the temple recreates. I don’t think there is a conflict in theology here, which is a different debate than the historical one.

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