The Problem with Literalism: The Books of Chronicles (1)
Last week I suggested that we take some time looking at 1 and 2 Chronicles. These books, along with the parallel account in Samuel and Kings, clearly claim to be historical accounts of Israel’s monarchy. So, according to a literalistic approach, they must be factually accurate.
The problem, though, is that Chronicles and Samuel/Kings both claim to report history, yet they report that history differently—and significantly so. By minimizing those differences, a literalistic reading risks missing the theological point the anonymous author (typically referred to as the Chronicler) makes.
This week I want to give one example and then explain what best accounts for the differences. Next week, we will look at further examples from Chronicles so we can see just how pervasive the differences are (not just “here and there”) before moving on to other issues related to literalism.
Some contemporary fundamentalist and evangelical readers approach the Bible with the conviction that its depiction of history must be literally accurate, otherwise the Bible is not God’s word. Chronicles clearly cannot carry this burden. That doesn’t mean history doesn’t matter. It means that historiography (the recording of history) is more involved than literalism allows.
Looking at how the Chronicler handles Israel’s history has implications beyond Chronicles. It is not a problem to be overcome but a window onto more biblical ways to understand how the Bible depicts history.
The Message of Chronicles
For many readers there hardly seems any reason to read Samuel/Kings and then continue right along and read “the same thing” in Chronicles. But Chronicles is not the same thing. It tells Israel’s story very differently.
In the Jewish canon, Chronicles does not come after 2 Kings but is last. It was not until the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint, 2nd century B.C.) that Chronicles was neatly tucked away after 2 Kings. Greek translators gave Chronicles a name that betrays their attitude: paraleipomenon, “the things left over.”
This is hardly a way to encourage readers to dive in—and beginning with nine chapters of names doesn’t help matters. Being placed last in the Jewish canon is a signal, though, that this is not just a repetition of Samuel/Kings.
The Chronicler’s history is different because he wrote after the return from exile, and his purpose was to drive home an important message: despite the exile, the same God back then is still with his people today; whatever else may have changed, Yahweh is still their God. That is what accounts for the many, pervasive differences between these two historical accounts.
What Did Nathan Say to David?
A brief example will illustrate this: Nathan’s prophecy to David in 2 Samuel 7:16 and 1 Chronicles 17:14.
Nathan the prophet is speaking for God and makes a promise to David about the longevity of his dynasty. In 2 Samuel 7 God says that he will never punish the Davidic line as he did Saul, by removing him from his throne. Rather,
2 Samuel 7:16: Your house and your king will endure forever before me. Your throne will be established forever.
Compare this with how the Chronicler reports Nathan’s words.
1 Chronicles 17:14: I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.
There is clearly a lot of overlap between these two accounts, especially the idea that God is going to do something concerning David that will endure perpetually. Still, the two accounts report the same event differently.
In 2 Samuel, the house, kingdom, and throne are David’s—meaning David’s line will possess them. In 1 Chronicles, the house and kingdom are God’s and will be occupied at some point by the man of God’s choosing.
The message of 2 Samuel is “Don’t worry, David, your line is safe,” but the message of 1 Chronicles, written with the exile in his rearview mirror, is “Remember it is ultimately my throne and my kingdom, and I will establish the right king in time.”
What Accounts for This Difference?
Some might suggest that there is no real difference between these accounts—just a minor variation in wording that can easily be reconciled. But minimizing the differences will get us nowhere. First, it leaves open the question of why, even in “minor details,” God would allow the same historical events to be reported in two different ways in the first place.
Second, Chronicles does this sort of thing from beginning to end, as we will see more clearly next week. Even if one could somehow manage to “reconcile” these two verses to eliminate the differences, there are many more where that came from—passage after passage after passage.
But here is the real problem: minimizing the differences obscures the theology that the Chronicler is so intent to put there. The reason why these two accounts of history differ is because they were written at different times for different purposes.
2 Samuel still reflects the pre-exilic confidence in the continuation of David’s line. But the author of Chronicles wrote long after the Israelites had already returned from Babylon. Judging from the names listed toward the end of the genealogy in chapters 1-9, 1 and 2 Chronicles was written no earlier than the mid-fifth century B.C., roughly 100 years after their return from Babylon in 539 B.C.
The Chronicler had already witnessed the cessation of David’s line. This led him to see a deeper reality about who rules Israel, who is really on the throne, despite events. The lesson of the exile is that Israel’s royal dynasty is not dependent on the establishment of David’s house and throne, as 2 Samuel has it. In fact, it is not really David’s throne at all but God’s and he will put the right person there when and how he wishes. Israel’s ultimate hope was not in whether David’s literal line continued, but in what God was doing with his throne to restore Israel.
Insuring the people that God is still with them no matter what accounts for why 1 Chronicles begins with nine chapters of names. Most readers today gladly skip over them. But for postexilic Israelites, the genealogy made a vital point: it traced Israel’s history from the postexilic period all the way back to Adam (1 Chronicles 1:1).
The Chronicler reminds the Israelites that they are still the people of God—regardless of all that has happened, and regardless of how much they deserved every bit of misery they got. They remain God’s people and their lineage extends to the very beginning, to Adam. Circumstances may have changed, but the deep reality of God’s faithfulness remains.
The message of Chronicles is presented as a history of Israel, but it is a “theological history.” That means that historical events are shaped in order to convey the writer’s theological purpose. A literalistic approach to the Bible cannot do justice to theological history.
(Pete's series continues here)
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.