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The Problem with Literalism: The Books of Chronicles (1)

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September 7, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
The Problem with Literalism: The Books of Chronicles (1)

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


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.

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John VanZwieten - #29227

September 10th 2010

Daniel Mann,

Please explain what you mean when you use the word “myth.”  It will help in our conversations.  Have you read or studied this literary genre?  Would God be allowed to use this genre to communicate with us, or is it verboten?

In fact, Peter cites Noah as historical evidence

This is equally mere assertion of Peter’s intention to be in line with what you think his intention should be in quoting Genesis.  It is engaging the text only on the most wooden basis.  Are you really wanting to say the Peter is writing to give a history lesson rather than writing to warn against complacency?

Preston Price - #29245

September 10th 2010

John (#29227)

Please describe your definition of the use of the term “wooden literalism.” If you mean that we take the text to mean what the original authors meant, and from their perspective, then there should be no problem with it. We should get our worldview from Scripture, as it is God’s word to us about acutal events in history. If it is not based upon actual events, God went to great lengths to make it seem as if it was. I’ll cite the Resurrection, for instance. If Christ did not die and rise from a physical grave, Paul(the real one) says our faith is in vain.

Most of the problems we have from liberals today is that the eisegetically read their worldview into the text, rather than having their worldview formed by the text. Yes, the church has a fallible interpretation of Scripture, which is true for 6/24 people such as myself, as well as for evolutionists, which you seem to be. No one has a right to read error from the text, nor into it! Both sidesare guilty of reading out of it error, but only one side guilty of reading into it.

I am familiar with the “myth” genre, enough to know that it doesn’t mean that “these things didn’t happen,” just that they “didn’t happen in this way.” To be continued…

Cal - #29246

September 10th 2010


Just as a quick fix to what you said:

1. There is never anything firmly stated that the sun revolves around the earth There is figurative human vantage language employed (we use it too, “The sun is rising or setting” when it is scientifically incorrect but no one calls it out). However, this is coming from the understanding that the Bible is not trying to scientifically analyze but to use common language and phenomenons in regular, human terms to make a point.

2. You could argue that we do in fact have a three tiered heaven if you argue that Heaven is an extra-dimensional realm. We have the sky (1st), outer space (2nd), and the beyond dimension of “Heaven” (3rd). However, that’s just a theory, I’ve thought about recently (It was Conrad’s originally that sparked the idea).

Again, the tipping point is to say something that was recorded in the Bible, and even used as an example by the Apostles, as inaccurate and a fictitious legend. This is the in the wrong. However John, I know you are just positing an idea and not arguing that Noah did not exist, or there was never a giant flood that destroyed the “world” as a judgment on the wicked. But it is good to make sure we dont jump off and confuse others reading.

R Hampton - #29248

September 10th 2010

Daniel Mann,

We know for a fact that, 4500 years ago, humans were spread across the globe. We also know for a fact that, at that time, the only people who had knowledge of a singular God in the Abrahamic tradition were those who lived in the small corner of the world known as the ‘Holy Land’. Of these people - those who had received Special Revelation and thus had a personal relationship with God - only eight were spared.

The humans living on other continents, however, were ignorant of God. They were gentiles, and they had already received a punishment greater than any flood, for they did not have a place in the afterlife to lose. Thus they too were spared the flood.

Only those who knew of the One True God were punished for turning away. That was the world swept away in the flood. Not until the sacrifice made by Jesus did the God of the Jews become the God for all mankind, and extended his gift of Salvation upon the rest of us. Now the entire world does have a place in the afterlife to lose.

Preston Price - #29249

September 10th 2010

What I wanted to point out is that if God has actually created the world in a way different from the way He has had written then we 1) have no reason to trust Him, because 2) we have no reason to trust His word to us. If God wanted to teach us theology apart from history, why not have His writers write a Systematic Theology text for us? Would have made things a lot easier! Instead, He decided to write to us about history and the way He has made it. Current scosmological paradigms are always changing, according to Kuhn. And also according to him, scientific paradigms are merely explanations of the data we have currently, which leaves open the possibility of having new models upon further discovery. God’s word is our only standard that is timeless, which is why us “old timers” in terms of exegesis get so riled up when new ways of looking at the same text pop their ugly little heads up.

I would sugest reading James B. Jordan’s book Creation in 6 Days in which Jordan critiques a few views, though in relation to creation-week issues, which dny the historicity of Genesis 1. I am currently reading it and heartily recommend it!

Preston Price - #29251

September 10th 2010

#29248—R Hampton

Greetings! All men are created in God’s image and have knowledge of Him, according to Paul, and are justly condemned for their knowingly rejecting Him. This includes all those made in the image and likeness of Adam, which is all men, even those very far away. Remember that Abraham was not originally a God worshippers, nor was he in the Holy Land when he received revelation. He was in Mesopotmaia worshipping idols. This speaks about God’s discerning grace to pick and choose whomever He wishes to bestow grace upon, and I mean salvific grace.

You’ll have to find some support for the claim that Gentiles, because they knew not God, will not receive condemnation into eternity. The text says nothing about it! What Daniel Mann has said over and over again, which is glaringly true, is that you either receive the text as God’s word, or you read into the text current scientific and philosophic paradigms, at your own peril.

Preston Price - #29253

September 10th 2010

As for the original posting about Chronicles, I think that as history moved forward, God’s people were given new insight into what His previous word meant. They were not omniscient, so they could grow in their understanding as we do today. God then used this new understanding to reveal more about what His promise to David meant in2 Samuel. When the chronicler, who I was taught was Ezra, wrote the Chronicles he updated the understanding with new revelation. God inspires from the inside out, so this means that he uses human learning and growth to write His words.

John VanZwieten - #29258

September 10th 2010


The sun in the Bible doesn’t just rise and set (as could be understood phenomenologically), it also “hurries back to where it began”  Eccl 1:5.  Is it really surprising that we find that, when pretty much the whole world for the vast majority of recorded history thought the sun was on the move with respect to the earth?

Over and over in the Bible we find descriptions of nature that are very much in line with the science of the day.  And it makes total sense that if God is going to speak to man, He will speak using terms that make sense to hearers at that time.  For a fuller explanation of one of these instances, read http://biologos.org/blog/the-firmament-of-genesis-1-is-solid-but-thats-not-the-point/

You got close on the 3-tiers.  It’s actually heaven, earth, and the underworld (cf. Phil 2:11).

Pete used the phrase “theological history” to describe the biblical presentation of events.  I don’t think “theological science” would be the worst way to think about biblical descriptions of nature.  So just take them as they come, w/o passing judgement based on modern expectations.

John VanZwieten - #29261

September 10th 2010

Preston Price wrote:

If God wanted to teach us theology apart from history, why not have His writers write a Systematic Theology text for us?

It’s hard enough to get Christians to read a Bible full of fascinating stories of conquest, love, betrayal, etc.  Can you imagine getting them to read a Systematic Theology text?!

Please describe your definition of the use of the term “wooden literalism.” If you mean that we take the text to mean what the original authors meant, and from their perspective, then there should be no problem with it.

Wooden literalism is actually a refusal to take the text from the perspectives of the original authors, including the culture in which they live and their purpose in writing.  For example, if you think the purpose of Genesis 1 is to tell you how many hours creation took, you are missing the purpose.

No one has a right to read error from the text, nor into it! Both sides are guilty of reading out of it error, but only one side guilty of reading into it.


John I. - #29303

September 11th 2010

I fail to see the difference between P. Enns approach and the approach of those who say that literalism does not demand the recording of the exact words of the people speaking. Did they exactly say that or not? If not, how can we trust the accuracy of anything else in the Bible? How can the Bible be communicating truth if it uses inaccurately recorded words of the disciples?

Isn’t the latter claim the same as the claim that Bible cannot be communicating truth if the other aspects of history (i.e. aspects not related to records of spoken words) are not exactly as recorded in the Bible?

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.


Hoisted on their own literalistic petard.

John I.

Daniel Mann - #29442

September 11th 2010

John VanZwieten - #29227

You imply correctly that God uses different literary genre – myth and parable – to convey truth. However, this isn’t the issue, but rather this – do the NT references to Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jonah imply their historicity! And is their historicity necessary for the lessons that NT presents!

In this regard, you haven’t engaged my argumentation – Peter argued that if God judged in the past (worldwide flood), He’ll judge in the future. If the worldwide flood didn’t take place, then this would argue that the promised judgment is equally fictitious.

When you wrote, “Are you really wanting to say the Peter is writing to give a history lesson rather than writing to warn against complacency,” you committed the “either-or” fallacy. Rather, I have argued that it’s both! History exudes theology and theology rests on history – God’s historical works reek with theology. Jesus reasoned that because God had made Adam and Eve one, divorce is against God’s established order (Mat. 19:4-6).

John, I hope you’ll reconsider. By taking your loose approach, the message of Scripture and its authority becomes very uncertain.

beaglelady - #29545

September 11th 2010

This includes all those made in the image and likeness of Adam,

Excuse me?

John VanZwieten - #29604

September 12th 2010

Daniel Mann,

You have funny-looking question marks in your first paragraph

In no case other than the Bible would you require that any reference to a character from a story implies something about their historicity.  And their historicity is not necessary for the lessons that the NT presents unless you refuse to find value in inspired scriptural stories.

History exudes theology and theology rests on history – God’s historical works reek with theology.

Lets expand that statement a bit and see if it still holds: 
All of God’s stories (historical, mythical, parabolic, etc.) exude theology and theology rests on God’s stories.

I don’t think scripture’s authority is diminished at all by focusing on the intended message of the author, while allowing them to write according to the idioms and understandings of the day.  For me, at least, the Bible comes even more alive with that approach.

R Hampton - #29992

September 14th 2010

You’ll have to find some support for the claim that Gentiles, because they knew not God, will not receive condemnation into eternity.

It seems you misunderstood my point. Prior to the crucifiction of Christ, Gentiles (those who did not receive Special Revelation and thus did not have a personal relationship with God in the Abrahamic tradition) did not have a place in the afterlife. That was the whole point of God’s sacrifice.

Jeff - #31551

September 23rd 2010

Late in the game here. I see some fundamental problems here. While I agree with the general premise of Dr. Enns’ book, Pete makes too much of this supposed “contradiction.” With statements such as “even if one can somehow ‘reconcile’” - as though it’s nearly impossible to do so, he becomes prejudicial in the discussion. Old but fallacious debate tactic.

Of course Chronicles is theological history - all history is theological history in some sense!

But to say this is somehow a person of God’s choosing and contradicts 2 Sam 7 is itself reading into the text. All this is, is a different emphasis.

Chronicles emphasizes God’s roll in this - but both may simply be quoting the way the gospels quote Jesus differently. Of course they are not “word for word” - in the sense of the exact words Nathan said. But, even hyper-literalists I know will acknowledge that. The Chronicler gives greater emphasis to God’s roll over David’s. Big deal. Peter is making too much of this and even scholars sympathetic to his overall point have recognized this.

At some point, there is nothing wrong with some degree of harmonization of texts.

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