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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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conrad - #28557

September 7th 2010

I always thought it referred to the genealogy of Jesus which traced to David.

So I don’t see a difference.
Jesus still reigns.

Cal - #28558

September 7th 2010

Is it not possible that Nathan had given a prophecy, part of which is recorded in Kings (to make a point) and another piece quoted in Chronicles (to make another point). Both sides point to the coming of Christ.

The throne belongs to those of David (fully Human)
The throne belongs to God (fully God)

Thus God would be in the mystery of the Hypostic union, being fully man and fully God.

The Bible remains inerrant, yet not all of the truth is revealed in the first account, but progressively brought forth. This fits with the rest of the story. Thus, this was not a change from an overly optimistic historian (Kings) to a more realist understanding (Chronicles) but a slow revelation from God to the people of Israel to truly understand who the coming Mesiach really was.

Samuel Sutter - #28559

September 7th 2010

timing is good - I preached series on Chronicles this summer - leaned hard on Dillard. But the gospel clear, and people really came to appreciate that part of the Bible more than ever. I got several “I used to hate chronicles but now I really appreciate it” comments.

conrad - #28562

September 7th 2010

Cal I like your analysis.
Scripture is inerrant when all the facts are revealed;
Until all the facts are revealed it sometimes seems goofy.

Dark matter is a good example of that.

HornSpiel - #28563

September 7th 2010


I see a lot of clarity in your analysis. If it is not literal it is neither arbitrary. I see how it can be a “window”  into faithful interpretation of the Bible. It really is exciting to have these insights pointed out. Do you agree with Cal’s point that this is an example of “slow revelation?”

That said, I clearly sense a temptation to intellectual snobbery, and a corresponding anti-intellectual reaction. This approach is all encompassing. It does not apply just to Genesis. Once you read the Bible this way, everything is affected.

For those who identify as Bible-believing evangelical Christians, there are no priests with apostolic authority helping us know what is the right interpretation. We even reject the authority of most denominations because we see them as liberal. Only trusted pastors, who with skill and insight, can bring their congregations along. Are there any fellowships like this out there?

Also, is there a term for Evangelicals who come at the Word of God in this way, with both faith and intellectual honesty?

conrad - #28565

September 7th 2010

Any time you bet against the Bible you are going to lose.
That’s what I have learned.

Chris Massey - #28572

September 7th 2010


Great post. The meaning of scripture really opens up once you’re willing to let the authors of the various texts speak with different voices instead of trying to jam all the oddly-shaped pegs into round holes. I’m looking forward to some more examples. I have a bit of a technical question:

Am I right in thinking that some scholars believe that even the Deuteronimist books (including Samuel & Kings) show some evidence of post-exilic editing or Persian influence? If so, is that a speculative theory or a well-established one? How extensive is the post-exilic editing? What does it look like and does that editing nonetheless predate the Chronicler?

Norm - #28573

September 7th 2010


This brings up a question concerning what has often been termed a dead period in the word of God from the return of the exiles until Christ. This somehow doesn’t seem coherent to me that from 500BC to Christ that there would not be any word from God and if I’m reading you correctly it seems that this period was not void of the word of God. How does this bear upon how we view the literature of the second temple period as it seems to become more and more messianic as time progresses?

gingoro - #28577

September 7th 2010


Shortly after you say that something is none literal you then declare the individuals written about to be none historical.  At least that seems to be the pattern I observe.  I find myself wondering if you consider any individuals written about in the bible, besides Christ, to be historical?  The Disciples? Paul? Mary? Moses? Abraham? King David?
Dave W

Chris Massey - #28584

September 7th 2010

It seems that many commenters fear that any sort of non-literal reading of any part of the Bible leads to a slippery slope.

Maybe it does cause us to reconsider other unexamined beliefs, but why is that a bad thing? Your comment presumes that the best hermeneutic is a safe one. I completely sympathize with the desire to have an approach to scripture that is neat and tidy and doesn’t require one to ask difficult historical questions. But if there is good reason to think that such a safe approach actually obscures the truth, then you have to decide which you prefer: comfort or the truth?

If what you’re looking for is safe and easy hermeneutics, then by all means, stick with literalism. But if we at Biologos are looking for truth, then we have to ask the difficult questions, because we have ample reason to think that literalism often comes up short. Some passages of scripture are going to be literal and historical; others aren’t. Some figures may be historical; others may not be. It won’t always be easy figuring out which is which. But to refuse to ask the questions because the process is messy and difficult is to give in to fear or intellectual laziness. Personally, I’m done with milk. I want solid foods (1 Cor. 3:2)

gingoro - #28589

September 7th 2010


I don’t think it is all literal, some is poetry, allegory, wisdom and so on.  As I have said before I think the early parts of Genesis are like an epic with some basis in history and some additions to make the theological point.  My question is do the people who write the main posts think any of the Bible is historical or is it all theological stories (except for Christ).  I’d like to just get a feel for how much of scripture they think is none literal.  My assumption from this post is that Kings and Samuel is considered none literal since Chronicles differs in places. 
Dave W

Daniel Mann - #28591

September 7th 2010

Peter and Chris,

Often the tools we use determine our results. If our tools are imbalanced, so too our results. It is true that the Bible is a human work, and therefore we should interpret it as such. But even more so, the Bible is the product of the Holy Spirit, and so we need to give room to this fact in our interpretation, as Peter indicates:

•  1 Peter 1:10-11 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

Even the prophets meditated on the message they were given. They realized that it didn’t come from their own will (2 Peter 1:19-20). When we attempt to interpret the Bible as strictly a document that come from the will of man, we miss the message.

Nevertheless, your point against “literalism” is well-taken, but no intelligent exegete is truly a literalist in the way you are using the term. Even the most conservative exegete is as you trying to regain the intended meaning. Enough with pejoratives!

conrad - #28592

September 7th 2010

There are things that are absolutely correct when taken literally,... and have always been correct.
But until the event was known the Bible made no sense.

The Isaiah verses about liberation of Jerusalem made no sense until General Edmund Allenby liberated it about 90 years ago.

Separating light matter from dark matter in Genesis 1,made no sense until Ruben and Ford discovered the dark matter.

A world without form made no sense until Hawking and Penrose wrote about black holes and the singularity at the instant of creation.

Unfortunately a lot of Christians still have not learned about those things because they refuse to look at them That’s a shame.

Chris Massey - #28594

September 7th 2010


Thanks for clarifying. Sorry if I was preaching to the choir, but we seem to get those kind of slippery slope arguments here a lot.
I won’t presume to speak for the staff at Biologos, but I doubt that anyone here would question the historicity of Paul (we have his letters) or the key disciples (who are multiply attested in the various gospels).
The historicity of David has been confirmed with the Tel Dan Inscription and its reference to the “House of David”. Other figures, such as Moses and Abraham lack any independent confirmation outside Jewish literature, so they pose a more difficult question.
As for Samuel/Kings vs. Chronicles, I would imagine that the earlier texts of Samuel/Kings are the more reliable histories. But I don’t think it’s quite so simple as classifying a book as “literal” or “non-literal”. Both Samuel/Kings and Chronicles are history in the sense that they are recording historic events rather than, say, inventing a mythology out of whole cloth. But they are ancient history writing so they won’t necessarily be concerned with recording events objectively in the modern sense. Thus, the discrepancies.

Daniel Mann - #28600

September 7th 2010

Chris (and Peter),

I think that there is cause to be concerned about a “slippery slope.” If the later Chronicles is “less reliable” than Kings/Samuel, then it is not inerrant. If it is not inerrant, then we have to “reinterpret” Jesus’ words (Mat. 5:17-19; 4:4; John 10:37) in such a way that we don’t conclude that the Bible is fully God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Consequently, with those verses reinterpreted, there is no reason to regard any of the Bible as God-breathed and the Christian faith is no longer the Christian faith, but something that can easily be manipulated to suit our lifestyles.

Instead, of regarding our OT as the result of the reworking of countless editors adding and subtracting from the Word – and the Wellhausen hypothesis has been debunked – it is far more faithful to the Biblical revelation to regard the “discrepancies” as different emphases of the Holy Spirit. History carries multiple meanings – Messianic and otherwise – and the Spirit is able to reveal the depths of meaning through the various Biblical accounts.

Chris Massey - #28601

September 7th 2010

Daniel Mann,

I see what you’re saying. I agree that no intelligent exegete considers every verse in the Bible to be literal. Everyone acknowledges poetry, parables, etc.

But there are definitely many popular biblical exegetes who read a text such as Chronicles or Genesis and say that because these texts describes Event X as happening in such-and-such a way, that we can be confident that Event X did, as a matter of objective historical fact, happen exactly that way. And that kind of a reading is often problematic.

I suppose I used the phrase “literalism” as a substitute for “historical inerrancy”, which is really what I was getting at.

Chris Massey - #28607

September 7th 2010


Re: #28600
I’m not sure what you mean by saying, “the Wellhausen hypothesis has been debunked.” My understanding is that a whole host of new variations have been proposed, but all of them presume multiple authors/editors contributing to the text over many centuries. It’s not as though we’ve gone back to the idea that Moses (or any single author) wrote the Pentateuch.

Why do you feel that a text that is not historically inerrant cannot be God-breathed?

Scott Jorgenson - #28617

September 7th 2010

Pete, I’m not sure I completely follow this example.  Certainly “my house” and “my kingdom” in Chronicles shifts the emphasis from the line of David to God.  But otherwise I don’t see much difference.  The “he” in Chronicles is Solomon, and “his throne” is thus Solomon’s throne, so we see the Chronicler saying that Solomon is set or confirmed (NRSV) forever in God’s house and kingdom, and Solomon’s throne is established forever.

So we are back to the line of David again, with God promising that line would continue forever - at least, to the same apparent extent as promised in Samuel as far as I can tell.  As you know, what we do with “failed prophecy” is a whole other subject with many approaches, but that’s neither here-nor-there to my point.  The point is, whether failed prophecy or non-literal prophecy or conditional prophecy or whatever, is the way the Chronicler puts it really so different from how Samuel puts it?

conrad - #28628

September 7th 2010

The Isaiah verses I was referring to are chapter 31 verse 5.
They were fulfilled Dec 11 1917 when aircraft were used for the first time in combat to liberate Jerusalem without damage.

General Edmund Allenby brought in flights of planes, which induced the Turks to give it up.

Before that event the verses were literally true but mysterious.
After the event people said “Hey, that happened just like the Bible predicted it would happen.”
There are lots of things like that in the Bible.
Dark matter is certainly one.
The singularity,... [a world without form] is another.
I think the Bible is inerrant,.... BUT NOT ALWAYS TRANSPARENT!

Martin Rizley - #28654

September 7th 2010

Pete,  I have to agree with Scott (#28617) regarding the fact that the passage from Chronicles in its entirety clearly affirming that ” Solomon is set or confirmed forever in God’s house and kingdom, and Solomon’s throne is established forever.”  There is no suggestion that God’s house and kingdom will be established in any way other than through the establishment of David’s house and kindom (through Solomon).  So there is no SUBSTANTIAL difference in the two versions of God’s prophecy to David (in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17), though there is a slight difference in wording which may well reflect a difference in emphasis that the Holy Spirit wished to give.  Literal interpretation does not require that records of speeches must be “verbatim transcriptions” of what was said—as if a reporter were there with a microphone and the biblical writer simply copied the recording.  Slight differences of wording are found in the different gospel accounts, as well, but the substance of sayings, speeches, etc.,  is the same.  We do not have the ‘ipissima verba’ of Jesus, but we do have the ‘impissima vox.’  The same thing would be true of God’s words to David.

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