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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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merv - #28662

September 7th 2010

I’m chiming in with Martin & Scott here.  I can’t see, let alone appreciate, any difference in these two accounts as they appear to be in the passages referenced.  I can appreciate the different historical circumstances that could be invoked to explain different emphases—were they truly different in the first place.  Maybe I just haven’t studied enough of the surrounding text to appreciate your points, Pete, and so I continue to look forward to future postings.  But this one seems consistently to point to the line of David (which gets even tidier in the later gospel writers’ point of view where Christ is identified as fulfilling—even literally—the line of David.)


merv - #28667

September 7th 2010

On further reflection of the two passages discussed here, It was interesting to me to note that the former one (I Samuel) would have to apply more explicitly to Solomon according to later gospel prophecy since God makes mention, regarding this future king on an eternal throne, that “when he commits iniquity I will correct him…” which gospel writers would not apply to Christ, of course.  But the I Chronicles passage mentions nothing about iniquities to be overlooked & so leaves this passage much more open to later Christian interpretation as being a pointer to Christ.  And THAT would be explained very nicely by the different settings in which these were recorded as you suggest, Pete.


Scott Jorgenson - #28678

September 7th 2010

Pete, Merv in #28667 brings up a good observation - that the Samuel passage mentions the king committing iniquity while the Chronicles passage does not.  I think this is a “for instance” of something that would better illustrate your point - namely, how in Chronicles the sins of the great kings of the unified monarchy are generally glossed-over.  Eg the Bathsheba episode never appears.

The Chronicler tends to omit from history any reference to certain behaviors on the part of David and Solomon which were said in Samuel-Kings to have displeased God - maybe as the kind of veneration and glorification of the “good old days” which one would expect the people of Israel to need during and after exile?  I’m sure you could correct or expand upon that much better than me.

But anyway, that’s the sort of compare-and-contrast that I think would better illustrate your point, as it has Chronicles “rewriting history” (by significant omission) for a thematic purpose.  (Another would be Samuel-King’s and the Chronicler’s disagreement on who instigated David to take the census, God or Satan.)

Pete Enns - #28693

September 7th 2010


Oh I am so tempted to jump in and address all these things now….but it will have to wait for future posts.

For now, try this on for size: the “he” in Chronicles is not Solomon. As for David’s sin being omitted in Chronicles, that is just one of many examples of the Chronicler’s rewriting of Israel’s history. When one looks at that big picture, passages like the one I discuss this week jump out at you.

Until next week….

Scott Jorgenson - #28709

September 8th 2010

Pete, I guess I’ll have to wait, but I don’t understand how the “he” in the Chronicles passage couldn’t be Solomon.  Its clearly Solomon in the Samuel passage - the “he” is said to issue from David’s own body in that passage - so the starting assumption is that its the same referent in Chronicles.  And in Chronicles its said that this “he” is the one who builds a house for the Lord; which in context (David’s having just proposed to build such a house, ie temple, himself) seems to pretty clearly refer to the building of the first temple.  Thus Chronicles seems to have Solomon in mind.

And note that even if you grant that the passages do mostly agree with one another, what they agree on still supports your point.  Both passages predict the royal line will last forever, a failed prophecy if interpreted literally, something which the Chronicler in particular would have known.  So by including it anyway, he must have had some non-literal interpretation in mind not explicitly called out here - which plays to your point, that limiting literal interpretation only to those passages where it is obviously proclaimed (as in “Then Jesus told them a parable”) is too limiting.

Looking forward to reading your upcoming posts.

Jon Garvey - #28797

September 8th 2010

One thing worth remembering is that the Samuel/Kings corpus was widely available and widely revered when Chronicles was written - both pretty soon became part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

So had the Chronicler simply wished to “doctor” history he’d have been on a loser because any educated Jew would see the changes he made. Which means he *intended* them to notice the differences, supporting Peter’s general thesis, just as Paul tinkered with his OT quotations occasionally not to fool the ignorant, but to illuminate the educated.

Whether the Chronicler was detaching the kingship from David’s line (as Pete *seems* to be suggesting) rather than extending it down David’s line beyond the abolition of the kingdom (as the Jews of Jesus’ time certainly interpreted it) is more doubtful. Certainly the royal line after the exile is continued in the genealogy - I would resist any attempt to show that it doesn’t matter whether Jesus was physically descended from the Davidic line.

Nevertheless, the overall point of the article is well made, in my opinion. And will bring Chronicles to life.

Pete Enns - #28800

September 8th 2010

OK, one more point (I can’t resist). CHronicles rewrites the history of Israel’s monarchy in order to speak to his community’s present and to its future. Chronicles, in a manner of speaking, is a sermon meant to motivate present days postexilic Israelites. That is why the “he” in Chronicles is not Solomon. He is in the past.

And yes, Jon, the Chronicler knew Samuel/Kings and clearly worked off of it. What he did was very intentional, which is just one of the things that makes these books such a gold mine of theological information. But, as to how soon those books were considered canonical, well, that is not entirely clear.

Jon Garvey - #28812

September 8th 2010

“But, as to how soon those books were considered canonical, well, that is not entirely clear.”

But it doesn’t alter the fact that the older books must have been circulating, respected and available, just as the canonical NT was long before the canon itself was codified.

To be honest I didn’t even think that the Chronicler’s deliberate detachment of the “son” from the immediate next generation had ever been considered other than a deliberate messianic gloss on the prophecy as recorded in Samuel.

David cannot have been in any real way aware that Nathan referred to anything but (a) Solomon (b) his royal line, since the promise of Messiah only becomes an issue because of the failure of Israel and the failure of the line David started to remain faithful.

The words in Samuel are sufficiently ambiguous for the Chronicler (under God) to see the Spirit’s hand in his re-interpretation.

Daniel Mann - #28848

September 8th 2010


You responded, “Why do you feel that a text that is not historically inerrant cannot be God-breathed?”

First, it is Biblically unwarranted to separate the history of the Bible from the theology of the Bible. The theology of the Cross depends upon the history of the Cross! Similarly, Jesus argues from the history of creation of man and God joining man and woman together against divorce (Mat. 19:4-6).

Also, 2 Tim. 3:16-17 argues that “God-breathed” means that Scripture is completely useful (which depends upon it being without error):

•  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

If Scripture does contain errors in the original, Paul couldn’t have argued that Scripture can make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Likewise, Jesus couldn’t have asserted, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44) If there had been an error, then “everything” couldn’t be fulfilled not the errors at least!

hashavyahu - #28866

September 8th 2010


HIw exactly does the usefulness of Scripture imple its inerrancy?  That doesn’t seem to follow at all.  In fact, it is remarkable that it is specifically its usefulness, and not its historical accuracy, for example, that (pseudo)Paul links to its God-breathedness.  Why could not something presented as history, though actually historically false, not be “useful” for preparing people for good work? In fact, the utility of a story does not seem to imply anything about its factual content.

pf - #28879

September 8th 2010


Like so much of the David narrative, barely a single shred of the story corresponds to actual human behavior as we know it. Davis was purportedly a small, weak shepherd, one of the fiercest warriors and legendary poet and musician. He was James Bond, Rambo, Peyton Manning, Shakespeare and Sting all rolled into one. Not bloody likely if you think about it.

What’s more, whatever Nathan said did not turn out to be true in any sense in which would have been understood by the author of Kings or Chronicles. Both of them were talking about Israel, explicitly or implicitly.

To say today that, well, the prophecy is true because we re-interpret the throne to mean “Jesus” is flat-out ludicrous. You have to believe that God spoke to Israelites in code that would have been impossible for them to understand, and he let them think wrongly for centuries without correcting them. And now he blames them for not getting the right meaning.

Daniel Mann - #28880

September 8th 2010


Biblically, what God has done historically is theology-laden. History and theology cannot be separated. The theology of the Cross depends upon the history of the Cross, and we find this thinking laced throughout Scripture. Peter based his claim of a future judgment (2 Peter 2:9) upon the history of past judgments:

•  “If he [God] did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…” (2 Peter 2:5-6).

Peter argued from these historical events that God truly means business regarding judgment. Had these accounts merely been parabolic, then the final judgment should also be regarded as no more than a parabolic and empty warning. If the Biblical history is honeycombed with historical inaccuracies, then the prophesied heavenly future should not be regarded with any more certainty. It’s a package-deal!

hashavyahu - #28882

September 8th 2010


Can history and theology really never be separated?  Do Jonah and Job, for example, really have to be historical to be theologically meaningful.  If so, why?  If not, why does the flood, for example, have to be historical to be theologically meaningful?

Daniel Mann - #28886

September 8th 2010

Hashavyahu (and Chris),

The NT consistently alludes to the history of the OT to draw from it theological lessons:

•  James 5:11 As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

If Job was merely a story, it wouldn’t serve as proof that “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” Likewise, is the case of Jonah:

•  Luke 11:30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.

If Jonah hadn’t been historically coughed up upon the beach of Nineveh after three days in the fish, then we might suspect that Jesus also is not intended as an actual, real-life sign. If the NT writers regard these accounts as historical – and they uniformly do so – we do not have the freedom to do otherwise!

hashavyahu - #28888

September 8th 2010

So the reason Job and Jonah have to be historical is that NT writers thought they were.  No matter what conclusion we might draw about the non-historical nature of the genres, we must be wrong, because in the NT, they considered them thoroughly historical.  I can see how this could be persuasive to some.  I still can’t help wondering.  If Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, and Jesus’ preferred mode of verbal revelation was embedding theological meaning into non-historical stories (i.e. parables), perhaps God’s verbal revelation more generally also involves the embedding of theological meaning into non-historical stories.

Chris Massey - #28895

September 8th 2010


A story does not have to be historically factual to be theologically meaningful. If this were true, Jesus’ parables would be meaningless. So your argument can’t be that unless the Job/Noah/Moses etc. stories are historically factual, the stories can’t be used meaningfully by the NT authors.

Your second (and better) argument is that the NT authors believed Job/Noah/Moses etc. stories to be historically factual, so we should believe the same. The issue here becomes whether you think the NT authors were somehow prevented by the Holy Spirit from having any factually inaccurate beliefs when they wrote the NT. Did the Holy Spirit correct Matthew’s assumption that all the kingdoms of the earth could be seen from a single mountain (Matt. 4:8)? Apparently not. Did the Holy Spirit correct his belief that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds (Matt. 13:32)? Apparently not.

Is it not possible that the NT authors simply assumed the historicity of the OT narratives and that the Holy Spirit did not see the need to correct that understanding because the stories were theologically meaningful regardless of their historicity?

Daniel Mann - #28901

September 8th 2010

Chris and Hashavyahu,

If we can’t trust the NT writers in historical matters, there is little reason to trust them in the spiritual.  Jesus stated:

•  “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on EVERY word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

I had experienced such intense problems – many years of suicidal shame, clinical depression, panic attacks. Only His Word had the power to break through my depressive thinking. Although my five highly recommended psychologists insisted that I was a good person and I should love myself, it was only His Word that was able to penetrate the self-contempt and to convince me that He loved me unshakably.

My five professionals told me that I should forgive and accept myself, but they weren’t able to convince as did the Bible that there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1). My feelings of condemnation were simply too powerful for positive, human affirmations.

Even now, I have a horrible habit of second-guessing myself, but I’m rescued from this by His teaching that He works all things together for good (Rom. 8:28), even my sins! Consequently, I choose to allow Scripture to judge me, and not I judging Scripture.

R Hampton - #28924

September 8th 2010

Daniel Mann,

Among the born again, conservative Christians, I think your story is rather common even if the particular sin (drinking, cheating, gambling, etc.) differs. Because you came to the faith by way of great despair, your are naturally reluctant to question it. I do empathize with your situation - why would you entertain doubts about only thing between you and misery?

But like many in your position, you conflate an understanding of the Truth with belief of the Truth. They are not the same: an expert Biblical scholar could view Scripture as mere literature; one who is saved could have a very flawed knowledge of Christianity. 

When someone outside your experience and/or Christian tradition challenges your understanding, you - for any number of reasons - experience it as attack on your personal faith. This too is common. In time, hopefully, your faith will mature and be strong enough to withstand intellectual scrutiny. For now, however, such introspection feels like betrayal.

Please understand that all Theology is an unavoidable act of human judgment. We are not Jesus. We can only know some portion of the Truth guided only by our reasoning and our faith - and both abilities are essential to that discovery.

Daniel Mann - #28935

September 8th 2010


You judge me wrongly and unfairly. If I was so defensive about my faith, I certainly wouldn’t put it on the line at BioLogos! I was merely trying to illustrate why the doctrine of inerrancy and Scripture’s historicity are so important to many of us and what is at stake when Scripture is trifled with—subtracted from or added to.

John VanZwieten - #28955

September 8th 2010

Daniel Mann,

Thanks for sharing some of your story.

It might help if you tried a little more empathy with those here with whom you tend to disagree.  Maybe they (we) are not intending at all to “trifle” with scripture.  Maybe they (we) are trying to be as faithful to God’s intent in scripture as we possibly can—to let the full power of its message ring true in our lives and in our world.

I know if I thought the BioLogos folks were “trifling” with scripture I’d have been gone long ago.  What I find instead is a serious effort to discern possible ways that our particular branch of Christianity (or even broad swaths of it) have misused and/or misunderstood what God is trying to say to us in various parts of the scriptures.  Even someone like Kenton Sparks, who’s views usually trouble me, seems to take scripture seriously in his own way.

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