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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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Cal - #28995

September 9th 2010

R Hampton and John:

Its not having questions or doubts about faith, its completely overhauling and breaking apart the narrative that troubles Daniel and me. If you are to say, as Chris posited, that Moses was not real but figurative, this is absolutely destructive to the whole truth of the gospel. A character like Job can be questioned sure, but as you move up, if you throw out Moses, you may as well throw out David and then the whole story of Jesus Himself becomes estranged.

The different between utilizing a parable and allowing the propagation of incorrect history is paramount. No one stopped Jesus when he spoke of the Prodigal Son and said “Where is this son now? Who is his father? Who’s swine farm did he work at?” They knew it to be a story. However if God were to allow the propagation that David, Abraham, Moses and the Prophets , were real but actually fictitious, that is absurd and a lie in almost every sense of the word and as we know, God cannot and will not lie.

Daniel Mann - #28996

September 9th 2010

John, “The BioLogos [BL] Foundation explores, promotes and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.” In achieving “integration,” BL trifles with Scripture to make it agree with evolution. (I’ve never seen BL trifle with Darwin to make him agree with Scripture!) The Bible no longer teaches about the physical world, just the spiritual; history becomes no longer relevant to theology; Adam no longer exists, undermining its teachings on the advent of sin, the Fall and Redemption, adding and subtracting from Scripture.   

We’re no longer talking about honest differences in interpretation but coercion – forcing Scripture to say something that it clearly isn’t saying. With enough determination, we can get Scripture to say anything we want it to say. The Emergent church claims that Scripture doesn’t teach doctrine; the Episcopal that Scripture isn’t against the gay lifestyle. If we are followers of Jesus, we have to embrace His Word as it is (John 14:21-24). If we refuse to do this because of some “higher” concern – reconciling Scripture with evolution – then we aren’t His followers (Rev. 3:15).  (continued)

Daniel Mann - #28997

September 9th 2010


BL responds that we have to be humble about our interpretation of Scripture. I only wish that they were equally humble about their embrace of Darwin. For BL, Darwin is certainty while Scripture is…well? This is the fate of theistic evolutionists, and this troubles me deeply, seeing intelligent Christians being co-opted into a faith that will not deliver.

Daniel Mann - #28999

September 9th 2010

Thanks Cal!

You say it much more graciously than I. I find myself—perhaps foolishly—playing “bad cop” in hope of awakening them to the price that they are paying for their attempt to integrate Darwin into Scripture.

John VanZwieten - #29005

September 9th 2010

Daniel Mann,

The question becomes, “What are you and your particular ‘tribe’ of Christians possibly ‘forcing’ scripture to say that it never was intended to say?”

And I’d like you to point out a post at BioLogos saying “Darwin is certainty.”  Nobody here believes everything Darwin wrote, so that’s just a straw man.


Are you sure you are not improperly projecting modern expectations about historiography onto writers who had very different expectations?

Daniel Mann - #29008

September 9th 2010

John,  My use of the term “Darwin” is just another way of saying “macro-evolution.”

Regarding interpretation, it’s not just my “particular tribe” that regards Adam and Cain as historical. It’s the entire Bible. If you have evidence otherwise, please present it!

Cal - #29011

September 9th 2010


From my own readings and the musings and writings of the earliest Christians, I know that these figures are to be real if the Bible is to be trusted. Faith is not being sucked into the currents of modernity. For awhile there was no evidence there was ever a procurator of Judea named Pontius Pilate and a german society of critics tried to browbeat Christians into forsaking Jesus in the name of “science” and “reason”. Lo and behold! Archaeology eventually found ancient documents speaking of a procurator of Judea named Pontius Pilate and thus put this criticism to rest.

Of course this is a historical example, and there are many other sciences, but the example is to point that Christians must trust God, even if all the evidence is not available.

Just as a disclaimer, I would consider myself a EC/BioLogos to an extent seeing the evidence points to an evolutionary way of constructing life. This no way denigrates the Biblical narrative and instead shows truly how God guided life to end in the human being and how God sustained all things in this process. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I know in the end God will light my mind with truth. Still, at the end of the world, we are bound in an unbreakable brotherhood and we should rejoice

John VanZwieten - #29049

September 9th 2010


I agree with you that we shouldn’t disregard historical accounts in the Bible simply because there isn’t currently archeological evidence to back them up.  On the other hand, where we have strong physical evidence that a seeming historical event didn’t happen in the way a “literal” reading might suggest (i.e. worldwide flood w/in the biblical timeframe) then we should be able to take another look and try and figure out what might be going on that doesn’t conform to our modern expectations of narrative.

Early Christian writings can of course be helpful, but there again there are cultural/linguistic differences that we are likely to miss doing a “straightforward reading.”  And we know they didn’t always get everything right.  It was obvious to Augustine, for example, that the universe was created instantaneously not too long ago.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I know in the end God will light my mind with truth. Still, at the end of the world, we are bound in an unbreakable brotherhood and we should rejoice  AMEN!

John VanZwieten - #29050

September 9th 2010

Daniel Mann,

“Macro-evolution” is just another (not very good) way of saying “natural history.”

And you dodged my other question

Cal - #29059

September 9th 2010


My argument isn’t that our interpretations are wrong in as much that the character who is used in the story is not real.

Example: Noah and the flood: The words used can be interpreted as the whole world or the “known” world (In Hebrew). Most thought it was the whole world, but evidence points that there was no world wide flood so thus changes our intepretation. However to throw out that there was ever a flood or to say that there was no Noah, is to attack the Biblical narrative.

DWDMD - #29065

September 9th 2010

Just to help some of you see the other side of studying the Bible in the light of its historical and linguistic context, it was just that deeper study which enabled me to become a truly believing Christian. The inconsistencies such as the ones in Samuel-Kings/Chronicles and more importantly, in accounts of Jesus’ activities on earth (e.g.stories of His birth, the fig tree, cleansing of the the Temple, the empty tomb), showed me that strict chronology or even accurate reporting of His words was not the point - yet my 20th century mindset could not let go of the conflicting details. I was rejecting a MISinterpretation of the Bible.  As I studied and began to understand how the biblical texts came into being and how they have been variously interpreted through the 2000 years of Christianity, I was able to derive deeper and more fulfilling truths which led me much closer to God. It was a huge relief to find that God doesn’t require us to deny our reason in order to know Him but that we are encouraged to explore and discover and question.

John VanZwieten - #29150

September 10th 2010


I don’t think we are that far apart

If you posit that Noah was a person who was saved by God from a devastating flood, and that the writer of Genesis picks up that story to explain both God’s judgement and his saving mercy, as well as connecting the story to the origins of Israel, I don’t see any reason to argue against that.

It is well within the literary genre of origins stories to be based on historical events.  It’s just not reasonable to expect that the details of the stories will be “history” in the way we expect a news report to be history.  I don’t think that is an “attack” on the narrative, but rather letting the narrative speak on its own terms.

John VanZwieten - #29151

September 10th 2010


I had a good friend who sadly couldn’t make the journey you made.  He had been drilled all his life with the idea that either “every word is fact or the whole Bible falls apart.”  When he ran into the same problems you did as an adult, he ended up abandoning his faith (and family :( ) altogether.

Glad to hear you made it!

Daniel Mann - #29156

September 10th 2010

OK John,
OK John,
Here’s why I believe that BL regards evolution with greater certainty (and consequently authority) than Scripture. For example, some like Denis L. dismiss the historicity of Adam. While 100 verses affirm that he was an actual person, NONE give any cause for us to regard him as figurative. How then has Denis arrived at his conclusion, if not from Scripture? Evidently, he has a higher source of authority – evolution. BL’s Karl Giberson comes to the same conclusion:

•  “[Darwin’s] acid dissolved Adam and Eve; it ate through the Garden of Eden; it destroyed the historicity of the events of creation week. It etched holes in those parts of Christianity connected to the stories—the fall, “Christ as the second Adam,” the origins of sin, and nearly everything else that I counted sacred.” (Saving Darwin, 9-10)

On what authority does he discount Adam? He explicitly states that evolution made him do it! Evolution has assumed a dictatorial role at the Bible’s expense – the very thing that Jesus warned against. He told the Pharisees that their religion was in vain because they had exalted their “wisdom” to the place of Scripture, thereby supplanting it. (Mat 15:1-9)

Daniel Mann - #29157

September 10th 2010


Even your response (#29150) to Cal demonstrates that you seem to place evolution science above Scripture. In denying that Noah’s flood was worldwide, you state: “I don’t think that is an “attack” on the narrative, but rather.”

However, there is NO Scriptural basis for this assessment! Peter, for example, asserts that the flood was worldwide:

•  “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… (2 Peter 2:5)

•  By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. (2 Peter 3:6)

What Biblical evidence do you have to the contrary? None! Instead, you have allowed your understanding of science to co-opt Scripture.

There is a world of difference between responsible Biblical interpretation and coercion of the text. You are not “letting the narrative speak on its own terms” by denying the very uniform message of Scripture. I hope that this is merely a product of your unfamiliarity with Scripture.

R Hampton - #29200

September 10th 2010

Daniel Mann,
The ancient world described in the Bible was the world known to Noah, and that did not include the Americas, Australia, Antarctica, the thousands of Pacific Islands, or even some of the more remote portions of Asia, Europe and Africa. The modern understanding of our world is magnitudes larger. Heck, even in the last few decades we have learned that life even extends deep into mantle. So yes, Noah’s world was destroyed, but it was a rather small piece of our planet.

How should we interpret the Genesis flood account?

Daniel Mann - #29212

September 10th 2010

R Hampton,

You might ask yourself whether or not you are imposing your own philosophical bias on Scriptural interpretation, thereby refusing to hear what it is truly trying to say.

Scripture consistently tells us that only eight people survived the flood—sounds worldwide to me—and provides no alternative genealogies to assert otherwise. Do you have any counter-evidence, or were ALL the writers of Scripture equally deluded by the same errant worldview?

If this is the case and we can’t believe what they wrote about the physical world, then there’s no reason to believe them when it comes to the spiritual.

John VanZwieten - #29214

September 10th 2010

If this is the case and we can’t believe what they wrote about the physical world, then there’s no reason to believe them when it comes to the spiritual.

This is where you fall into the typical literalismist error.  This kind of poor thinking has wrecked or prevented the faith of too many people.

There is plenty reason to believe them when it comes to the spiritual but not when it comes to the physical if they (both the human authors and God) were intending to teach us about the spiritual rather than the physical, and simply using the common beliefs of the day about the physical as a “vessel” (jar of clay) to teach us the spiritual. 

We don’t “believe” them when they wrote (consistently throughout scripture) of a three-tiered cosmos or a fixed earth around which the sun revolves, so why should we have to “believe” them if they say a flood covered the entire Earth, leaving only seven people, and pairs of each animal to repopulate it?

(And please don’t start with the “sun revolving is only phenomenological” bit, since the same could be said of 7 people surviving a flood covering the whole land.)

John VanZwieten - #29215

September 10th 2010

You quote Peter, but he is picking up the same “vessel” in order to remind his listeners of the same or similar spiritual truth that the original narrative teaches:  there is judgement coming for sin from which God is the only source of salvation, so don’t go on living as if God has somehow forgotten this world or left it to its own devices.

Daniel Mann - #29225

September 10th 2010


You wrongly accuse me of the “typical literalismist error.”  No one is talking about literalism, but rather the intention of the authors.

I’m afraid that you are dealing in abstract generalities and are failing to engage the text. You claim that Peter is dealing in myth but give no evidence of this, just mere assertion, and not according
to Peter or the Biblical narrative. In fact, Peter cites Noah as historical evidence that God will judge in the future – He judged the world in the Flood; He will do it again!  Had the Noah’s flood been myth, it could validly be argued that the future judgment is of the same material – myth.

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