The Books of Chronicles and the Problem with Literalism


In this article, Pete Enns explains the logic of reading the Bible literally as well as the problems that come with it. He notes that one should only take a literal reading of an account if the text itself is making historical claims. Even then, he continues, there are some minor differences between accounts describing the same historical events. He walks through several examples with the readers as he compares and contrasts 1 and 2 Samuel and Kings to 1 and 2 Chronicles.


#Introduction

In the past we looked at one example of how the author of Chronicles was moved by the spirit of God to report Nathan’s prophecy to David. Although both 1 Chronicles 7:14 and 2 Samuel 7:16 report the same speech event, the words that Nathan speaks in the two accounts are significantly different. The Chronicler reshapes the words of Nathan’s prophecy in order to communicate his inspired message: a word of divine comfort to the postexilic Israelites that they are still the people of God.

Nathan’s prophecy serves as an entryway to seeing more clearly the Chronicler’s overall message to his beleaguered audience. The Chronicler does more than just change the wording in some verses here and there. His message shines through from beginning to end.

Chronicles and Samuel/Kings differ significantly in how they portray Israel’s monarchy as a whole. These two different accounts were not given to us by the Spirit of God in order for us to blur the distinctions and make the two into one. The distinct message of 1 and 2 Chronicles is God’s word to the postexilic Israelites. It is worthy of our full respect and attention.

To see more clearly the scope of Chronicler’s theological message, let’s look at two big- picture issues in Chronicles.

What Happened to the North?

Second Chronicles 10:1-36:23 deals with the period of the divided monarchy, where the nation of Israel was split into two halves, north and south, after Solomon’s reign. The Chronicler covers this time period in 27 chapters, compared to 36 chapters in Kings (1 Kings 12-2 Kings 25). Also, nearly half of what we read in Chronicles is not found in Kings. Those are facts. Now, how do we account for them?

The biggest reason for this difference is that the Chronicler essentially leaves out the entire history of the northern kingdom. Unlike Kings, where the author more or less alternates between northern and southern kings, the Chronicler is only concerned with the southern kingdom—often referred to as Judah in the Old Testament with its capital in Jerusalem.

When different people recount the same historical events, there will always be differences between them. No one expects Chronicles to follow Kings precisely. But we have to admit that leaving out half of Israel’s story of the monarchy is significant.

The reason why this author focuses almost exclusively on the southern kingdom is because his postexilic community was made up of Judahites. The northern kingdom had long been out of the picture (see sidebar above)

The nation of Israel is now the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah is the focus of Israel’s present and future hope, and keeping this in mind will help explain why the Chronicler presents the history of the monarchy so differently that what we find in Samuel/Kings. He does not report the past literally. He reports the past to say something of deep theological significance about Israel’s present and future.

David and Solomon Have No Troubles

One of the better-known differences between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings is how David and Solomon are portrayed ideal moral and kingly figures.1

Samuel/Kings portray David and Solomon as great kings, but these books are not shy about exposing their failings. In fact, it is their failings that help explain why Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. Explaining the “why” of the exile is the main message of Samuel/Kings. Solomon’s reign began well (see 1 Kings 1-10), but ended with trouble. He did not eliminate all of the pagan high places; he also instituted enforced labor and had numerous wives. Kings reports these failings but Chronicles does not.

Likewise, the Chronicler essentially ignores David’s failings–the most famous of which is his sin with Bathsheba.

The Chronicler is not merely giving us a different angle on David and Solomon’s reign. He is painting a very different theological portrait. He wrote a second history of Israel to portray David and Solomon as models of the nations present restoration in the postexilic period.

The Chronicler is not looking back to Israel’s past for its own sake, but is using the reshaped past to speak to the present and future. As Ray Dillard puts it,

…the Chronicler portrays [David and Solomon as] glorious, obedient, all-conquering figures who enjoy not only divine blessing but the total support of the people as well: he presents us not only with the David and Solomon of history, but also of the David and Solomon of his messianic expectation.2

A good place to see the distinctive message of Chronicler’s is to look at the transfer of power from David to Solomon. The two inspired biblical accounts tell significantly different stories. In 1 Kings 1-2, we see messy politics and strife: an aging, bed-ridden David, who is faced by internal political struggles (his son Adonijah’s attempt to seize the throne). David maintains control but only through the last-minute involvement of Nathan and Bathsheba. Solomon is anointed king by Nathan and Zadok (the priest) in a ceremony, but Solomon’s troubles continue: Adonijah did not give up easily his claim to the throne, and that rebellion had to be squelched after his anointing.

By contrast, the Chronicler portrays a wholly peaceful transition of power from David to Solomon (see 1 Chronicles 28-29). There is no strife, no intrigue, no competition. No longer feeble and bed-ridden, the Chronicler’s David essentially hands the throne over to Solomon smoothly in a public ceremony (David is not present in 1 Kings 1). There is no dissention at all. Solomon receives the support of all the people, including David’s other sons and even the officers, some of whom had sided with Adonijah in 1 Kings.

Again, these two accounts of Solomon’s succession are not two complimentary angles on one story, but two versions. The transition of power is utterly different. The two accounts are incompatible if we approach the Bible expecting historical accounts to provide no more or less than literal accuracy. “Literalism” cannot explain why these two accounts are so different.

Chronicles, although undeniably written as an account of history, is not a journalistic, objective, blow-by-blow account so his readers can know what happened back then. And he is certainly not writing to distort the past by white-washing it. The Chronicler is presenting an ideal David and Solomon to cast a vision for the future.

Chronicles is no less the word of God because of its reshaping of history to make this theological, pastoral, point. Rather, reshaping the past to speak to the present is precisely what this author was inspired to do.

In the next section, we’ll look at other ways that the Chronicler portrays David and Solomon and the grand vision he casts for the postexilic Israelites.

#The Books of Chronicles

Earlier, 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 reallyDavid’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.

#The Books of Chronicles (Part 2)

Earlier, we looked at one example of how the author of Chronicles was moved by the spirit of God to report Nathan’s prophecy to David. Although both 1 Chronicles 7:14 and 2 Samuel 7:16 report the same speech event, the words that Nathan speaks in the two accounts are significantly different. The Chronicler reshapes the words of Nathan’s prophecy in order to communicate his inspired message: a word of divine comfort to the postexilic Israelites that they are still the people of God.

Nathan’s prophecy serves as an entryway to seeing more clearly the Chronicler’s overall message to his beleaguered audience. The Chronicler does more than just change the wording in some verses here and there. His message, which we began to see last week, shines through from beginning to end.

Chronicles and Samuel/Kings differ significantly in how they portray Israel’s monarchy as a whole. These two different accounts were not given to us by the Spirit of God in order for us to blur the distinctions and make the two into one. The distinct message of 1 and 2 Chronicles is God’s word to the postexilic Israelites. It is worthy of our full respect and attention.

To see more clearly the scope of Chronicler’s theological message, let’s look at two big- picture issues in Chronicles.

What Happened to the North?

Second Chronicles 10:1-36:23 deals with the period of the divided monarchy, where the nation of Israel was split into two halves, north and south, after Solomon’s reign. The Chronicler covers this time period in 27 chapters, compared to 36 chapters in Kings (1 Kings 12-2 Kings 25). Also, nearly half of what we read in Chronicles is not found in Kings. Those are facts. Now, how do we account for them?

The biggest reason for this difference is that the Chronicler essentially leaves out the entire history of the northern kingdom. Unlike Kings, where the author more or less alternates between northern and southern kings, the Chronicler is only concerned with the southern kingdom—often referred to as Judah in the Old Testament with its capital in Jerusalem.

When different people recount the same historical events, there will always be differences between them. No one expects Chronicles to follow Kings precisely. But we have to admit that leaving out half of Israel’s story of the monarchy is significant.

The reason why this author focuses almost exclusively on the southern kingdom is because his postexilic community was made up of Judahites. The northern kingdom had long been out of the picture (see sidebar above)

The nation of Israel is now the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah is the focus of Israel’s present and future hope, and keeping this in mind will help explain why the Chronicler presents the history of the monarchy so differently that what we find in Samuel/Kings. He does not report the past literally. He reports the past to say something of deep theological significance about Israel’s present and future.

David and Solomon Have No Troubles

One of the better-known differences between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings is how David and Solomon are portrayed ideal moral and kingly figures.3

Samuel/Kings portray David and Solomon as great kings, but these books are not shy about exposing their failings. In fact, it is their failings that help explain why Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. Explaining the “why” of the exile is the main message of Samuel/Kings. Solomon’s reign began well (see 1 Kings 1-10), but ended with trouble. He did not eliminate all of the pagan high places; he also instituted enforced labor and had numerous wives. Kings reports these failings but Chronicles does not.

Likewise, the Chronicler essentially ignores David’s failings–the most famous of which is his sin with Bathsheba.

The Chronicler is not merely giving us a different angle on David and Solomon’s reign. He is painting a very different theological portrait. He wrote a second history of Israel to portray David and Solomon as models of the nations present restoration in the postexilic period.

The Chronicler is not looking back to Israel’s past for its own sake, but is using the reshaped past to speak to the present and future. As Ray Dillard puts it,

…the Chronicler portrays [David and Solomon as] glorious, obedient, all-conquering figures who enjoy not only divine blessing but the total support of the people as well: he presents us not only with the David and Solomon of history, but also of the David and Solomon of his messianic expectation.4

A good place to see the distinctive message of Chronicler’s is to look at the transfer of power from David to Solomon. The two inspired biblical accounts tell significantly different stories. In 1 Kings 1-2, we see messy politics and strife: an aging, bed-ridden David, who is faced by internal political struggles (his son Adonijah’s attempt to seize the throne). David maintains control but only through the last-minute involvement of Nathan and Bathsheba. Solomon is anointed king by Nathan and Zadok (the priest) in a ceremony, but Solomon’s troubles continue: Adonijah did not give up easily his claim to the throne, and that rebellion had to be squelched after his anointing.

By contrast, the Chronicler portrays a wholly peaceful transition of power from David to Solomon (see 1 Chronicles 28-29). There is no strife, no intrigue, no competition. No longer feeble and bed-ridden, the Chronicler’s David essentially hands the throne over to Solomon smoothly in a public ceremony (David is not present in 1 Kings 1). There is no dissention at all. Solomon receives the support of all the people, including David’s other sons and even the officers, some of whom had sided with Adonijah in 1 Kings.

Again, these two accounts of Solomon’s succession are not two complimentary angles on one story, but twoversions. The transition of power is utterly different. The two accounts are incompatible if we approach the Bible expecting historical accounts to provide no more or less than literal accuracy. “Literalism” cannot explain why these two accounts are so different.

Chronicles, although undeniably written as an account of history, is not a journalistic, objective, blow-by-blow account so his readers can know what happened back then. And he is certainly not writing to distort the past by white-washing it. The Chronicler is presenting an ideal David and Solomon to cast a vision for the future.

Chronicles is no less the word of God because of its reshaping of history to make this theological, pastoral, point. Rather, reshaping the past to speak to the present is precisely what this author was inspired to do.

Next, we’ll look at other ways that the Chronicler portrays David and Solomon and the grand vision he casts for the postexilic Israelites.

#The Books of Chronicles (Part 3)

Earlier, we looked at two examples where the Chronicler’s portrayal of Israel’s monarchy is significantly different from what is recorded in Samuel/Kings: his exclusive focus on the southern kingdom of Judah and the transfer of power from David to Solomon.

These examples show that these two historians have very different reasons for writing their histories. The writer of Samuel/Kings is focused on why first the northern kingdom was taken captive by the Assyrians (722 B.C.) and then the southern kingdom by the Babylonians (586 B.C.) The Chronicler’s focus is on the returning southern kingdom and their future as the people of God. These differing purposes account for why the history is told differently.

Although there are many more differences, in this section I want to look at one final difference in particular and make a concluding comment in the Chronicler’s “messianic expectation.”

The Importance of the Temple

As we saw before, the Chronicler omits the failings of Solomon in order to present him as a model for the kind of ideal king the postexilic Israelites are yearning for. They are looking for someone who, unlike the pre-exilic kings—is fully faithful to God and leads the people in obedience.

The Chronicler omits other things about Solomon, not just his failings. He minimizes Solomon’s kingly role and focuses on his role in Israel’s worship, especially Solomon’s wisdom to build the temple.

The temple is the topic in 1 Kings for only four chapters (5-8). In Chronicles, the temple covers fifteen chapters, 1 Chronicles 22-2 Chronicles 7. Those chapters add a lot of material that is unique to Chronicles and also omits a lot of what we see in 1 Kings.

1 Chronicles 22-29 is added material that is unique to Chronicles. These chapters give David a role in the temple building that is not seen in Samuel/Kings. Here David takes a hands-on approach to building the temple: he makes preparations (chapter 22), organizes the Levites, priests, and singers into groups (chapters 23-25), and even solicits donations (chapter 29).

Then in 2 Chronicles 1-9, which parallels 1 Kings 5-8 more closely, the Chronicler omits those parts of 1 Kings that focus on Solomon’s kingly role: the establishment of his throne (1 Kings 2); his wise decision concerning the prostitutes (3:16-28); the list of officials and governors (4:1-19); Solomon’s daily provisions (4:20-27); extolling Solomon’s wisdom (4:29-34); the building of Solomon’s palace (7:1-12).

Clearly, the Chronicler is very interested in David and Solomon’s role in the temple specifically, not so much in their kingly duties.

False worship was a huge factor in the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. and in sending Israel into exile. Proper temple observance, led by faithful kings, will be the key to postexilic Israel’s continued status as God’s people. David and Solomon’s role in the temple in Chronicles serves as a model for Israel’s postexilic rejuvenation.

This is the hope that is both taken up and fully transformed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Chronicles, Jesus, and the Messianic Hope

Chronicles looks to the past to give hope for the future. The postexilic Israelites were yearning for a king to rule and guide them as the people of God. They were through with kings who had a half-hearted love of God, the kind of kingship that helped land them in Babylonian exile to begin with. They wanted a new kind of king, one who fits the ideal picture of what a king of Israel should really be like. This is why the Chronicler portrays the reigns of David and Solomon the way he does: to speak to that future hope.

To put this another way, Chronicles is a highly messianic book. In fact, perhaps no book in the Old Testament has more of an explicit messianic focus.

“Messiah” for Old Testament Israelites simply meant “anointed.” Kings were anointed, literally with oil, to rule Israel (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:1; 16:3; 1 Kings 1:34; 19:15-16). Technically speaking, all kings were by definition “messiahs.”

When we speak of a “messianic hope” in the Old Testament, it is a hope for an “anointed one,” a king descended the previous kings, but who will “get it right.” For Chronicles, that means a king who will honor temple worship, follow the law, teach the people to do likewise, and be God’s instrument for reestablishing Israel’s national glory among the nations.

The Chronicler likely wrote no earlier than the late fifth century B.C., during the Persian period when there was an optimism that God would set things right fairly soon. But Persian rule gave way to Greek rule, and then eventually to Roman rule. Israel was a servant to the nations rather than being a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). As long as this situation remained, Israel could not really be “Israel.” They were not able to fulfill their mission to the world. The realization of their messianic hope remained unfulfilled even 500 years after they had returned to the land (539 B.C.) and rebuilt their temple (516 B.C.).

In Jesus’ day, the messianic hope still shone bright. In fact, “messiahs” were popping up left and right, and they all were after the same thing: reestablishing Jewish faithfulness to the law, to the sanctity of temple worship, and gaining independence from the Romans. These messiahs would turn up with a following, holding a torah in one hand and a sword in the other. All were trying to bring about what we see in seed form in Chronicles.

This messianic expectation is the context of Jesus’ coming, and what does he do? Not what his followers expected. Even his disciples expected Jesus to march into Jerusalem to take his seat on the throne (and they wanted their piece of that pie, too!, see Mark 10:35-45). Judas eventually betrayed Jesus because Jesus’ messianic movement was not what he had signed up for.

Jesus did not preach maintaining the Jewish law; he gave a new law that exceeded it (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). Jesus did not uphold temple worship; he criticized it and declared that he was the temple (John 2:12-25). Jesus did not march into Jerusalem to grasp the power of an earthly throne; his kingdom was not of power but of service, even self-sacrifice (Matthew 20:20-28), a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36).

Jesus did not fulfill the messianic expectation of Chronicles; he transformed it. Jesus is the new king in the line of David and Solomon. He is not like the kings of Samuel/Kings. He is not even like the idealized king of Chronicles. Jesus further reshapes Israel’s notion of what their king should be. He fulfills the ideal, but beyond expectation.


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About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs.

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