Lesson 4 of 5
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Introductory Issues in 1 Chronicles

Chronicles as history

Chronicles looks like history, but as one reads through it, it becomes obvious that it is a very different kind of history than we are accustomed to reading. Accounts drawn from Samuel and Kings are presented differently and are often flatly contradicted. This difficult issue is somewhat eased by the recognition that no biblical book is written with the canons of what we would now call “history.” Recent comparisons of the Greek versions of Samuel and the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed that fairly often the Chronicler has preserved the “correct” reading of differing passages. It must be admitted, however, that the Chronicler’s presentation often modifies his sources, usually to make a theological point, rather than to contradict a historical account. For example, contrary to 2 Samuel 5-6, the first thing David does after his coronation is to try to bring the ark to Jerusalem, thus demonstrating his devotion to proper worship, a key theme in Chronicles (1 Chronicles 13:1-14). Rather than disparage the Chronicler’s failure to conform to our ideas of what history should be, we should try to determine his theological motivation in presenting these stories this way.

Evaluative comments in the narrative

Readers are often struck by the directness of certain evaluative comments that frequently appear in the Chronicler’s narrative. These usually function to direct the reader to the point of the narrative, at least as the Chronicler would have us see it. The most striking is found in 1 Chronicles 10:13-14, where the writer claims that the LORD put Saul to death and turned the kingdom over to David because Saul had been unfaithful. Other notable comments of this nature include:

  • David becoming king according to the word of the LORD (11:3)
  • David had the support of “all Israel” (11:10; 12:22, 23, 38-40)
  • The success of the Levites was due to God’s help (15:26)
  • David died with riches and honor (29:28-30)
  • Solomon succeeded David because God was with him (2 Chronicles 1:1)

Genealogies

Much of 1 Chronicles consists of genealogical lists–most of the first nine chapters and the lists of various clergy in chapters 23-27 being the most extensive. Almost all the genealogies from Genesis have been employed for a variety of purposes, including situating Israel among the nations and identifying traditional boundaries. In these cumbersome lists, which seem so strange to us, the Chronicler’s audience would have heard definitions of social rights and obligations as well as indications of status and territorial boundaries.

God speeches

The Chronicler offers us a rich collection of speeches and prayers in which he expresses his own views. These speeches and prayers are usually unparalleled in Samuel/Kings. As such they are a rich source for the Chronicler’s distinctive theological position. It is striking, therefore, that there are no unique occurrences of speeches made by God. Every instance of divine speech, unmediated by prophets, is paralleled in his sources (usually Samuel or Kings). Although the Chronicler has felt free to “improve” these speeches found in his sources, he has not felt free to provide unique speeches attributed to God, possibly reflecting the more pious attitude of the postexilic community.

Huge numbers

Huge numbers are frequently encountered in these books. For example, Asa is said to have repulsed an invasion of one million Ethiopians with an army of 580,000 (2 Chronicles 14:8-9). Frequently, the accuracy of these huge numbers is supported by the claim that the Hebrew word eleph, translated “thousand,” refers to a military unit from a tribal subsection rather than a literal thousand, thereby reducing the total of Asa’s forces to “580 military units.” Plausible as this may seem, what does one do with David’s amassing of 100,000 talents of gold (3,365 tons!) and one million talents of silver (33,000 tons!) for the Jerusalem temple (1 Chronicles 22:14) where no military units are in sight? It is best to see the exaggerated numbers as rhetorical devices that display the magnificence of the temple, much as we might say, “Thanks a million!”

An idealized David?

Because the Chronicler has omitted several of the unsavory depictions of David familiar from Samuel–such as his outlaw days, adultery with Bathsheba, and murder of her husband, as well as the physical weakness and inability to control his own family that marked the end of his life–the Chronicler has been accused of presenting us with a sanitized if not an idealized portrayal of David. Over against the truth of this evaluation, however, stand the negative portrayals of David that the Chronicler employs to temper his presentation, including David’s improper care for the ark (1 Chronicles 15:13), the heightened sense of David’s sin in the census-taking of 1 Chronicles 21:1, 3, 8 (over against 2 Samuel 24), and the fact that David is not permitted to build the temple. David is the Chronicler’s ideal king, but even David needs to repent of his sin and seek God’s forgiveness. It should also be pointed out that the Chronicler’s audience was well aware of the earlier history’s depiction of David and Solomon. This means that the Chronicler’s intent was to concentrate upon those aspects of these kings that accounted for their success and that might serve as examples to the restoration community.

Interpretive principles

A number of exegetical principles in Chronicles regarding the Torah have been discovered, including the following:

  • Chronicles distinguishes between a text and its interpretation.
  • The Torah is seen as a relatively closed system forming the basis of the legislation.
  • The Torah is also partially open, in that extension or reapplication is possible.
  • Torah often requires supplementary law in order to be effectual.
  • Tensions in the Torah tend to be solved by a principle of addition rather than by mediation or compromise.
  • The written Torah is more authoritative than written prophecy.
  • But written prophecy is more authoritative than narrative history.

Prophetic speeches

Among the Chronicler’s rich collection of speeches and prayers (see “God speeches”) are five prophetic speeches, taken from Samuel/Kings with modifications: 1 Chronicles 17:1-15; 21:9-12, 18; 2 Chronicles 11:2-4; 18:12-27; 34:22-28. In addition, ten unparalleled speeches from otherwise generally unknown prophets appear: 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; 15:1-7; 16:7-9; 19:2-3; 20:37; 21:12-15; 24:20-22; 25:7-9; 25:15-16; 28:9-11. These ten unparalleled speeches all occur in the period of the divided monarchy and deliver the Chronicler’s message of retributive justice.

Relationship to Ezra-Nehemiah

Theological differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah have caused a revision of the view that Ezra-Nehemiah and the books of Chronicles share common authorship and comprise the so-called “Chronicler’s History.” These differences include Chronicles’ inclusive attitude toward the people of the Northern Kingdom, emphasis upon the Davidic Monarchy, and concern with retributive justice–characteristics all essentially absent from Ezra-Nehemiah. There is also a differing understanding of “Israel” in the two works: in Chronicles, Israel is defined as all twelve tribes; Ezra-Nehemiah, however, limits Israel to Judah and Benjamin. Currently, most scholars suggest that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are separate literary entities.

Royal prayers

Among the Chronicler’s rich collection of speeches and prayers are several royal prayers, including those of David (1 Chronicles 17:16-27 // 2 Samuel 7:18-29; 24:10-17); Solomon (2 Chronicles 6:12-42 // 1 Kings 8:22-53); Asa (2 Chronicles 14:11); Jehoshaphat (20:5-12); and Hezekiah (30:18-19). David and Solomon’s major prayers (1 Chronicles 17; 2 Chronicles 6) are also found in the earlier history, but presented with significant changes illustrative of the Chronicler’s theology. These too can have structural significance. For example, David’s prayers form an inclusio around his preparations for the temple.

Royal speeches

The royal speeches (see also “God speeches”) unique to Chronicles include those of David (1 Chronicles 13:2-3; 15:2, 12-13; 22:6-16; 22:17-19; 28:2-10; 28:20-21; 29:1-5, 20); Abijah (2 Chronicles 13:4-12); Asa (14:7); Jehoshaphat (19:6-7, 9-11; 20:20); Hezekiah (29:5-11, 31; 30:6-9; 32:7-8); and Josiah (35:3-6). Only kings judged positively by the Chronicler (or in the positive segment of the king’s reign, if he is presented both positively and negatively) make these speeches. These speeches often have structural significance. For example, Abijah’s speech in 2 Chronicles 13:4-12 and Hezekiah’s speech in 2 Chronicles 30:6-9–both calls to the north to return–form an inclusio around the divided monarchy.

Sources in Chronicles

The canonical books of Samuel and Kings (though in different editions than we have) serve as the Chronicler’s major source. In the past, as many as twenty-three other sources have been suggested for the Chronicler, who cites sources more than any other biblical author. These alleged sources, however, are regarded with some skepticism these days; as we have no access to them, the point is rendered moot.

Textual matters

In the past, scholars determined the theology of Chronicles by noting the many small changes from the Chronicler’s source (usually Samuel/Kings) and assigning a theological motivation for the change. Thus, Chronicles omits David’s adultery with Bathsheba because he wants to depict David as an ideal king. The problem with this approach, however, is that the text of Samuel/Kings that the Chronicler used was not the one we have now in our Bibles. This means that before differences between Chronicles and Samuel are ascribed to the Chronicler’s theological interests, one needs to make sure that the Chronicler is not reading (and faithfully preserving) a different text of Samuel/Kings. Quite often the Hebrew text of Chronicles agrees with the Greek text of Samuel (especially the so-called Lucianic recension of the Septuagint) and the Qumran text of Samuel, over against the Hebrew text of Samuel. In these cases, the Chronicler did not alter his text for theological reasons or any other. This accounts for many of the differences between older and more recent commentaries on this material.

Use of traditional material

There appear to be many contradictions in the Chronicler’s use of traditional material. Without denying that this is sometimes the case, it is important to recognize that the Chronicler’s usual way of achieving a new portrayal of the past was by omitting or rearranging parallel material, a practice that may not have appeared as obtrusive to his audience as it does to us. It is probable, judging from other postexilic literature, that the Chronicler’s relatively free use of the tradition was commensurate with the practice of his contemporaries.

What kind of book is Chronicles? 

Recent interpretation, rejecting modern designations such as “history,” “theology,” “midrash,” or “exegesis,” tends to see Chronicles as a “Rewritten Bible.” This genre, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, can be described as a narrative that follows Scripture closely but includes additional material and interpretation. It is quite clear that Chronicles takes over other biblical texts, especially Samuel and Kings, to a greater degree than any other canonical book–and it has obviously augmented that material in a variety of ways.

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