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Thursday, June 01, 2017

History Told Twice

Nothing too profound this morning.

I’ve been enjoying a book on the gospel of Luke (see an earlier post) that draws attention to the differences between the gospel records. Not those pesky “apparent contradictions”, but just differences in content and presentation.

Each inspired record of the life of Christ has its own theme or themes. (In other news, water is wet.)

As has been well observed for centuries, each gospel writer has selected the events in the life of Messiah most important to him, has omitted certain stories and added others as appropriate, and has reordered it all as the Holy Spirit saw fit. Never is this more apparent than in Luke, where careful attention to the book’s structure reveals that the good doctor has taken a very stylized approach made up of dozens of parallel sub-narratives.

Makes for fascinating reading, and it’s something I’m starting to notice in the Old Testament, where there is also the occasional bit of history told twice.

Portraits of Solomonic Israel

One such narrative pair is the Kings / Chronicles accounts of Solomon’s reign.

While 2 Chronicles 1-9 contains much of the same material found in Kings (sometimes even in similar wording), there is a major difference in emphasis. In fact, the Chronicles picture of Solomonic Israel is so unrelentingly rosy we might be forgiven for thinking it preserves for posterity an early exercise in state propaganda.

Now, to be fair, the writer of Chronicles makes no attempt to portray his version as definitive or comprehensive. He finishes with the usual historian’s gloss:
“Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, from first to last, are they not written in the history of Nathan the prophet, and in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat?”
At the time he wrote, all that other stuff about King Solomon that goes unmentioned in Chronicles was readily available elsewhere, though only a fraction is still around for us to read, much of it in 1 Kings 1-11. So we can be sure no pious fraud was on a mission to retcon Solomon’s reign for his readers.

The Stuff That Got Left Out

All the same, notable among the material that got left out are the events described in the 43 verses of 1 Kings 11, where we find that Solomon married 700 women, many of them foreign, and kept hundreds of concubines beside. In this he was simply engaging in the same sort of harem-building to which his father David and other powerful men of that day were inclined, but scaled up by a whole order of magnitude. He compounded it by pandering to the religious and cultural preferences of these women in ways David never even considered.

Chronicles is silent on that.

Kings tells us Solomon’s heart was “not wholly true”, and he did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord”. He became an idolater, and a passionate one.

Not a peep about that in Chronicles.

Solomon had significant political troubles in his later years, Kings tells us, which were directly related to his idolatry.

Chronicles? Shh. Nothing to see here.

Okay, I’m hamming it up a little, but you get my point. Believers in the inspiration of scripture know beyond a shadow of a doubt that whoever wrote Chronicles was not blissfully unaware of Solomon’s dark side, and he surely wasn’t trying to cover it up. So why present the material so differently?

How We Got Where We Are Now

The books of Kings are thought to have been completed around 539 B.C., toward the end of the Babylonian captivity, though they contain earlier source material that was probably in something approximating its final form hundreds of years earlier. The books begin with the glory of Solomon’s united kingdom of Israel and end with the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar a little less than 400 years later.

But we shouldn’t overlook the obvious: the seeds of Jerusalem’s destruction were planted right at the very beginning, during Solomon’s spectacular reign. It is because of idolatry that the people of Judah were eventually uprooted from their homes, and it is great King Solomon we can credit for sending them on their long march down the road to Babylon. (That should be our first clue that the writer(s) of Kings are more intent on theology than history.)

In any case, if we are correct in assuming Kings was completed by devout, repentant Jews in Babylon and Persia, we would not be out of line to note that one major theme of the books is How we got where we are now.

The Continuity of Obedient Response

Chronicles, on the other hand, is dated over a century later by most conservative scholars, between 450-400 B.C., well after the restoration of Jerusalem (the seven generations of David’s line after Jehoiakim recorded in chapter 3 suggest closer to 400 B.C., or even later).

David Malick lists seven apparent intended purposes for the writing of Chronicles (with the name of the original author who suggested each one in parens following). None of these sounds a whole lot like the theme of Kings:
A. To bear witness to the “unity of God’s will for his people.” (Brevard S. Childs)

B. To bear witness to “the continuity of the obedient response within the history of Israel.” (Childs)

C. To bear witness to “the fundamental correspondence between an action and its outcome.” (Childs)

D. To “give the Jews of the Second Commonwealth the true spiritual foundations of their theocracy as the covenant people of Jehovah.” (Gleason Archer)

E. To bear witness to the “role of sacred scripture as providing the rule of faith by which the community lives.” (Childs again)

F. To “interpret to the restored community in Jerusalem the history of Israel as an eternal covenant between God and David which demanded an obedient response to the divine law.” (Childs)

G. To reveal God’s desire to bless those who wholeheartedly worship Him and to curse those who resist Him in rebellion according to the Mosaic system of Temple worship. (Elliott Johnson)
Hmm. Let’s think about that.

Two Audiences

Now, these men may or may not be spot on about the precise theological purpose of Chronicles, but it is evident its books were written for a different generation than those originally exposed to the books of Kings, under very different circumstances, and with very different spiritual issues to address. Understandably. A writer with a corrective spiritual purpose makes his case differently to an arrogant, self-sufficient audience than to a demoralized one, and that remains true even when he is “only” writing history.

To properly set out the reasons behind Israel’s decline and provide the necessary cautions to coming generations as has been diligently undertaken in the books of Kings, it would have been absolutely necessary to examine in detail all of Solomon’s failings, especially his failure to wholly set his heart on following Jehovah and its underlying causes. This is precisely what we find there.

But Chronicles was written under no such obligation, particularly since Kings had already made its case to its audience in its day, and the books can therefore focus on the glories of Solomon’s reign rather than its failings.

When Bible history is told twice, it’s never without good reason.

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