Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Not An Idiot

The books of Chronicles cover much of the same historical material we find in the books of Samuel and Kings, sometimes in near-identical wording. This provokes legitimate questions: Do we need both? Our Bibles are bulky enough already without including a whole lot of duplicated material. What do the books of Chronicles offer us that Samuel and Kings do not?

There are several possible responses to those questions, but the short answers are “Yes” and “Quite a bit.” I am working on a comparative study of the two sets of narratives and hope to get into that subject more extensively later this year in this space if time permits. Though more or less the same time periods are covered, there are numerous variations in content and wording that make each account useful to readers in different ways.

“Writer” and “Editor”

Throughout this post I’m going to use the terms “writer” and “editor” more or less interchangeably. Each of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles covers a lengthy period of Israelite and/or Judean history. It is impossible that they were the product of a single human author. Rather, they are compilations gathered from multiple sources, possibly edited more than once. The last editor of each book was effectively the author of all, in that he got to have the final word on what went in and what didn’t, how the narratives were ordered and framed, and the spiritual purpose they served.

The most obvious difference between the two sets of biblical narratives is also editorial. It has to do with commentary. Samuel and Kings are primarily books of history. Chronicles, on the other hand, is interpreted history, in which the editor or editors regularly express strong opinions about why people did what they did, how God viewed their behavior and, by implication, how the reader should view it.


An example: after nine chapters of genealogies, Chronicles finally gets going with the story of Saul’s death. Apart from the very occasional new adjective, changed tense or clarification, the account in 1 Chronicles 10 is almost word-for-word identical to that of 1 Samuel 31. Either both editors drew on exactly the same source material or else the editor of Chronicles simply dropped in the Samuel account and made a couple of subtle text emendations of no theological significance.* Even in English, the two accounts begin and end in the very same words.

Then Chronicles adds this final comment:
So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.”
That’s the difference in a nutshell: Samuel tells us the story; Chronicles explains its moral significance.

An Oversimplification

I’m oversimplifying, of course — I could point to the very occasional example where the writers of Samuel and Kings editorialize and Chronicles does not, or when both writers comment on the same event — but as a general observation I think it holds. Chronicles has more commentary, displaying deep Spirit-led insight into the meaning of the original events.

The differences lead many commentators to conclude that the editors compiled and commented on the various historical accounts with different purposes in view, which I believe is correct.

Though the two sets of narratives draw on much of the same source material, the final books are products of different time periods and mindsets written with the spiritual needs of different generations of Jews in view. Samuel and Kings appear to have been completed very early into the Babylonian exile, while the version we have of Chronicles is quite obviously post-exilic, allowing for maximum reflection and theological commentary on the part of its editors.

David’s Census

Keeping this in mind, we will not be surprised to find that when we come to David’s census in 1 Chronicles 24, the later version contains a number of editorial clarifications to the original account. These are not corrections or conflicts; they are helpful amplifications or explanations.

Bear in mind always that the editors of Chronicles could not possibly have included what they did without having either Samuel or its immediate source material right in front of them when they wrote, and that they understood any difficulties we find in comparing the accounts much better than we can possibly understand them today. They did not make changes arbitrarily, and they were not idiots. If they included different names or numbers, they had logical or spiritual reasons for doing so, and they did not view these variant readings as inconsistencies or conflicts.

Satan or God?

The most infamous of these alleged “inconsistencies” occurs in the very first verse. The Samuel account reads, “he [God] incited David against them [Israel]”, while the Chronicles account reads, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.”

It is not necessary, as some do, to insist that the “he” in Samuel refers to Satan rather than God. That is most unlikely. Satan is not mentioned in the Samuel passage at all, and there is no reason we should try to force him in there to create a false consistency. The better explanation is that the writer of Chronicles felt it was important to his generation of readers to explain the mechanism by which God incited David against Israel in greater detail: God, who never personally tempts anyone, allowed Satan, the great tempter, to do what comes most naturally to him, and what he would have done anyway if not actively prevented from doing so. The same pattern may be observed more explicitly detailed in the book of Job.

A little familiarity with the circumstances under which both accounts were written goes a long way towards solidifying our confidence in the text.

Fudging the Numbers

The same principle applies when we come to the “inconsistencies” in numbers between 2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5. At first it appears that the editor of Chronicles is correcting the Samuel account, changing 800,000 and 500,000, respectively, to 1,100,000 and 470,000.

Once again, the man who did so was no idiot, and he was probably staring right at those original numbers as he wrote the new ones. Chronicles adds this: “But [Joab] did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.” We know Joab hated having to number the fighting men of Israel because he protested vehemently, but was overruled by David. So in typical Joab style, he fudged the numbers. The 500,000 is probably a rounded version of 470,000. The 300,000 difference between Chronicles and Samuel is the number of Benjamites and Levites which Joab left out of the total he gave David. So Samuel tells us what Joab told David, while Chronicles gives the reader the actual figures.

The Purchase of the Threshing Floor

Then there is the purchase price of the Jebusite’s threshing floor. Samuel puts it at a paltry fifty shekels of silver, while Chronicles refers to 600 shekels of gold.

One possibility is that we are comparing apples and oranges. Chronicles gives us the price of the whole “site” (in Hebrew, maqowm, a very general word for “place” or “location”), while Samuel gives us the price of only the oxen and threshing floor itself.

Scribal errors are often used as explanations for numerical differences from translation to translation, and from account to account. Sometimes that may be the case. But whatever the explanation, I repeat ad nauseum, the editor of Chronicles was no idiot, and a smudged number in an old manuscript does not conveniently turn the Hebrew word for “silver” (כֶּסֶף keceph) into “gold” (זָהָב zahab). There are a variety of possible explanations for the difference, and the only one that definitely doesn’t float is that one or another of these accounts is in error.

Longer and More Detailed

The Chronicles version of the census story is fifty words and five verses longer in English, reflecting the extra theological and motivational information we get there. The angel with the drawn sword is indeed present above the Jebusite threshing floor in Samuel, but Chronicles provides much greater detail. We find that David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. We find that Gad’s word in 2 Samuel 24:18 came from the angel of the Lord. We find that Ornan was threshing wheat, and that his four sons hid at the sight of the angel. We find that the Lord answered David’s offering with fire from heaven, a fact Samuel omits.

Then Chronicles adds this:
“At that time, when David saw that the Lord had answered him at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, he sacrificed there. For the tabernacle of the Lord, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt offering were at that time in the high place at Gibeon, but David could not go before it to inquire of God, for he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the Lord.”
For the writer of Samuel all these extra details (like the explanation about the tabernacle for those who might not recognize its significance and relationship to the temple) and insights into motivation (David’s reluctance to inquire of the Lord at Gibeon) are unnecessary. For the writer of Chronicles they are not. This appears to be an ongoing pattern throughout the two sets of narratives, continuing into Kings. Any good analysis of the purpose and intent of each group of writers and editors needs to take these persistent differences into account.

And in case it isn’t clear yet, neither book was written or edited by idiots.

* Some writers think the latter explanation more likely in view of what is said in 2 Chronicles 25:26, but that does not mean the “Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel” to which Chronicles refers is precisely the version of Kings we have today. That too has been heavily edited.

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