Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Twice-Told Tales

I love scripture. Obviously I love it from a spiritual standpoint: what it tells me has saved me for all eternity. There is simply no way to top that.

But as a reader, writer, and lover of language, I find the scriptures endlessly fascinating in the way that they were constructed and the purposes they were intended to serve, both by the Holy Spirit and their human writers, to the extent we are able to discern these intentions by careful observation.

I love the scriptures in this way too, as many others do. For me, a deep dive into the Word is as refreshing as a dip in a mountain stream and more enlightening than the most profound secular literature.

Kings vs Chronicles

I noted a few years ago that the books of Chronicles repurpose a great deal of text from the books of Samuel and Kings, in many instances word for word. Up to 50% of the material in Chronicles exists in similar (though not identical) form elsewhere in the Old Testament. That’s not an observation unique to me, of course; thousands of other commentators on scripture have said the same. It’s one of those things that you can’t unsee, and once you have compared one passage from Kings with its revised version in Chronicles, you can hardly help but wonder, as you approach each new account, what the differences may be and why they exist.

Commentators refer to Chronicles as largely post-exilic, while Kings is generally considered to have been written during the Babylonian exile as much as a century earlier, though it is readily evident that much of the historical material in Kings was copied almost verbatim from earlier documents and redrafted with particular ends in view. After all, both Kings and Chronicles cover periods of ±400 years of Israel’s history. No single author could possibly have written either one unless the Holy Spirit dictated 90% of their content word for word. Rather, both Kings and Chronicles appear to be the product of an editor or editors working with familiar and trustworthy Jewish historical records.

In fact, both demand we view them this way, as their editors make repeated reference to the longer and now-unavailable historical accounts that served as their sources. These earlier documents need not have been divinely inspired or even 100% historically accurate, since we know from the mouth of Christ himself that their editors were carried along by the Holy Spirit of God as they did their work, so that the end product was error-free and precisely expressed the divine intent. The Chronicles source for the passage we are going to look at today is probably the Book of the Kings of Israel, while the source for the version in Kings may have been the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.

The Editors Weigh In

This being the case, the greatest (or at least the most obvious) spiritual lessons in Kings and Chronicles may be located in the relevant editorial comments and in the differences between the accounts. The original Hebrew versions would probably highlight the various comments and text edits even better, but the English translations of passages with similar content do a perfectly serviceable job.

Today’s post is a meditation on the differences between 1 Kings 22:1-40 and 2 Chronicles 18:1-19:3, both of which tell the story of the death of Ahab king of Israel. Since I don’t trust my eyeballs as much as I used to, I like to take both texts, dump them into separate Word files, and run a document comparison on them. That way I don’t miss anything.

Anybody can do this, and the results are always interesting.

Beginnings and Endings

The two accounts I am comparing are each six paragraphs long, at least in my ESV. The first and last paragraphs of each account are quite different from each other and give us more of a sense of what the editors may have been trying to convey than the common text does.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that Kings is telling the story of Ahab, while Chronicles is telling the story of Jehoshaphat. The Kings account begins with the relationship between Syria and Israel, which has been a peaceful one for three years, and introduces Jehoshaphat as a supporting character whose presence at Ahab’s table triggers a war. The Chronicles account appears in the middle of Jehoshaphat’s story, and begins with “Now Jehoshaphat had great riches and honor, and he made a marriage alliance with Ahab.” We will shortly see why this is important.

Chronicles also supplies this tidbit of information in the introductory paragraph: Jehoshaphat was set up for a fall:

“Ahab killed an abundance of sheep and oxen for him [Jehoshaphat] and for the people who were with him, and induced him to go up against Ramoth-gilead.”

Ahab wanted an alliance with Jehoshaphat against Syria; both accounts make this evident. But the editor of Chronicles wants us to know what influenced Jehoshaphat to enter into this ill-fated alliance with Ahab: he was suckered by an overly-enthusiastic reception that masked Ahab’s hidden agenda. That’s a good lesson for the reader to apply: when worldlings shower believers with unexpected honors, there is almost surely something devious going on.

The Kings account ends with an extended account of Ahab’s richly deserved exit and its meaning while saying nothing further about Jehoshaphat; of Ahab, the Chronicles account simply notes “Then at sunset he [Ahab] died”, then goes on to talk about Jehoshaphat and his return to Judah.

Thus, we see that the common text between the introduction and conclusion is actually serving two distinct purposes.

The Four Common Paragraphs

These middle four paragraphs are almost word-for-word identical even in English. Chronicles is either directly editing Kings, or else both Kings and Chronicles are editing a common third document we don’t have anymore.

Even the miniscule revisions Chronicles makes to the four common paragraphs from Kings bring out its focus on Jehoshaphat rather than Ahab. In Kings, Ahab asks his false prophets, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead?” In Chronicles, that “I” becomes “we”, because Jehoshaphat is not a supporting character. He is in the school of God being taught an important lesson, and we are not supposed to forget about him just because Ahab is doing the talking. Later, when God asks, “Who will entice Ahab?”, Chronicles adds an explanatory “the king of Israel”, just in case we had forgotten who Ahab is. After all, that story is about Jehoshaphat.

Finally, when the two kings go to war with Syria despite Micaiah’s prophetic warning and Jehoshaphat is mistaken for Ahab and attacked by all the Syrian captains, Jehoshaphat cries out to God in prayer. The editor of Chronicles adds this important information not found in Kings: “and the Lord helped him; God drew them away from him”. In Kings, readers might be forgiven for thinking the Syrian captains simply recognized their error and turned away from attacking Jehoshaphat. In Chronicles, their change of heart is unambiguously a miraculous, immediate answer to an urgent prayer by a godly man. We need our protagonist alive if he is going to learn his lesson.

Bible editors make such changes because they are not just retelling history, they are telling history with a moral for the reader.

The Conclusions

Once Ahab is dead, the narratives go two very different directions.

Kings takes up Ahab’s story and tells us about the blood pooling in his chariot, the burial of the king, the dogs licking up his blood and the prostitutes bathing in it. We are reminded that all this is to fulfill the word of the Lord through his prophet. The account closes with the statement that “Ahab slept with his fathers, and Ahaziah his son reigned in his place”, after which Jehoshaphat’s entire reign in Judah from coronation to death is summed up in a mere ten verses. What is important to the editors of Kings is that we recognize the power of the prophetic word and that God always does what he says he will do, no matter how unlikely it may appear.

In Chronicles, Jehoshaphat’s story runs four full chapters, and includes all kinds of details we don’t find in Kings. Ahab is the supporting character here. (In Kings, Ahab gets the better part of seven chapters and a further ten of references and commentary. He is not an insignificant figure in scripture, but he is not played up in Chronicles.) The account of his death is included not because of its historical importance but for its spiritual value and the impact of this incident on the life and spiritual development of Jehoshaphat.

The Old Testament Unequal Yoke

Here’s why I think Chronicles goes a different direction with the same material. Despite being a great king, Jehoshaphat had a persistent spiritual problem: he failed to keep himself separate from the world. He was constantly making alliances that offended the Lord, like the one he made with Ahab. So we read this postscript in Chronicles, but not in Kings:

“Jehoshaphat the king of Judah returned in safety to his house in Jerusalem. But Jehu the son of Hanani the seer went out to meet him and said to King Jehoshaphat, ‘Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.’ ”

Despite God’s condemnation of his alliance with Ahab, Jehoshaphat would make the very same mistake with Ahab’s son Ahaziah, partnering with him in building a fleet of ships to go to Tarshish. God intervened once again, and a lot of good timber went to waste.

There’s a moral here made explicit for the reader of Chronicles that can only be indirectly inferred from the text of Kings. Long before Paul talked about the “unequal yoke”, God wanted his people to know that light and darkness ought to have no fellowship, and that you can’t put Christ side-by-side with Belial working to the same ends.

If making that point was best accomplished by repurposing a familiar story, then it’s pen and ink well used. Don’t let “You were warned” be your postscript.

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