The Historical Books

19 August 2010 10:54:12

Philip Greenslade explores Kings and Chronicles

Biblical history is a strange mixture: a boy prophet hears voices in the night; an old man falls off his chair, breaking his neck; a guitar-strumming shepherd is summoned to be king; a boy beats a giant in a head-to-head contest; two men love each other deeply but are not homosexual; a royal pretender becomes target practice for an enraged spear-throwing king who’s past his sell-by date; a monarch feigns madness and then shows kindness to the disabled.

There are witches and mediums, generals wanting to be president, femmes fatales, floating axe-heads, economic expansion, hyper-inflation, prophets, politicians, refugees, spin-doctors, hangers-on, peasants, holy men and courageous women, civil war and deportation.

Judah’s last king, eyes gouged out, is carried sightless into exile.

Murder, mercy and mayhem – it’s all there!

What are we to make of biblical history?

Well, despite the recurring features common to human nature, biblical history is essentially linear – moving from past through present to future, rather than, as in some ancient cultures, cyclical, going round and round in an unbreakable cycle of repetition and fate.

More than linear, it would be better to say that biblical history is teleological and theological.

Teleological in having a beginning, a middle and an end, it is history which is not random and meaningless but history that is going somewhere.

Even the annual festivals of harvest which follow the rhythm of the seasons were expropriated by Israel for telling the larger story of Israel’s partnership with a God who is both Creator and Saviour.

This history is theological because the ‘going somewhere’ ultimately has to do with the story God is telling in Scripture.

Human characters and events become significant for biblical historians, therefore, by the relationship to, and involvement with, what God is perceived to be doing in working out His purposes through human history.

Biblical history is essentially redemptive history, tracing the course of God’s promise to bless Abraham and all nations as it makes its uncertain way through Israel’s own history.

In other words, we will miss the message of the biblical history books if we insist on treating them as an objective, factual, reporting of events – this is to seek to make ancient history conform to modern, post-Enlightenment demands.

In fact, it’s now universally accepted that no such purely objective history exists. All history is told from some standpoint, urging some point of view.

This doesn’t make it untrue; rather, it is a different kind of truth, one which is less interested in a historical archaeology of past events and more interested in their significance and meaning – in this case in their theological significance and meaning.

As Langmead Casserley said many years ago, ‘the function of a prophet is to interpret to the chosen people the ways of God in history and to discern and proclaim the revelation of the divine purpose in terms of the judgment and mercy of God’.

This helps to explain why the Jewish canon lists the whole history from Joshua through to 2 Chronicles as ‘the former prophets’.

In the historical narratives, comments John Mackay, the ‘kings are judged by prophetic standards, so that we are not handling secular history but the story of a people called by God to build his kingdom and reflect his glory on earth’.

And as Martin Woudstras points out, ‘ordinary history may highlight natural causes and enlarge upon subjective motives. Not so with biblical historiography. It is essentially prophetic in character’.

With this in mind we can now begin to appreciate why the long historical narratives of the Bible, the Books of Kings and Chronicles, cover roughly the same time frame in the story they tell but tell that story rather differently.

Each of these dual works selects from their common story those events that emphasise the particular message they are trying to make. Both works are written from different vantage points and seek to answer different questions.

As we shall see, 1 and 2 Kings is written at the time of the exile to Babylon and seeks to explain, by going back over the long history of Israel, why Israel has arrived in exile.

1 and 2 Chronicles goes back over much the same ground but from the point of view at the end of the exile, when the question is more about the future.

Kings

1 and 2 Kings can largely be seen as the story of how kingship interacted with the prophets God sent to Israel.

It is fascinating to note that the prophets were often court officials or were habitually invading the king’s space with the word of God.

Elijah exemplifies this (1 Kings 17–19) as does Elisha (2 Kings 1–3) and Isaiah (2 Kings 19:1–7, 20–34), together with lesser lights – Ahijah (1 Kings 11:29), Shemaiah (1 Kings 12:22–24), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:5–28), and the major female prophet, Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20).

Here we read the tragic story of the covenant unfaithfulness that has brought kings and commoners to exile in Babylon. Covenant faithfulness, in other words, is the yardstick by which the kings of Israel and Judah are measured.

For example, Omri is a powerful ruler in the Northern Kingdom of Israel but his 12-year reign is passed over in six verses because ‘he did evil in God’s sight’ (1 Kings 16:23–28).

On the other hand, Josiah is highlighted because he instituted covenant renewal during his reign (2 Kings 22–23).

Notable deviations from adherence to the covenant receive extended attention when involving strong prophetic critique: e.g. Ahab and Elijah (1 Kings 17).

1 and 2 Kings is not all negative reflection. It depicts disloyalty to the Mosaic covenant as decisive for the waning of Israel’s fortunes.

But it also consistently emphasises the significance of the Davidic covenant for the nation’s destiny and ongoing hope.

God’s crucial promise to David is ‘a lamp that will not go out’ even as the storm clouds gather over the nation (1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19).

Even at the terrible division of the kingdoms God is merciful because of David (1 Kings 11:12–13, 32).

David remains the somewhat idealised standard of kingship throughout (1 Kings 9:4; 11:4 etc.).

These almost incidental references in historical narrative are in fact the key moments of theological summary which either seal the fate of, or offer a glimmer of hope to, the people of God.

1 and 2 Kings therefore highlight the role of God’s prophetic word in shaping history – with internal promise-fulfilment connections made in the text.

For example, 2 Samuel 7:13 is picked up in 1 Kings 8:20; 1 Kings 11:29–32 and 12:15; 13:2 and 2 Kings 23:16.

The former prophets contain a ‘history of the prophetic word’ (Peter Craigie).

1 and 2 Kings is a retrospective evaluation of Israel’s story, explaining that the exile had befallen God’s people – as Deuteronomy had warned – because both people and kings had broken the covenant, and offering the perpetuation of the Davidic promises as the only gleam of hope for the future.

Chronicles

1 and 2 Chronicles was written after the exile to bolster the morale of the restored community devastated by it and sobered, perhaps, by the penetrating analysis made in 1 and 2 Kings.

The Chronicle writer too is concerned to present Israel’s history in a certain light and for a particular purpose.

In reviewing the story of the Davidic kingship, the Chronicler adds and omits material to suit his purpose.

For example, the changes he makes to the account of the Davidic promise given in 2 Samuel 7:1–17 show how he is re-interpreting the history to make his point.

The Chronicle writer’s aim, apparently, was not to rewrite or replace the account in Samuel and Kings but to offer a different viewpoint.

He omits the Samuel reference (2 Sam 7:13) to the chastisement of David’s descendants, preferring, it seems, to highlight Solomon’s obedience.

Since, at the time of writing, the Davidic kingdom had crumbled into exile, he changes the phrase ‘your house and kingdom shall endure before me for ever’ (2 Sam 7:16) to ‘I will set him over my house and my kingdom for ever’ (1 Chron 17:14).

His intention seems to be to evoke the possibility that, even though ‘Israel no longer has a human king on the throne, the Davidic line has not vanished and neither has God’s promise, which after all was made personally to David’ (Philip Long: The Art of Biblical History, Zondervan, pp 82–4 – very helpful for understanding the historical books).

In other words, for the people now back in the Land, the question is not the one asked by Kings, ‘Why has this exile happened to us?’, but the one now implicitly asked and answered by the Chronicle writer: ‘Are the covenants still in force? Is there hope for us after exile? Do we have a future with this covenant God?’

To achieve this – and perhaps to stimulate the rebuilding of the Temple – the Chronicle writer takes time and trouble to describe the original Temple building in great detail.

No doubt in conjunction with this intention went the emergence of the Psalm collection, long held to originate with David, so that the compilation of the Psalter became the lasting Davidic legacy to the post-exilic community.

The writer underlines his intentions by his repeated emphasis on the sovereignty of God in choosing David (1 Chron 28:4), Solomon (28:5–6), Jerusalem (2 Chron 6:6) and the Temple itself (2 Chron 7:12) where He has entrusted His Name.

The changes we have noted to the account of the Davidic covenant (1 Chron 17 cf 2 Samuel 7) and the idealised portraits of David, Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah make the same point.

It’s as if to say God can wipe the slate clean for you too! And the continual reminders of the Davidic covenant are messianic markers pointing to the ideal king to come.

Another important point to note is that the Chronicle writer keeps all Israel in view, both north and south, evidently considering the restored post-exilic community as a remnant of all Israel.

He does this by recounting how, after the Northern kingdom fell, Hezekiah invited many from the north to come south to celebrate Passover, and that some of them stayed (2 Chron 30; 31:6) to be present later at Josiah’s Passover (2 Chron 34:9; 35:17–18).

The Chronicle writer ends on a note of prophetic fulfilment both in judgement of exile and hope of return (2 Chron 36:16; 36:21–22 cf Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10).

So we can summarise by saying, in Bill Dumbrell’s words, that Kings and Chronicles are ‘prophetic works, a theological interpretation which displays a sense of what was ultimately important for the history of the people of God’.


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