Chronicles: Israelite History, Take Two

 

When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, the Lord appeared to him at night and said:“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.  I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. As for you, if you walk before me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws,  I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel.’ But if you[a] turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. This temple will become a heap of rubble. All who pass by will be appalled and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why he brought all this disaster on them.’”

“Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time re-written every line?”

Or so the song goes. I think the concept is true, not only when it comes to our own memories, but also  for the collection of testaments we call the Bible.  Its authors were less concerned with getting all the facts and dates correct than with trying to understand who God is and how human beings relate to him. That’s a complex subject with many perspectives, so it’s not surprising that people who lived in different circumstances and different times have understood God differently.

The books of Samuel/Kings and the books of Chronicles tell the same stories of the rise and fall of the Israelite monarchy, but from different perspectives. In the Jewish Bible, Samuel/Kings are part of the “Former Prophets”, with rabbinic tradition ascribing the prophet Jeremiah as primary author/editor. Chronicles is found in a separate section, the “Writings” and was written later, possibly as early as the immediate post-exilic period but possibly as late as the Hellenistic period.

In the Chronicler’s retelling of  Israelite history, the lives of “good kings” like David and Solomon are rather whitewashed: no Bathsheba affair, no rebellion by Absalom, no turning to the worship of foreign gods by Solomon. The peace and prosperity enjoyed under Solomon are described in detail and have an almost Camelot-like flavor. Samuel/Kings and Chronicles share the perspective that generally good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, with “good” and “bad” being defined as obedience vs. disobedience to God. I think the Chronicler left out the juicy bits about David and Solomon for a theological reason: he wanted to emphasize the correlation between good behavior and good times.

What some see as contradictions in the Bible, I see as evidence of an incredibly rich and diverse collection of personal testimonies. The Bible is less a book of history than a book of theology, and an evolving one at that. As times and circumstances and understandings of God change, stories are told and retold, events interpreted and reinterpreted, and details emphasized or omitted. In the New Testament,  Jesus is often quoted as saying “You have heard it said of old (this) but I say (that). Later, apostolic luminaries like Peter, Stephen, and Paul  retell  the stories of Israel’s history, but with a different spin: Jesus was the promised Messiah.

It doesn’t bother me that the Bible contains many different perspectives of the story of God’s intersections with humankind. To me, that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s what makes the Bible a living book, one that is not bound by time or space, but speaks anew to every age and circumstance and person.  And that’s good news