The Bible in Conversation with itself (2): Why two accounts of the history of Israel?

ChroniclesMy previous posts on The Bible in Conversation with itself and How the Bible was (re)written were on a similar theme, building on some ideas which I’ve blogged about in the past. This post (and possibly others to follow) continues on the same theme.

In my early Bible-reading days I was puzzled about why the Bible contained two very similar histories of Israel, often with almost identical wording, but also with stories that were unique to each account. It’s a similar question to why the New Testament has four accounts (‘Gospels’) of Jesus’ life. Wouldn’t it be simpler and more straight-forward to have just one? The question presupposes some intentionality and design in how the Bible was written. Personally, if was writing the Bible I’d go for simplicity and avoid unnecessary duplication and I’d produce a kind of ‘Readers Digest version’ of the Bible. But then, the question also presupposes that someone, or some group of Bible, at some point in time, set out to write the Bible. We know that’s not how it happened. The Bible came together as a collection of writings, or a collection of collections, and as I’ve mentioned previously there is some very good internal evidence that the work of collecting these texts took place over a long period and some editing work was done along the way.

It may come as a surprise to some people that not all Bibles are the same, or contain the same ‘books.’ There is a well-known difference between Catholic and Orthodox Bibles and Protestant ones in that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain a number of books known as ‘Apocrypha’ (or Deutero-canonical books). Lesser known is the fact that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles differ as to the number of books accepted as Apocrypha or Deutero-canonical. Then the Ethiopian Coptic Bible includes some additional books (1 Enoch and Jubilees). Historically we know that early Christians debated for a long time about which books should be included in the Canon, and the matter was never fully settled to the agreement of all churches. The New Testament itself quotes (or alludes to) books which the writers regarded as ‘Scripture’ which are known to us but which didn’t make the final cut (e.g. Jude quotes from 1 Enoch, which is a good case for why the Ethiopian church might have got it right by including it). So, if there are several different versions of the Bible to this day it shouldn’t be surprising that there were also different versions in early times, even during the period when the books of the Bible were still being written.

In this post I want to speculate about why we have two versions of Israel’s history in the Hebrew Bible: the books of Kings and Chronicles (incidentally, although Christian Bibles have 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, in the Hebrew Bible these are just one book each. The Greek Septuagint regards 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as one ‘book’ but divides them up as 1, 2, 3 and 4 Kingdoms. The Hebrew Bible knows these four books, together with Joshua and Judges, as ‘The Former Prophets’. Many modern Biblical scholars refer to the Former Prophets collection as the Deuteronomistic History.)

At this point I should explain two terms frequently found in scholarly literature: synchronic and diachronic. In a nutshell, to read a book synchronically is to read it as a whole, as a single unit, without any special consideration of how the book may have ‘evolved’ over time. A diachronic reading, on the other hand, tries to identify the various ‘layers’ as the book was edited, redacted and modified by several hands over time; it attempts to identify the various sources and concerns of each editor in the process. Even those who read books in this way – diachronically – will acknowledge that what we have now is the ‘final form’ of what may have been a long process of editing and redaction, and this final form should be read as a single unit (i.e. synchronically), the last revision by the final editor. Having noted previously that there is evidence within Kings of editing, and that the various manuscripts and the ancient versions testify to the existence of a number of ‘versions’ of the Bible, even during the time when the Bible was still being written, the final forms of Kings and Chronicles indicate that they have quite different fundamental concerns and interests.

When we read Kings and Chronicles we note several similarities and differences:

  1. There are several portions of Chronicles which are nearly identical to sections in Kings, which suggests that the writer of Chronicles may have been familiar with Kings, or one of the sources of Kings, and was intentionally writing a new version.
  2. While Kings records the histories of the kings of both Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom), Chronicles is interested primarily in the kings of Judah.
  3. In Chronicles both David and Solomon are regarded as model kings. It contains details about both kings which are not in Kings, and this additional information always extols their kingships. Negative information about David and Solomon contained in the book of Kings (such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba and Solomon’s idolatry) are not found in Chronicles. It is as though the records have been ‘white-washed’  to make these kings seem better than they actually were.
  4. In a similar way, the formulaic condemnation of the kings – “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – is found repetitively through Kings but nowhere near as often in Chronicles.   Some of the stories in Chronicles have been ‘cleaned up’ to present a better image of them than the one in Kings (such as Manasseh’s sins and his repentance which I mentioned in part 1.)
  5. The writer(s) of Chronicles seems to approve of the Davidic Dynasty and makes an effort to present a positive picture of many of the kings descended from David.
  6. The writer(s) of Kings, on the other hand, condemns even exemplary kings, detailing the failings of David and Solomon and painting all the kings as deeply flawed characters.
  7. Chronicles omits many of the stories found in Kings about prophets, including the long accounts about Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. It also refers to the work of the Levites in the Temple (including musicians) as ‘prophecy,’ changing the image of what/who is a prophet. Chronicles has many more details about priests and Temple institutions than does Kings.

Why do these two books paint such different pictures of Israel’s history? Scholars have various theories about this, although there is also a fair degree of consensus. What follows is my current thinking on the matter.

After the Babylonian exile, when the Persians allowed the exiles to return to their homeland in Israel/Judah (then known as the Persian province of Yehud), there must have been a great deal of discussion amongst the returning exiles, as well as with the people who had remained in the Land and not gone into exile, about what kind of nation they would rebuild. Some matters which needed to be resolved were issues about what kind of government they would have, and whether they would return to a monarchy with a king in the line of David. Whether they had a monarchy or not, various voices would want to be heard in government and the competing interests of priests, Levites and prophets would need to be negotiated. Related to this would be the centrality of Jerusalem, and the importance of the Temple and its institutions.

It seems to me that on one hand Chronicles reflects the interests of priests and Levites who believed they could work together with a king in the Davidic dynasty, and who regarded the Temple in Jerusalem and its institutions to be central to both their faith and to culture and society in a rebuilt nation. The book of Kings, on the other hand, reflects another side in the debate. Its writers saw the monarchy as a deeply-flawed institution and blamed the kings for Israel’s predicament in going into exile. They wanted no place for a monarch in the new nation. They did, however, value the role of prophets, a class of individuals who were not necessarily linked to the priests, and wanted their influence to be a dominant one.

Read this way, it makes perfect sense why two different accounts of Israel’s history would be written or needed. Subsequent history demonstrates that there may have been a sort of compromise between the two groups, or they at least fought out their differences. The history of the rivalries between various groups in the era of the Maccabees makes interesting reading in this connection. Ultimately there was no revival of the monarchy, although the priests did exercise a huge amount of influence and authority. The role of ‘prophet’ seems to have morphed into that of a scholar, or scribe, and eventually into the sages and Rabbis. The differing accounts of Kings and Chronicles give us important information about the competing voices at this stage in Israel’s history and in the development of Judaism, which we would not have if there was only one homogenised historical record. Those who were responsible for the Canon of the Hebrew Bible obviously understood that it is important to preserve differing voices. The Bible does not have to present a single, consistent message, but contains a record of the development of ideas in an ongoing conversation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s