David and Goliath: history or legend?

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

The story of the boy David slaying the giant Goliath is undoubtedly one of the best known stories in the Bible. But did it really happen? Are all the stories in the Bible meant to be taken as historical facts, or were some of them written for some other purpose? We tell stories, we read fiction and watch films and television series for all sorts of reasons, including simply for entertainment. Is it possible that some of the stories in the Bible served similar purposes, including merely to entertain? If so, how can we tell when a story in the Bible is meant to give an historical account of actual events, or if it served some other purpose? In this post I’ll look at the popular story of David and Goliath.

The story is recorded only in 1 Samuel 17. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) has a shorter version, omitting verses 12-31 and 55-18:5 which describe how David came to be at the battlefield (his father sent him with some provisions for his three older brothers who were at the battle, and an odd detail about also sending some cheese for their commander); how David heard the threats made by the Philistine giant, Goliath; how he was introduced to king Saul; and a long section detailing how Saul enquired about David after he had killed Goliath. This second omitted section contains important clues as to the veracity of the story:

1 Samuel 17:55 When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?” Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.” 56 The king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.” 57 On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 58 Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”

18:1 When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 2 Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. 4 Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. 5 David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved. (1 Samuel 17:55-18:5).

There is a considerable problem with this section. It reads as though this is the first time Saul had met David or heard of him. This is a major difficulty because immediately preceeding the David and Goliath incident (v.16) there is a different account of David’s introduction to Saul in the previous chapter:

1 Samuel 16:14 Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. 15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.” 17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him.” 19 So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David who is with the sheep.” 20 Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 21 And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. 22 Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23 And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

There is a clear contradiction between the two stories. If the first actually happened then by the time Saul goes out to do battle with the Philistines David was already in his service as his armour-bearer and personal musician, and Saul “loved him greatly.” It’s possible that the Septuagint translators deleted this section in chapter 18 because of the obvious difficulty that David was introduced to Saul twice, the second time after he was already well known to Saul and loved by him. It’s equally possible that this second introduction wasn’t in the Hebrew version they translated from because it was added later. The Dead Sea Scrolls don’t help us here because the Samuel manuscripts are fragmentary, having fallen prey to worms and the ravages of time, and the entire section from 1 Samuel 17:7 to 18:16 is missing. So the incident where David is introduced to Saul could have been deleted by the translators who noticed the difficulty and removed it in order to avoid the problem, or the discrepancy was created by a late editor of the Hebrew text who added it. If so, it’s unlikely that the editor wouldn’t have seen the problem; it’s more likely that he wanted to preserve both accounts of David’s introduction to Saul and wasn’t concerned about the contradiction. He was simply preserving two differing traditional accounts.  (Most scholars these days accept Emanuel Tov’s arguments for the Septuagint being the older version and the Masoretic Text being a later expansion. [1])

That’s not the only difficulty with the story. In both the Hebrew and Greek versions there is the detail that after killing Goliath David severed his head and “David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent” (17:54). The first problem here is that Jerusalem wasn’t under the control of Israel at the time and it wasn’t until decades later that David himself is attributed with capturing it from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-9). It is unthinkable that the Jebusites would have allowed David to take Goliath’s head there, and for what purpose? (I’ll go into further detail about the conquest of Jerusalem in a later post). The second difficulty is that David is said to have put Goliath’s armour in his tent. What tent? The Hebrew version of the story tells us that David was at the battlefield simply to deliver some provisions to his brothers, who didn’t particularly welcome their kid-brother being there. David wasn’t one of the fighting soldiers, so he is unlikely to have had his own tent there. There is a clue here that this version of the story could itself have been a merging of two older stories: in one David was visiting his brothers with provisions; in the other he was one of the fighting men camped there.

There is a further contradiction between the story of David killing Goliath and another account of Goliath’s death which is almost glossed over later in Samuel and also in Chronicles.

Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jair, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (2 Samuel 21:19) [2] 

Although this is a brief account two details support the conclusion that it’s the same “Goliath” apart from the fact that it’s an uncommon name. First “Goliath the Gittite” means the same as “Goliath of Gath”  (1 Samuel 17:4), and second, the expression “the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” occurs in both accounts but nowhere else. The size of the spear was clearly noteworthy and it’s highly unlikely that there would be two different people with the same name from the same city whose spears were noteworthy. It’s likely that the story of Elhanan killing Goliath was taken over and adapted as part of the legend of David’s fighting prowess and added to Samuel later. The fact that both Elhanan and David were from Bethlehem may have made it easy to appropriate a story about a local hero and apply it to another local boy.

The two stories about David being introduced to Saul cast David in a good light, and make Saul appear as weak and ineffective, and with a mental illness. It’s easy to see why the writer or editor wants to preserve them both. It’s also interesting that the Chronicler, who generally portrays David in glowing terms, doesn’t include these stories in his Chronicles. We might think they would serve his purpose, but perhaps he hadn’t heard them or he didn’t regard this information as historically reliable, or it simply didn’t fit with his story which begins with the death of Saul.

It’s still a good story, but we should accept that it’s probably just that: a good story! And that’s ok. We shouldn’t assume that the writers of the Bible intended for every story to be taken as historical fact. They were as capable as anyone of telling a ripping good yarn to make a point. The important thing is the point they were making, not whether the story is true.

___________________________

[1] Emanuel Tov, “The Composition of 1 Samuel 16-18 in the light of the Septuagint Version,” in J. H. Tigay (ed.), Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (Philadelphia, 1985), 98-130.

[2] Chronicles has an almost identical parallel:  “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (1 Chronicles 20:5). In both cases I’ve followed Robert Alter’s translation (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Historiosophy, inerrancy, and Chronicles

History is what has happened in the past. Historiography is the study of how history is recorded and the methods employed for writing it down and passing it on. Historiosophy is a study of the philosophy of history, the lens through which the events of the past are viewed and interpreted. Knowing the philosophy or worldview of those who recorded history can enable us to come to terms with why they recorded the past in the way they did; for example, why some events were recorded and others ignored, and whether characters are presented positively or negatively. Conversely, by comparing different accounts of history we may gain insights into the philosophies of the historians, and why they understood events of the past in the way they did. We can sometimes work out their motives for describing events and people in the way they did, or whether they had some kind of agenda, such as propaganda purposes, for describing the past in a certain way. For example, a present situation might be explained as the result or culmination of past events, so our circumstances in the present and our plans or desires for the future will influence how we interpret the events of the past.

By comparing the biblical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles we can see that the events of the past are recorded quite differently at times, relative to the historians’ unique perspectives. We can be confident that the writer of Chronicles was familiar either with the book of Kings, or with one or more of the sources used by the author of Kings. This is evident from the fact that Chronicles sometimes repeats lengthy sections of Kings, word-for-word. It would be easy to gloss over this repeated material, but by paying close attention we would note that sometimes minor, although perhaps important, details are modified. The early chapters of Chronicles are a good example of this. In fact, we could be tempted to skim over the first 9 chapters of 1 Chronicles because they contain long lists of names and genealogies, and it’s not until chapter 10 that we get the first account of historical events with the battle between Israel and Philistines in which King Saul was killed. The first 14 verses is a good example of how the Chronicler appears to have copied from Samuel-Kings, as this account is almost word-for-word the same as 1 Samuel 31:1-13. Both records begin the same way: “Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and many fell on Mount Gilboa. 2 The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul.” (1 Samuel 31:1-2 // 1 Chronicles 10:1-2). Both accounts are almost identical from that point on, differing only slightly in some details. These details, however, are significant in that they provide insights into the theological worldviews, or historiosophies, of the different writers. For example, compare the two accounts of the death of Saul’s sons in battle:

"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie Marcuse

“Death of King Saul”, 1848 by Elie Marcuse

“So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together on the same day.” (1 Samuel 31:6).

Chronicles modifies this ever so slightly: “Thus Saul died; he and his three sons and all his house died together”  (1 Chronicles 10:6). However, by omitting any mention of Saul’s armour-bearer and “all his men” and substituting this with “all his house,” the Chronicler gives the impression that with the death of Saul and his three sons there was no surviving claimant to his throne so his dynasty (or house) came to an end. The transition to David as king over Israel, according to the Chronicler, is smooth and unchallenged. However, tucked away in the long and rather dull chronologies which occupy the first nine chapters, the Chronicler lets slip that he is aware that Saul had a fourth son, Eshbaal  (1 Chronicles 8:33; also 9:39). The writer of Samuel knows this son as Ishvi (1 Samuel 14:49) or Ish-bosheth (several times throughout 2 Samuel 2-4, in some versions translated as Ishbaal). What is most significant about this fourth son is that after the death of Saul, according to Samuel, he was acknowledged by “all Israel” as Saul’s heir and reigned for two years as king (2 Samuel 2:9-10). His reign came to an end when he was assassinated by two of his military captains who defected to David (2 Samuel 4:5-8). This also brought to an end “a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (2 Samuel 3:1). Chronicles not only makes no mention of this long war, or Ish-bosheth/Ishbaal’s two year reign over “all Israel,” its claim that the dynastic house of Saul died together on the battlefield effectively airbrushes Ishbaal and any opposition to David from history. According to Chronicles David is accepted as king, unchallenged (1 Chronicles 11:3). This fits with the Chronicler’s depiction of David as a model king, divinely appointed to rule, and faultless. In this version of history, the writer ignores any facts which challenge his historiosophy.

I will give one more example. The book of Kings gives an account of the reign of Abijam:

“Now in the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijam began to reign over Judah. 2 He reigned for three years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Maacah daughter of Abishalom. 3 He committed all the sins that his father did before him; his heart was not true to the LORD his God, like the heart of his father David. 4 Nevertheless for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem; 5 because David did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. 6 The war begun between Rehoboam and Jeroboam continued all the days of his life. 7 The rest of the acts of Abijam, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah? There was war between Abijam and Jeroboam. 8 Abijam slept with his ancestors, and they buried him in the city of David. Then his son Asa succeeded him.” (1 Kings 15:1-8).

In this case, Chronicles has a longer account of Abijam’s reign (Chronicles calls him Abijah) and the war with Jeroboam (14 verses, compared with 8 in Kings). It begins this way:

In the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam, Abijah began to reign over Judah. 2 He reigned for three years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Micaiah daughter of Uriel of Gibeah. Now there was war between Abijah and Jeroboam. 3 Abijah engaged in battle, having an army of valiant warriors, four hundred thousand picked men; and Jeroboam drew up his line of battle against him with eight hundred thousand picked mighty warriors. (2 Chronicles 13:1-3).

Chronicles is often so similar to Kings that many scholars think the Chronicler had a copy of Kings in front of him when he wrote, copying lengthy sections almost word-for-word. Here, however, his account is so different he even has a different spelling for Abijam/Abijah’s name, a different name for his mother, and for his mother’s father. Kings has a fairly standard condemnation of Abijam, as it does for almost all the kings: “He committed all the sins that his father did before him; his heart was not true to the LORD his God, like the heart of his father David” (v.3). The Chronicles version, on the other hand, includes a lengthy speech by Abijah directed against Jeroboam, which argues that God has appointed and is on the side of the Davidic kings, and condemns Jeroboam as an idolater (vv. 4-12). We are left with the distinct impression from Chronicles that Abijam was a true successor of David and Solomon, faithful to God and militarily victorious over a superior force. This account is so much at odds with the Kings version that we could be forgiven for thinking they are two different kings!

So which version is “correct” – Kings or Chronicles? The considerable differences between the two records of Israel’s history pose several problems for those whose view of “Biblical inerrancy” does not allow for any “errors” in the Bible. In matters of fact both versions cannot be right. Yet both versions present what the writers would have regarded as a “true” telling of the story of Israel’s history and God’s part in it. Their historiographies, while often similar, provide different lenses through which they see history, filtering out some details and colouring others. According to the writer of Kings the kings of Israel and Judah – almost all of them – were deeply flawed and monarchy as an institution was a failure. For the Chronicler, the Davidic kings represented the special relationship between God and Israel and his view of history was interpreted through this unique status. These conflicting philosophies or worldviews, their divergent historiosophies, caused them to see history quite differently; yet both accounts were regarded by later generations as worth preserving. No one view held sway over the other.

The problem for those who believe in inerrancy is one of their own making. The Bible nowhere claims to be free of errors. It does not not claim for itself what others claim for it. It does, however, preserve different and sometimes conflicting views of events, side-by-side, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

(Re)writing the Bible: solving contradictions between Kings and Chronicles (and in the Gospels)

Solomon offering sacrifices

Solomon offers sacrifices at the dedication of the temple, Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, Netherlands, 1430

I was raised in a denomination which firmly believed in the “inerrancy” of the Bible and any apparent contradiction between one part of the Bible and another had to be resolved. This usually meant that the alleged contradiction was explained in such a way that the contradiction no longer existed, and sometimes it meant “doubling up” with accounts of stories. For example, the Gospel of Mark tells a story of Jesus healing a man who was blind and begging beside the road. Mark specifically says this happened as Jesus was leaving the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46). Luke tells the same story, but in his version the incident took place as Jesus was entering the city of Jericho (Luke 18:35). A minor difference perhaps, but for someone who believes the Bible is free of any errors it is an important problem to resolve. I’ve heard a number of possible explanations which have been offered to explain away the contradiction: (a) Jesus actually healed two blind beggars, one as he was entering the city and another as he was leaving (this kind of “doubling up” has been used to solve several contradictions in the Gospels); (b) there were two cities called “Jericho” close to each other (the “old” city and a “new” city), and this miracle happened between them, as Jesus was leaving one and entering the other; or (c) Jesus left the city of Jericho but then turned around to go back and it was then that he healed the beggar, so he was both “leaving” and  “entering” at the same time. We can easily rule out (a) as the stories are so similar, with the beggar in both stories using identical words to address Jesus, that there could have been only one incident. Many ancient cities (such as Jerusalem) have both “old” and “new” districts to this day; however, while you might say, for example, that you are leaving the “old city” of Jerusalem and going to one of the new suburbs, you wouldn’t say you are leaving Jerusalem and entering Jerusalem, and you wouldn’t refer to the two areas in such a way that you could be said to be both entering and leaving the city at the same time, so (b) is highly improbable. We can also rule out (c) as being simply far-fetched and doesn’t fit with either Mark or Luke.  The simplest, most logical, and best solution to the problem is that the incident took place outside the city, and whether Jesus was entering or leaving wasn’t an important detail whose accuracy overly concerned the writers. One of them simply got this detail wrong.

However, for Bible readers who believe in inerrancy every detail has to be absolutely correct, and this results in the sort of mental and exegetical gymnastics such as the examples above. It’s quite plain from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that some of the writers were aware of similar contradictions or errors in versions of biblical books which were available to them, and they attempted to re-write them to remove the contradictions. How they did so is insightful for how the writers of the Bible themselves viewed “errors” and contradictions. I’ll go back to the different accounts of the history of Israel in Kings and Chronicles to provide an example.

The book of Kings describes how Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and provides details of how he paid King Hiram of the Phoenician city of Tyre for some of the building materials, including a note about how Hiram was dissatisfied with the payment.

10 At the end of twenty years, in which Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the LORD and the king’s house, 11 King Hiram of Tyre having supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired, King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee. 12 But when Hiram came from Tyre to see the cities that Solomon had given him, they did not please him. 13 Therefore he said, “What kind of cities are these that you have given me, my brother?” So they are called the land of Cabul to this day. 14 But Hiram had sent to the king one hundred twenty talents of gold. (1 Kings 9:10-14)

While selling or bartering with cities was not unheard of in the ancient world, it’s odd that Solomon paid Hiram with 20 cities when elsewhere in both Kings and Chronicles it is recorded that he was extremely wealthy and silver and gold were “as common as stones” in Jerusalem (1 Kings 3:13; 10:27; 2 Chronicles 1:12, 15; 9:27). Why not pay for the timber with silver or gold, and why buy gold when it’s already so plentiful and “common as stones”? Surrendering 20 cities also contradicts the claim made earlier (1 Kings 4:21) that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.”

It seems that the writer of Chronicles, who appears to have used an edition of Kings as one of his primary sources, also noticed the difficulties. Chronicles frequently quotes Kings word-for-word and when it came to this part of the story the Chronicler starts out in just this way by copying Kings: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house …” (2 Chronicles 8:1). But then, in order to resolve the difficulty of handing over 20 cities to Hiram, Chronicles completely changed what followed: “Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them” (v.2). This is the exact opposite of what is in Kings! In Chronicles it is Hiram who gives 20 cities to Solomon, and there is no mention of gold. The Chronicler didn’t simply avoid the problem by deleting the difficult verses (as he does elsewhere), he sets the record straight (at least as he sees it, or according to his other sources) and contradicts Kings. His new version avoids the difficulties of the fabulously wealthy Solomon being unable to pay for timber, and of Solomon bartering for gold when he purportedly already had plenty of it; and it removes the contradiction in Kings that Solomon expanded Israel’s borders but also purchased goods by ceding territory. So one book of the Bible “rewrote” an earlier version of history in another book of the Bible, and both versions continued to exist.

Which of the two accounts is correct we may never know. Chronicles provides a more consistent portrayal of Solomon as extremely wealthy and to whom neighbouring kings were subservient, but this does not mean it is a more accurate account; rather, it suggests that it was written at one time, possibly by a single author, with a deliberate agenda. As I pointed out in earlier posts, Kings has no problem with presenting the kings of Israel and Judah as deeply flawed characters, and in fact we can be fairly certain that to do so was one of the writer(s) main interests; Chronicles on the other hand sets out to portray David and Solomon as successful model kings. It sometimes does so by ignoring difficulties in Kings and “deleting” stories or details which don’t fit with its version of Israel’s history, but at other times, such as here, it “corrects” the record and provides an entirely new version. Both versions of Israel’s history are fascinating, and I am personally more interested in trying to discover the writers’ motives for recording history as they did than in attempting to reconcile difficulties or to “harmonise” the accounts. More important (to me) than knowing what actually happened is why the writers told different and conflicting stories; how their different accounts influenced the development of ideas and the unfolding of history; and how this helps me to understand the Bible.

The Bible in Conversation with itself (3): Why two (different) accounts of the reign of Solomon?

Solomon_and_the_Plan_for_the_Temple

Solomon and the Plan for the Temple (1896)

I’ve already raised the question of why the Bible includes two versions of the history of Israel. A clue as to why we have different versions can be discovered by looking at the two different accounts of the reign of Solomon, traditionally regarded as one of Israel’s greatest kings.

The books of Kings and Chronicles not only have different versions of the reign of Solomon, they portray Solomon in entirely conflicting ways. In Chronicles Solomon is a man of peace (his name in Hebrew – שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh – actually  sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for “peace” – shalom) and was therefore enabled to build the Temple in Jerusalem instead of his father David who was prevented from doing so because he had shed blood (1 Chroncles 28:3). However, in the Kings version, Solomon also shed quite a lot of blood, including murdering his brother Adonijah who was first in line to the throne, and Joab, David’s general and a supporter of Adonijah’s claim to the throne (1 Kings 2:24-34). In fact, the story of Solomon’s accession to the throne in Kings begins with a series of murders ordered by Solomon. Hardly a “man of peace”!

While Chronicles devotes a great deal of space to describing the building of the Temple as one of Solomon’s greatest achievements, picturing him as a godly man, Kings is careful to point out that Solomon spent more time and effort building his own palace (13 years) than he did in building the Temple (7 years) picturing him as self-interested (1 Kings 6:38; 7:1). Kings is almost meticulous in describing how Solomon repeatedly broke the laws in Deuteronomy which set out how a king was to be appointed and reign. Chronicles on the other hand doesn’t have a bad word to say about him, and omits all this negative material found in Kings. Reading the two accounts is almost like reading descriptions of two different kings!

So why is this? How could it be that these two versions of Israel’s history contain such glaringly different views of one of their most famous kings? The answer may be in the Kings account of Solomon’s bloody accession to the throne. While ordering the murders of Adonijah and Joab, Solomon specifically spared Abiathar the priest who had also supported Adonijah’s claim to the throne:

The king [Solomon] said to the priest Abiathar, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate; for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord GOD before my father David, and because you shared in all the hardships my father endured.”  So Solomon banished Abiathar from being priest to the LORD, thus fulfilling the word of the LORD that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh. (1 Kings 2:26-27)

In his place Solomon appointed Zadok as priest (1 Kings 2:35). We don’t hear much about Abiathar after that, or what happened when he got to Anathoth, except we read that centuries later Jeremiah the prophet was “of the priests who were in Anathoth” (Jeremiah 1:1). The most likely explanation for this connection to Anathoth was that Abiathar continued to minister there as a priest and this priestly order continued to the time of Jeremiah. Interestingly, many scholars have noted that Jeremiah’s “writing style” including his use of certain key words and phrases is very similar to the book of Kings and the other books in what we call “the Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua, Judges and Samuel). Some scholars argue that the book of Kings was actually written, or edited, by priests/scribes who belonged to this priestly community set up by Abiathar in Anathoth. Chronicles, on the other hand, was probably written by priests/scribes who descended from Zadok. The Anathoth priests were descended from a supporter of Adonijah, while the Zadokite priests were descended from a supporter of Solomon. Two groups of priests/scribes/scholars with two entirely different perspectives on the reign of Solomon and therefore two different versions of his reigns and opinions as to whether he was a good or bad king. Remarkably, both accounts of Israel’s history were preserved, and both were eventually bound together in the book we call “the Bible”!

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.

The Bible in conversation with itself

SCRIBEIn my previous post I referred to a ‘conversation’ that took place in the Bible over a long period, possibly centuries; a process of questioning earlier ideas, reformulating them, while abandoning some as inadequate or unsatisfactory. There is considerable evidence within the Bible of this ongoing dialogue, as ideas are challenged, modified and developed. Scholars often refer to a process of ‘redaction’ taking place within an individual text or ‘book’ in the Bible as later editors add to earlier material, sometimes editing the existing material to bring it into line with the new information. We also see evidence of dialogue between the writers of the Bible as later texts/books build on ideas in earlier writings, or challenge them (as I noted in my previous post in the rejection by some writers of the ‘Deuteronomistic’ ideas about rewards and punishments).

Let’s look at a couple examples of this. For a long time scholars have recognised a remarkable similarity between three of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke are so similar they are called the ‘synoptic’ Gospels because they tell the same stories, often in the same order, and frequently even use identical wording to tell the story. This has led to a number of theories to explain the similarities, the most popular and most likely being that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used it as one of their sources. As a result, large sections of Mark were copied verbatim by Matthew and Luke and included in their accounts of Jesus’ life, almost unchanged. Some scholars theorise that Luke also had a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in front of him when he wrote his own account, which accounts for similar stories in Matthew and Luke which are absent from Mark (another theory, known as the ‘two source theory’, is that Matthew and Luke used a second source in addition to Mark, but this source – generally called ‘Q’ from the German quelle=source – has been lost). The striking thing about this is that Luke acknowledged in his introduction that he used other sources, and without naming them it is almost certain one of his sources was Mark and another was possibly Matthew, but he regarded them as inferior to his own account.

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4).

What is so striking about this? Matthew says that having consulted these earlier accounts he decided to write an orderly account so that the person for whom he is writing (Theophilus) “may know the truth.” In other words, he didn’t think these earlier accounts were adequate for Theophilus to “know the truth” and by saying he decided to write an “orderly” account he implies that the earlier accounts were somewhat disorderly. So one writer of the Bible is saying that one or two earlier writers of biblical books weren’t quite up to standard and he had to improve on their work.

We see a similar process at work in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in the similar accounts of the Kings of Israel and Judah in the Book of Kings and the Book of Chonicles. In some places Chronicles is so similar to Kings we can be confident that the writer of Chronicles copied large portions of Kings and incorporated them into his new work. But, like Luke copying from Mark, the writer of Chronicles felt the need to make some corrections as well as adding some new material. For example, Kings practically blames Manasseh for the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Judah four generations later. Manasseh was so thoroughly wicked that even though his successor (Josiah) was a model king God had to eventually punish the kingdom for the sins of Manasseh (this notion of ‘transgenerational punishment‘ was disputed in the biblical book of Ezekiel, but this is a subject for another post). Despite Josiah being regarded by the writer of Kings as the best king of Judah ever (“Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” 2 Kings 23:25), the writer is careful to point out that his merits did not outweigh Manasseh’s evil.

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:26-27).

However, when we come to Chronicles we read a different story about Manasseh.

“And when he [Manasseh] was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).

The writer of Chronicles says nothing about Judah being punished and going into exile because of Manasseh’s sins, but instead he is commended for turning to God at the end of his life. There are several other differences in perspective between Kings and Chronicles but just focussing on this one difference for now it is evident that the writers of these two biblical books had different ideas about the reason for the exile and whether or not it was a punishment for sin. Kings reflects a more ‘Deuteronomistic’ theology: if Israel and Judah were ‘punished’ by exile then it must have been because they, or someone, had sinned and it was important to identify the sinner(s). There is evidence within Kings that it went through a process of editing, and it may only have been in the final stage (or stages) of editing that this Deuteronomistic theme was added. Chronicles reflects a different, and quite possibly earlier, tradition. So even while the writer of Chronicles was copying material from his earlier edition of Kings other editors somewhere else were working on a ‘revised’ version of Kings and their revisions were based on this Deuteronomistic approach which sought to blame someone for the exile. By comparing these two books we get an insight into the ‘conversation’ that may have been taking place between the writers and/or editors of the Bible as they recorded different perspectives of the same events.

By comparing the earliest versions of the Hebrew Bible – especially the Greek translation we know as the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls – with the Hebrew text that has come down to us as the Masoretic Text (the one from which translations are made into English), it becomes evident that in the ancient world there were various, and different, versions of several books of the Bible. The differences indicate that over time the books of the Bible underwent editing and revision. They were not static – they were not transmitted exactly as they were first written – but rather they were dynamic, changing over time and being revised possibly in response to new ideas and perspectives. We should bear this in mind when we think about ‘inspiration’ and ‘biblical inerrancy’ (the idea that the Bible is free of errors), but that discussion will have to wait for another day.

 

The binding of Isaac (1)

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio c. 1598

How could a good God tell a father to sacrifice his son? I’ve heard it asked several times (mostly by atheists) referring to the biblical story of Abraham’s (attempted) sacrifice of his son Isaac. It comes across to me as a smug question, but not a clever one.

Richard Dawkins referred to it as a “disgraceful story” and as “child abuse”. He said “As it turns out God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was only following orders.'” [1]

Let me say first that while Christians often speak of the sacrifice of Isaac, Jews generally refer to this incident as the Akedah – the binding of Isaac (as Isaac wasn’t actually sacrificed). To me, there are a couple of really interesting things about the binding of Isaac. First, it portrays Abraham in a bad light and I think it’s significant that the Hebrew Bible portrays its main characters as deeply flawed human beings, not as ‘saints’ or extraordinary people. Second, this story forms part of a book which condemns human sacrifice. So why would a book which condemns child sacrifice include an incident where one of its ‘heroes’ appears to be doing just that?

The Hebrew Bible is incredibly sophisticated literature. Its authors were clearly not stupid. It is inconceivable that they wouldn’t have noticed a glaring ‘contradiction’ like this (if, in fact, it is a contradiction). It seems to me that to dismiss this story as evidence that either (a) there is no god, or (b) if there is a god then he/she/it is ‘immoral’, is to take the lazy way out. I am much more interested in why the authors decided to include a story which portrays their patriarch and their god in such a shockingly confronting way, especially when the same authors condemn the very thing they are reporting.

I think we should take note of the conflicts in the story (call them ‘contradictions’ if you like, although I personally don’t think it’s a good word because they appear to be quite intentional rather than accidental), and there are several of them. Abraham ‘the saint’ is juxtaposed against Abraham ‘the sinner’ on several occasions throughout Genesis and the deliberateness of it has to be saying something. We should also note a couple of ‘contradictions’ within this incident. First, when Abraham arrives at Moriah he tells his servants to wait for them: “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” We are meant to take note that both Abraham and Isaac would return. Abraham either didn’t plan to sacrifice Isaac, or he fully expected something to happen (the NT says he expected a resurrection) and Isaac would be coming back. So premeditated murder is a long way from the mind of the author(s).

Second, there is the question of why Abraham was initially told by God to do something, but then accepted God’s directive being overruled by an angel, a lesser spiritual being. That also has to be deliberate and shouldn’t be ignored.

The medieval Jewish rabbis pointed out that the Hebrew text doesn’t actually have God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (although the English translations usually do), and that Abraham ‘misunderstood’. That would go someway further in portraying Abraham as ‘flawed’ and would be consistent with other aspects of the story. It might also explain why the storyteller then has God refusing to speak to the obtuse Abraham, and delivers his next message through his agent instead.

The words “and offer him there for a burnt offering” translate just three words in the Hebrew text (or two actually, because one word is repeated). The Hebrew word translated “offer” was used later in Israel’s history for burnt offerings, but comes from a root which literally means “to go up” (hence it was later used in the evolution of the language for offerings whose smoke ‘went up’). The word is used twice: והעלהו שם לעלה (you may notice the three letters עלה repeated in the first and last word of the phrase – they are just variations of the same word), which might literally mean “offer him there as an offering” (that kind of repetition is not unusual in Hebrew), but could mean, as the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides pointed out, an emphatic “bring him up” (the mountain). There was no further instruction about what to do when they got there – Abraham ‘misunderstood’ the intention.

I should clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the translators got it wrong. In fact, the Hebrew והעלהו שם לעלה would quite naturally read as “offer him there as an offering”, especially in light of later usage. In pointing out Maimonides’ alternative reading I was trying to make the point that Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have wrestled with the many questions raised by this text for centuries. It doesn’t seem the least bit clever to me that an atheist should raise this incident as some kind of dilemma for believers when believers themselves have been discussing the ethical issues since at least the first century. The point I am making is that the text reads (to me) to be intentionally confronting and that the writer is deliberately raising serious ethical questions. We should note that Genesis is a narrative preamble to a legal document and carefully lays the foundation for why Israel ‘needed’ the law, and why their law should be different to the other ancient near eastern nations (who frequently offered human sacrifices, which Israel’s law denounced). I personally think it is much more enriching to explore the issues that the narrative raises, rather than smugly poking fun at believers as though they hadn’t noticed the problem.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 242

… to be continued