The second scroll of Kings is tedious enough reading, but Chronicles stands largely a bad case of cut-and-paste. Long passages are drawn word for word from the books of Samuel and Kings. As you plod along, it’s fair to ask just what Chronicles adds to the whole. Placed right after Kings in the Christian Bibles, it’s deadly repetition. At least the Hebrew ordering puts it at the end of the canon, as a kind of musical reprise.
Chronicles quickly becomes tedious, beginning with its overview of the faith from Adam to the return from Babylonian captivity. There are the long genealogies focused on David’s line and the sanitized retelling of his life and Solomon’s, along with the recasting of David as a prophet of equal stature to Moses and Elijah.
One touch I appreciate in the emphasis on music — cantors along with harps, lyres, and cymbals, or later with choirs of “singers singing, and the trumpeters sounding their trumpets.”
There is a telling note, 2 Chronicles 2:4-5, where Solomon admits, “The house [temple] which I am building must be large, for our God is greater than all gods; even so, who would not find it an impossible task to build a house for him, when the heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain him?”
Again, I’m left wondering just who he’s trying to impress.
At the dedication of the temple, we have repetition of Elijah and David’s fire coming down from heaven to ignite the blaze that consumes the sacrificial offerings (2 Chronicles 7:1).
And, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, we have our first reference to Satan as such.
As a writer, I wonder if Kings and Chronicles might somehow be combined. Could Chronicles be cast in a distinctly different voice and typeface to serve as a kind of Greek chorus — a commentary on the other version? As they remain, the two accounts already lean on other books no longer surviving, making for a literary curious structure.
In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Gordon Lish and Herbert Tarr are given the task of making sense of Chronicles — an assignment, Lish calls it, invoking a schoolroom task. One, it turns out, he chose.
He then spins off on disparaging comments about Jewishness, including his own, and soon argues, “The Christians owned the bible even before there were Christians,” and adds, “Don’t you know that Christians have title to all the objects of the world?”
He’s like a student who shows up for the test having not read the assignment. He’s the squirmy little brat in the pew as the words of the rabbi pass unintelligibly overhead. He’s self-serving, self-righteous, and embarrassingly disagreeable. Worse yet, Lish offers no insights on the text at hand, what he calls nothing. “I said, ‘Assign to me what’s left over, what no one else elects to speak for. It mattered not at all to me which element of the bible I would end up with — since I would not want to use my time to waste yours.'”
But he does just that.
Tarr, on the other hand, springs into action by amplifying a learned friend’s reaction to Chronicles, “That whitewash!” and then exploring its dimensions.
As Tarr notes, the Chronicler “so whitewashes his glorious heroes, King David and his son Solomon, that not only do their failings and sins disappear, but also much of what has made them for some three thousand years fascinating, understandable, appealing, and at times appalling. The Books of Samuel and Kings read like a magnificent historical novel, with personalities so human and alive that they fairly leap off the pages.” Then, pointedly, Tarr adds, “What the Chronicler presents, however, is two professional saints, unconvincing in their perfection. One might call this the stained-glass view of history.”
The insight has me realizing something I’ve taken for granted in the earlier books — Biblical heroes are portrayed warts and all, including acknowledgements of their internal psychological and spiritual struggles. Are any other figures of antiquity so rendered?
Alas, as Tarr continues, in Chronicles “gone are all the events leading up to the enthronement of David,” along with his adultery with Bathsheba and plot to murder her husband, the revolts of Absolom, and so on. “Likewise with Solomon … all is wartless.” As Tarr counters, “Surely, no king who is portrayed as being as wise as Solomon would have conscripted all males to serve four months each year in the army or labor battalions in addition to taxing his people so heavily to feed his enormous bureaucracy and to support his public works …” What follows is a long list of royal extravagance inciting social upheaval and suffering.
Or course the schism of the nation follows, resulting in Israel and Judah, which the Chronicler regards as the true Israel. And, as Tarr notes, it’s the descendants of Judah who give rise to the name Jews.
With Chronicles’ significant omissions, fantastic numbers, and the repeated insistence that the catastrophes that occur are the result of the omnipotent Lord God’s will, rather than “foolish policies or intransigence or bad advisers or stupidity … foreign nations, no matter how mighty, are always seen simply as rods of chastisement employed by God to punish Israel for breaking the Covenant,” it’s easy to lose sight of that centrality of right relationship in the overarching story.
I will wait till a later posting to examine some of the radical implications in Tarr’s invocation of the Covenant as the central theme running through the Jewish Bible.
For now, in my reading, it’s back out into rugged terrain.