As we finally come to the close of 2 Chronicles, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the two books and on some trends I noticed in my reading.
When I wrote my introduction to 1-2 Chronicles, I mentioned that commentaries have seen a two-fold purpose to the books: The first is to provide a model for the ideal kingdom that could be, and the second to warn of what might happen if those who return from the exile fail to bring that kingdom about.
That does seem to bear out in the text, at least for the most part. Though, of course, the Chronicler’s motives do seem to be a little more complicated than that.
The Narrative Arc
I was interested to note how uninterested the Chronicler seems to be in Judah’s final years. Even the destruction of the Temple, which I would have assumed to be an important moment for the Chronicler’s narrative, comes to us only as a summarized version of what we find in Kings.
This disinterest seems to begin after Hezekiah (whose chapters are greatly expanded from the account we have in Kings). Running with this, I considered 1-2 Chronicles as if it ended with Hezekiah’s death. I also cut the non-narrative genealogies from the beginning, since their purpose feels very distinct from the rest of the books.
This left me with a national story that begins with a Golden Age, passes through a human (and morally complex) age, into a depraved age, and then ends with a reformer. As far as stories go, this feels much more mythically satisfying that the books as they are.
It also hints at a clearer purpose. This truncated story shows us what perfection looks like, shows us what realistic goals looks like, and shows us what happens if those goals fail to be met. Then, through Hezekiah, we are given a blueprint for reform.
I suspect that might be why the Chronicler gave Hezekiah a Passover, stealing Josiah’s thunder to do so. Hezekiah was known as a Not Bad king, and a Not Bad king in the middle of the story would ruin the narrative flow. And so the climax, the great restorative Passover, was given to him.
With no story left, the Chronicler hurried through what remained, dropping information that he doesn’t seem to view as strictly necessary (for example, no queen mothers are named after the reign of Hezekiah).
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chronicler wasted the final kings of his story, though. I saw a sort of allegory in the retelling of Manasseh, who sinned, was taken captive to Babylon, repented, was sent home, then set to work cleaning up Judah. In Manasseh, the Chronicler tells Israel’s story – though it concludes with a warning, as Manasseh dies and Judah falls once again into the hands of a bad king. “Be diligent,” the story tells the post-exilic Israelites. “Make sure you clean up the land right.” (That doesn’t, of course, mean that the events of Manasseh’s life – even those unique to the Chronicler – didn’t happen. Merely that the Chronicler may have chosen to include those details with a purpose in mind.)
Affairs Of Temple And State
Most commentaries highlight the Chronicler’s emphasis on the Temple – in particular, the priests, the Levites, and the musicians (and wherever those groups overlap). I can definitely see what is meant – there are many places where the Chronicler will add Levites and musicians to verses that are otherwise copied directly from Kings – but it wasn’t nearly as outrageous as I was expecting.
The main difference comes early on, when the musicians are linked very tightly to David. The Temple belongs to Solomon, the law belongs to Moses, and music belongs to David.
While this doesn’t necessarily indicate favouratism, it does seem to indicate familiarity. I agree with the commentaries that the Chronicler does talk like someone who was raised or educated in the cultic musical tradition.
But there’s more to it. Specifically, the focus on the divisions – on the idea that every priest and every Levite has his proper place. This, though, I think falls into the blueprint category, as the Chronicler tries to explain how the society ought to be organized for the coming exiles.
Though I note that affairs of state – except where they touch on purity matters, such as the restriction on making deals with foreign nations – are omitted. The exiles would have been the leadership, and I’m sure a good many of them remained close to leadership in Babylon. They wouldn’t have needed instruction in that regard.
There seems to be an almost messianic hope (though perhaps for a collective messiah, rather than an individual) for a restoration of both the Davidic monarchy and the Temple. However, the Temple’s restoration feels more urgent and important for the Chronicler. In reading these books, I got the sense that the king’s role was to act as provider and protector of the Temple, and this is certainly important. However, kings also come with risk, as they often fail to align with the Temple’s interests.
Throughout my reading, the best kings (outside of the idealized united monarchy) always seem to be those who are under a priest’s thumb – an idea made explicit in 2 Chronicles 24:2.
Cause and Effect
The Chronicler clearly believed that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Sometimes, when the guilt is collective, punishment may be delayed for a repentant king (particularly as we get closer to the Chronicler’s own time, and we can make our assumptions about why that may be!). But in most cases, karma is instantaneous.
This philosophy is toxic for some very important reasons that I won’t go into because this isn’t an ethics blog, but the Chronicler does temper it somewhat with the insistence that repentance will always be heard.
I think we can tie this in with the observation James Bradford Pate highlighted about lateness as a theme in Hezekiah. The Passover is celebrated and accepted despite being late, just as a post-exilic Passover after a long lapse would be accepted.
The Chronicler’s beliefs in cause and effect likely explain two important areas where he deviates from Kings: The deaths of Manasseh and of Josiah.
Manasseh – despite being known for his evil deeds – died peacefully, while Josiah – who was known for his goodness – died in battle. To leave these stories as they stand in Kings would be a direct contradiction of the Chronicler’s apparently beliefs. And so we see that Manasseh actually repented, and Josiah actually disobeyed God in the end.
The cause and effect morality comes through very strongly when the Chronicler talks about battles. When Judah wins, it wins by supernatural means – faith, it seems, is the best weapon.
The Chronicler’s position on the northern tribes seems rather clear: He accepts them as part of the ideal Israel, yet views them as being “in rebellion” (2 Chron. 10:18) against that ideal. And so we see a disinterest in the stories and history of the northern tribes, and even perhaps an animosity toward its “illegitimate” monarchy. But at the same time, there is a hope that they will, one day, cease to be in rebellion and return to the true Israel. We can see this most plainly when Hezekiah invites them to his Passover, and they come.
Burials seem to be very important to the Chronicler, and there’s a lot of judgement in where he allows his kings to be entombed. Only the kings who reach a certain standard of goodness are eligible for burial among the other kings, while the baddies must find their own resting places. There are times when the Chronicler directly contradicts Kings to make this happen, which strikes me as odd for a narrative that, in other ways, presents itself as a historical account. I wonder if the burial locations of the kings were known in his time, or were they destroyed by the Babylonians (or even subsequent kings!)? I can’t imagine that the burial locations would have been well-known, or the Chronicler wouldn’t have dared to contradict what was common knowledge. On the other hand, if the locations were unknown, or if different traditions were in circulation, that would have given him a tool to judge his kings by the location of their burial.
The Chronicler adds a lot of details about construction, specifically about which kings built what during their reigns. I can’t think of a possibly motive for this, except perhaps to highlight the importance of building up Judah’s infrastructure. It could just be that the Chronicler had access to a separate source that contained this information, or perhaps he worked a summer in an office that issued building permits. Who knows?
Many kings get a bit of a makeover. The most obvious examples are, of course, David and Solomon – the Chronicler’s golden boys. But I saw examples of it elsewhere. Even Manasseh, who isn’t particularly liked by the Chronicler, loses his slaughter of the innocents. There seems to be a moral line that the Chronicler will not allow his kings to cross – perhaps a sensible boundary when he seems to be arguing for the monarchy’s reinstatement.
As in Kings, Chronicles seems to conflate monarch and nation (to be fair, this is a problem that goes well beyond the Bible). When the king sins, it is seen as appropriate to punish the nation. And, yet, there seems to be an exception to this – when the king repents, the nation may be spared in his lifetime, but the judgement remains even after his passing.
It is this same anonymity of all but the elite that allows for the “Myth of an Empty Land.” Only by ignoring the existence and value of the poor can the Chronicler tell us that Judah lay fallow during the exile – in direct contradiction of 2 Kgs 25:12. But, again, this isn’t an ethics blog, so we move on…
The last thing I want to mention was brought up by John Collins in A Short History of the Hebrew Bible. In the chapter on Chronicles, he mentions the importance of the book of the law discovered by Josiah – or, rather, it’s lack of importance. In Kings, the book’s importance was clear, and finding it acts as a climax for the account. Here, however, the impact of finding the book is somewhat diluted in several ways. One is that Josiah’s reforms begin before he finds the book, negating much of the impact it had in Kings. Another is that the book of the law is mentioned elsewhere in Chroniclers, such as 2 Chron. 17:9, when Jehoshaphat sent it out into the land to teach the people.
Up until this point, I’ve been reading the Old Testament as it is presented in my RSV. However, there’s no particular reason to stick to that order, so I’ve decided to take the order given by Kenneth C. Davis in Don’t Know Much About the Bible, which takes into consideration both theme and chronology.
Because of this, my next book will be Lamentations, which I will begin on February 1, 2016. As usual, I’ve eaten through my post buffer, and having to write these things the night before they’re do is a huge downer! So the break is to let me build up a healthy buffer again. Since Lamentations is fairly short, I may then go straight into Amos, but we’ll see.