Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 1

In this chapter, we find the genealogy from Adam to Abraham's descendants through Esau.

This chapter opens the longest genealogy in the bible at the very beginning: with the creation of Adam.  Right away we can deduce that the author of Chronicles was familiar with the book of Genesis.  While it might seem self-evident (since Genesis is so widely available today), I actually think this is not something we should take for granted.  Especially when you consider how later chapters in this genealogy will refer to figures from Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Samuel and Kings, it's clear that not only was the author of Chronicles familiar with all of these books, but even more importantly these books already formed a recognized scriptural basis for the post-exilic Jews at the time Chronicles was written (c. 500 BCE).

Chronicles begins with Adam for various possible reasons, but the most important reason is that it establishes Chronicles as a "comprehensive" book.  It echoes the creation story from Genesis to show that Chronicles is going to tell the whole story from beginning to end.  It's not exactly true, per se, but it definitely sets the tone for the book of Chronicles.  For example, the book of Samuel begins with the story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel, and Samuel concludes when David has secured the kingship over Israel.  The book of Kings begins where Samuel leaves off, with David in his old age about to pass on the kingdom to his son Solomon.  Neither of these stories start at "the beginning"; in fact, they start approximately where the last book left off.  Even Samuel starts at a point logically connected to Ruth and Judges, showing us the transition between the Judges period and the kingdom period.  Judges is the natural follow-up to Joshua, which follows Deuteronomy and Numbers, which follows Exodus and Genesis.

All of these books form a more or less contiguous history of Israel from the creation of Adam through the destruction of Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile.  In fact, bible scholars have a name for this contiguous history: it is commonly referred to as the "deuteronomistic history".  The deuteronomistic history has two fundamental ideas.  The first idea is that Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are interrelated and possibly come from a single author or period of authorship, forming a logically continuous work.  The second idea is that Deuteronomy establishes the moral framework and assumptions underlying the historical work.  In broad terms, this includes things like the dichotomy between blessings and curses depending on Israel's obedience to God (Deut 28).  Therefore we can imagine the deuteronomistic history as the history of Israel modeled in terms of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience towards God.  I think both of these ideas are credible and supported by the text.  More nuanced details of the deuteronomistic history are beyond the scope of my commentary, but I think these broad ideas are quite helpful to understand when reading the text.

Chronicles shows us in this first chapter that rather than picking up where Kings left off, it's actually going to start all over again from the very beginning, and it's going to tell us the history of Israel all over again, from the beginning of creation through the Babylonian exile.  Indeed, Chronicles ends exactly where the book of Kings concludes, but it starts at the beginning of creation rather than where Samuel leaves off.  When you contrast this with the deuteronomistic history mentioned above, you can quickly see that while Joshua through Kings are roughly sequential, Chronicles is more of a parallel history, covering many of the same events but doing so in a different historical context and with different motivations.  The key to understanding Chronicles is to dissect those motivations and understand what the Chronicler was trying to accomplish with this book.  Some of these motivations are discussed in the introduction to Chronicles (just before this chapter), and we will continue to focus on this topic for the rest of the book.

With all that said, there are a few other things I want to say about the genealogy.  First, while it does not discuss the stories from Genesis, by referring to the names of the people involved it calls our attention to those stories.  The Chronicler is undoubtedly familiar with Genesis, and it's likely that he would have expected his audience to have at least general familiarity with the stories and themes of Genesis.  For instance, by telling us the genealogy of Adam, Noah, "Abram, that is Abraham", his readers would remember the first sin, the fall from grace, the flood and Noah's salvation, and Abram's promise from God whereby his name is changed to Abraham, and so on.  That's why I think of this genealogy as almost like an abbreviated history, because as long as you know the stories related to these names, you will think of all these events when reading the names.

Second, the genealogy in this chapter contains a section modeled after the genealogy in Genesis 10 and 11 which lists the descendants of Noah and then the ancestors of Abraham.  Once again this shows that the author of Chronicles has a deep familiarity with Genesis.  However, this genealogy is actually much more extensive than the one in Genesis, which suggests that the Chronicler may have had access to more thorough genealogical records or historical traditions that have since been lost.  This is a common theme across the genealogy because many times the Chronicler will copy genealogies from previous books, but include sections or names that we do not have recorded anywhere else.

Third, this genealogy is meant to show Israel's place in God's created order.  We see all these different people and nations and kings, and then we see Abraham, Isaac and his son Jacob (referred to by his other name, Israel).

Fourth, this genealogy has a peculiar structure.  What it seems to do is list the "preferred" or chosen son last.  For instance, v. 5-16 tell us the descendants of Japheth and Ham before we get to the children of Shem in v. 17.  Verse 28 begins with the genealogy of Ishmael before discussing the children of Isaac.  Similarly, v. 34-35 gives us the descendants of Esau before the children of Jacob.  This is counterintuitive given that many genealogies do the exact opposite, listing the favored son first in the place of honor.  I don't think we need to read any implications out of this.  In my opinion, the genealogy is structured in this way to set up proper transitions from one generation to the next.  To explain what I mean, my readers should remember that there are essentially two different kinds of genealogies.  There are "broad" genealogies that expand out horizontally, listing all of a persons brothers, their sons, and their sons after that, etc.  Basically just going through an entire family tree from one layer to another.  The second kind of genealogy is "narrow" or "vertical", just listing father and son going down some chain of descent for a person of interest.  The genealogy here in Chronicles is a mixture of both techniques.

The Chronicler clearly has a chain of descent he is interested in: he is interested in the tribes of Israel, Judah, the Levites and priests, and the kings of Judah.  This justifies the "vertical" genealogy, which we see in e.g. v. 1-3, v. 24-27 and elsewhere.  However, for various reasons the Chronicler also expands out horizontally at other places (e.g. v. 5-10).  Therefore I see the genealogy in Chronicles as a series of "horizontal" genealogies connected together by these vertical genealogies, sometimes expanding outwards but always refocusing on the people of interest to the author.  The Chronicler lists the favored son last in order to draw our attention back to the next section of the genealogy, which focuses on the descendants of the chosen son, concluding the previous section and opening the next section, with the chosen son given as a transition between these two sections.

Fifth, the genealogy of the Edomites is surprisingly long, possibly because the Edomites were politically significant in the time that Chronicles was written.

Sixth and lastly, as with every other biblical genealogy, this genealogy is overwhelmingly focused on male descent, even though some women are mentioned by name.  Unfortunately, I don't have time to discuss this topic in the depth it deserves, since this post is already quite long.  Hopefully I will have more time in the future to discuss gender relations in the bible.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles Introduction

I'm really excited to start Chronicles.  Excited and a little nervous, I suppose.  I'm excited because it's always fun to read a new book, and nervous because Chronicles is almost the exact same book as Kings in nearly every way.  I remember the first time I read Chronicles I would think to myself, "wait, do I really have to read all these stories again?"  The worst part is when you get to the list of kings, and it's just a long sequence of names that you don't really recognize, understand or remember.  It might not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that we just went through a long sequence of names that we don't recognize or remember, and now we have to read another list... of the very same kings.  I remember skimming through this book aggressively and filing it away in my brain as "kinda like Kings except with a lengthy genealogy in the beginning".

But fear not, trusty readers: there are many fascinating details and stories in this book, and with patience we should be able to gain genuine insights into the historical period in which this book was written and what it can speak to us in the present about God's heart and God's ways amongst his people.

I think the best way to look at Chronicles is that it's like Samuel and Kings rebooted.  People do this all the time with popular movies, writing and producing the exact same movie except that it's "modern", like different actors and new special effects and stuff like that.    With Chronicles, it's like the history of Israel taken from the Pentateuch, Samuel and Kings except it's been updated and contextualized for the "modern" generation.  At least, it was modern back in 500 BCE.  It doesn't seem modern or hip or fresh to us now, but it was probably a significant shift at the time.

The similarities between Kings and Chronicles are fairly broad.  Like Kings, Chronicles was originally written as a single work and only split into a 1st and 2nd book hundreds of years later, likely when it was translated by the authors of the Septuagint (Greek OT).  And like Kings, Chronicles was written in a similar timeframe, somewhat after the Jews had started returning to the promised land after they were exiled to Babylon, while Kings was written during the exile or only briefly after.  Lastly, Chronicles has a very similar writing style to Kings, with a thematic structure revolving around the progression of kings, emphasizing the changes in Israel's spiritual climate under one king versus another.  Under the good kings, we see a renewal in Israel's relationship with God, and under bad kings we see its degradation.

Much as I am emphasizing the similarity to the book of Kings (similar writing style, time frame and themes), there are quite a few differences as well.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the book of Chronicles focuses almost exclusively on the kings and history of Judah (the southern kingdom), while the book of Kings arguably spends more time on the history of Israel (the northern kingdom) than Judah.  In the book of Kings, we spent multiple chapters reading about Elijah and Elisha.  In the book of Kings, Elijah is mentioned 63 times; in the book of Chronicles, he is mentioned once.  In the book of Kings, Elisha is mentioned roughly 52 times; in the book of Chronicles, he is mentioned exactly zero times.  Both Elijah and Elisha were predominantly sent to Israel, hence when the history of Israel is omitted, these prophets also disappear from Chronicles.

Even when describing the kings of Judah, Chronicles adds quite a bit to some stories, filling in a lot of the gaps and omissions in the book of Kings.  In other parts, many stories are left out, especially as it relates to David and Solomon.  The author of Chronicles leaves out nearly everything about David and Solomon that paint them in a negative light.  For instance, he does not describe: David's sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, the succession crisis when Adonijah tried to steal the kingship, Absalom's rebellion, and Solomon's later idolatry when he marries foreign women.  Since this establishes a clear pattern of trying to make David and Solomon look good (perhaps, look better than they actually were), one would naturally ask why would Chronicles leave these stories out?

It's possible the author of Chronicles is trying to create, or is himself clouded by, a perception of a more idealistic past that the Jews could seek to rebuild.  Since Chronicles is pretty clearly post-exilic, the people of Judah are now returning to their homeland for the first time in a generation and trying to rebuild their nation.  The book of Chronicles is perhaps trying to cast a vision for what the nation should aspire to: a united people serving God under a righteous king.  It's hard to say for sure, though.

Another big difference between this book and Kings is the aforementioned genealogy.  I believe this is the longest and most thorough genealogy in the bible.  While I'm going to discuss the details of this genealogy in the coming chapters, what I want to say now is that Chronicles spends a lot of time and energy trying to establish the continuity of their "present day" at the time it was written and the history of David, Solomon and even the earlier patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The genealogy does this directly by showing the lines of inheritance between these respective historical figures into the present day, and Chronicle's deep focus on the temple in Jerusalem and God's covenant with Israel establishes continuity in a more spiritual way.  Through these two topics, Chronicles places the post-exilic Judah as both the biological and spiritual inheritors of the promised land, through natural descent and God's promise.  The temple becomes a rallying point that they can gather around both as an artifact of their previous dominion over the land, as well as a symbol of God's enduring promise that they would possess the land forever.

In a manner of speaking, the book of Chronicles is appealing to the past as a way to bolster their legitimacy and claims on the land into the future.  This is particularly relevant in the post-exilic period because the people may not feel like the land of Judah is "their place" without understanding their historical presence in the area.

In summary, Chronicles is a book written primarily for the people of Judah, focusing on the history of Judah, it describes David and Solomon in idealistic terms to establish a historical "golden age" that they could aspire to rebuild when returning from exile, and it seeks to establish a continuity with the past to both justify and inspire Judah's reoccupation of the promised land and Jerusalem.  In all of these aspects, Chronicles is really a product of its time.