Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 11

In this chapter, David becomes king and conquers Jerusalem.

As my readers have probably already noticed, this chapter has a lot in common with Samuel, particularly 2 Samuel 5, just as the previous chapter was largely copied out of 1 Samuel 31.  There's a few things I want to say about this before we move on.

Many of my readers may be getting bored of Chronicles at this point wondering, why so much repetition?  I read this story already!  Why can't they get to something new or different?  To try and answer those questions, do you folks remember way back in Genesis 24 when the narrative repeated the servant's story twice?  And do you remember later in Exodus when chapters 25-31 were largely (but not entirely) copied in Exodus 36-39?  At the time, when explaining those chapters, I said that the repetition was probably a literary device that simply held over from the oral tradition that underlies much of the Pentateuch.  However, Chronicles is very different because Chronicles is a completely separate book from Samuel (while the repetition in the Pentateuch is in the same book) and Chronicles does not have an underlying oral tradition, since as it should be clear from 1 Chronicles 9:1, Chronicles is mostly copied from a previous book.  Even though both of these are instances of copying prior stories, they serve fundamentally different purposes which we can discern through the context.

In a nutshell, Genesis and Exodus contain repetition to help speakers memorize the passages, but Samuel and Chronicles contain repetition because the author of Chronicles wanted to make a point.  We can find that point by studying the omissions and additions that made it into Chronicles, and that will be the main focus of my commentary for the remainder of this book.

In this chapter, the biggest difference from the Samuel narrative is that the Chronicler left out 2 Samuel chapters 1-4.  That includes David's retribution against Saul's murderers and (perhaps more significantly) the civil war that followed between David and Ish-Bosheth.  It also avoids the seven years in which David reigned over Judah from Hebron and jumps almost immediately to his unified kingship from Jerusalem.  Because of the copying from 2 Samuel 5:1, it tells us that David was at Hebron, but Chronicles never explains why he is at Hebron.  The main purpose of this narrative gap is to skip over the disunity and resistance to David's kingship, and present David as if he immediately became king with backing from all the people.

This chapter serves two basic purposes.  First, it establishes David's authority over, and unified support from, all the tribes of Israel.  It does this both in verses 1-3 when the people of Israel come to make David king, and it does this also in verses 10-47 which list David's champions.  Importantly, many of those champions come from tribes besides Judah including Benjamin.  Benjamin is particularly relevant because it is Saul's tribe (David's adversary) and because Benjamin was one of the major tribes returning from the exile (as discussed in chapter 9).  The author of Chronicles is trying to minimize the former antagonism between Judah and Benjamin by presenting David as the king of the whole nation and presenting him as having the support of all the tribes, including Benjamin.  I think this is a big deal to the Chronicler because this entire section (verses 11-47) are copied from 2 Samuel 23, which in the book of Samuel is not even part of the main narrative, it is in the appendix along with "miscellaneous stories", as I think they may be called.  Here, the Chronicler has placed this list of men right at the very beginning of David's reign but with a very important preamble in verse 10 that you do not find in the Samuel narrative.  Verse 10 explains the purpose of verses 11-47: it is to establish the list of very mighty men who supported David to make him king, together with all Israel.  Therefore the Chronicler sees this as a natural extension of verses 1-3 when the elders and the people came to make David king.

The second purpose of this chapter is to establish Jerusalem, freshly conquered from the Jebusites, as the future site for the temple to the LORD.  Chronicles spends a considerable amount of space discussing the preparations and construction of the temple.  It is clear (for various reasons) that the Chronicler is deeply interested in the temple, and the conquest of Jerusalem forms the background for that later temple narrative.  From that perspective, these few verses (4-9) are a small but indispensable part of the larger narrative.

If my readers are interested in more information on the names of the people mentioned in the list of heroes, see my commentary on 2 Samuel 23.  Otherwise, I should mention that the lists of names between these two chapters are not exactly identical (1 Chronicles 11 contains several extra names compared to 2 Samuel), but the differences are not notable or well-understood.

The next chapter continues the theme of David's unified support from all the tribes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 10

In this chapter, the historical narrative begins with the death of Saul.

This is a relatively short chapter, but it's important because it reveals a lot about the nature of the historical narrative and its connection to the genealogy that we just read.

So.  First off, my readers may notice that this chapter is almost exactly copied from 1 Samuel 31.  This is important for a couple reasons.  First, it shows that the author of Chronicles is familiar with the book of Samuel, since this is almost a word-for-word copy.  Second, the author of Chronicles is skipping over an enormous volume of the story from 1 Samuel 1-30, which includes things like: the birth of Samuel, the selection of Saul as king, Saul's sins, the selection of David as king, and the lengthy conflict between David and Saul.  None of these things are discussed in Chronicles, but because the story begins here with the death of Saul, the author of Chronicles assumes his readers are already familiar with Saul, David and the war against the Philistines.  Since we know that Chronicles was written hundreds of years after these events, it is likely that the book of Samuel must have been relatively widespread in the time of the Chronicler.  At least, it is just as widespread as the Chronicler intended his own book to become.

We see this most clearly in verses 11-12, where the Chronicler tells us how the men of Jabesh-Gilead honor Saul, but without telling us why.  He simply assumes that we know about how Saul delivered Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites in 1 Samuel 11.  In 1 Samuel 31, this story would have made complete sense because the deliverance of Jabesh-Gilead happened earlier in the book; in Chronicles, it only makes sense if we have also read 1 Samuel.

Actually, this is the reason why verses 13-14 are included.  These verses do not exist in 1 Samuel, they are only present here, precisely because Chronicles does not have the prior narrative about the life of Saul with which to explain his death.  In 1 Samuel 28, it is very clear that Saul is going to die in battle as punishment for his sin and disobedience against the LORD; no further explanation is required in 1 Samuel 31 when he actually does die.  In Chronicles on the other hand, the story begins with Saul's death, and the Chronicler felt that it was appropriate to give a (highly abbreviated) explanation.  These two verses still assume that the readers know the story from 1 Samuel because they don't bother to explain the situations in which Saul sinned.

Lastly, I'm not sure why the author of Chronicles began his story here.  Interestingly, this is the same point where 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel are divided, but keep in mind that Samuel was a unified book until the time of the Septuagint (~70 BCE), which is actually older than Chronicles.  Samuel was a single book at the time that Chronicles was written, so if anything it's possible that Samuel was divided here because this is where the Chronicles narrative begins.  I think more likely than that, it is just a natural breakpoint in the story because this is the transition from the "evil king" Saul to the good king David.  Given the context of Chronicles, how it was written when Judah was returning from exile, it's probable that the Chronicler is trying to be more hopeful and inspiring to his readers and wishes to not dwell too long on Israel's troubled past and focus more on the glory days of David and Solomon.

In the next chapter, that glory begins in earnest with David crowned king over all Israel.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 9

In this chapter, the genealogy concludes with a census of several groups of officials and leaders who are returning to Judah from the Babylonian exile.

This is it, we've finally reached the end of the genealogy.  After nine painstaking chapters, we have finally reached the end.  It's almost over, and we made it; we survived.  You should pat yourself on the back, not everyone can make it through such a long and archaic genealogy.  Once you are done congratulating yourself, let's move on to discuss the contents of this final chapter.

To begin, verse 1 indicates source of the genealogies, records of "the book of the kings of Israel".  Some people think this means the actual book of Kings (which we previously read).  Other people think it refers to a non-extant royal chronicle.  Since this genealogy includes some names that are not mentioned anywhere else in the bible, I think it's more likely that a non-extant source is intended.  Analysis of the material in the genealogy indicates that it likely came from at least two different sources, possibly as many as three or four.  The reason being, we can identify sections of the genealogy that are taken from earlier books (principally Numbers, the early parts from Genesis and maybe Samuel or Kings), and the new sections are likely taken from other books that have since been lost and destroyed.  The other reason we can separate out different sources for this material is the distinction between military and social or religious genealogies.  This was something I discussed at length in chapter 7, so I won't repeat myself here.

Verse 2 mentions people returning to retake their inheritances in the promised land, which clearly shows the post-exilic nature of Chronicles.  This is in contrast to the book of Kings that never mentions anything after the exile, which shows that Kings must have been written before or during the exile.

Note the groups that are returning from exile.  Verse 3 briefly mentions Ephraim and Manasseh, but there is more detailed discussion of Judah, Benjamin, the priests, and Levites.  All of these groups received the longest and most detailed genealogies in the previous section.  This ties together and explains the author's focus: he is very directly focused on the groups that are now present in post-exilic Jerusalem and Judah, which is an important clue to the author's purpose for this genealogy.  Namely, the reason for this genealogy is to connect the returning exiles in this chapter with the earlier history of their nation in chapters 1-8.  This is intended to legitimize their claims on the land and God's promises from the covenant.  In essence, what the Chronicler is trying to say is that God promised this land to Israel, and their people lived here for thousands of years, and now they are coming back to take what is rightfully theirs both by historical association and by divine mandate.  They are returning, perhaps chastened, but pious.

At the same time, we should also pay attention to the numbers.  Chapter 7 gives us a prior census of some of the tribes of Israel.  In that time, the tribes of Israel were composed of tens of thousands of soldiers, which is not even including women, children and the elderly.  Israel was a nation with hundreds of thousands of people.  In this chapter and we see hundreds of people returning, maybe a few thousand total.  Compare the tens of thousands listed pre-exile with the hundreds that come back from the exile.  Note the implied devastation here.  Even though we do not read many scenes of bloodshed in the biblical narrative, it should be clear from just these two passages that Israel was subjected to harsh treatment by the Babylonians.  Even though the men returning are not all Israel, and many perhaps remained in Babylon, we see less than 1% of the nation return.

Secondly, v. 13 tells us that 1760 priests returned from the exile, while v. 6 and 9 tell us that Judah plus Benjamin together only added up to 1646 men.  This means that there were more priests returning than those other two tribes combined.  Why are there so many priests?  Are they returning because of their devotion to God and to the promised land or because they had favored positions as keepers of the temple ordinances?  Certainly the priests would have had authority and many privileges as leaders of the national religion, and that may have been diminished significantly when they were in exile under a foreign power and in particular, under a foreign, polytheistic religious system.

In v. 17-18, we learn that the senior gatekeeper was responsible for the east gate where the king entered and left the temple.  Subsequent tradition (particularly from Ezekiel 44:1-3) dictates the Messiah would enter through the east gate.  Later, during the (Muslim) Ottoman period the gate was walled up entirely and they also built a cemetery in front of the gate.  According to Jewish law, contact with a grave renders a person ceremonially unclean, so this was clearly an attempt to prevent the Messiah from being able to enter through the gate.  Anyway, it's not directly relevant to this chapter but I thought it was interesting.

Finally, this chapter concludes with a genealogy of Saul, which directly leads us into the next chapter, the death of Saul and the beginning of the historical narrative portion of Chronicles.