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.

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