Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 36

In this chapter, Judah rotates through several kings in quick succession but is nonetheless destroyed by the Babylonians.

In the previous chapter, I mentioned that the Egyptians were catastrophically defeated at Carchemish.  While that is true, and it drove the Egyptians out of the Mideast, they had still defeated the Judeans and for a time, maintained some influence over Judah.  In verses 3-4, the Egyptians exercise that influence by capturing one king of Judah and appointing another man, Jehoiakim, to be the new king.

Just eleven years later, the Babylonians march in and capture Jerusalem.  This marks the end of Egypt’s control over Judah.  The Babylonians take their turn, imprisoning Jehoiakim and taking him to Babylon, as well as plundering the temple.  As if they did not want to be mere equals to the Egyptians, the Babylonians capture the next king of Judah, plunder the temple a second time, and appoint Zedekiah as the new king.

The overall flow of the historical narrative in this section is very similar between the book of Kings (2 Kings 23:31 through 2 Kings 25) and Chronicles.  The narrative in Kings is somewhat longer and more detailed, but substantially similar.  I personally see three notable differences between these two accounts of Judah’s collapse, which I would like to discuss in turn.

First, the book of Kings blames Manasseh for the collapse of Judah (2 Kings 24:3-4), while Chronicles blames the collective sins and rebellion of the people throughout their history and especially during the reign of Zedekiah (v. 12-16).  I’m not sure I can explain why these two books shift the blame from one king to the other.  When discussing the life of Manasseh in 2 Chronicles 33, I mentioned that Kings would have placed a heavier focus on trying to understand why the catastrophe happened to them and perhaps blamed Manasseh as a result.  While that is true, I’m not sure why Chronicles would want to blame Zedekiah instead.  Chronicles biography of Manasseh emphasizes the redemptive element of his return to the LORD after sinning and being punished by God.  For Zedekiah and the other kings in this chapter, there is no redemptive element: they are taken into exile and there they die.

Part of me wonders if there is some political element to blaming Zedekiah that might have been influenced by the political situation in post-exilic Judah and perhaps by their ongoing relationship with Babylon, but I can’t really prove it.

The second notable difference is Chronicles’ reference to Jeremiah and his prophecy.  This is entirely absent from the book of Kings, which shows that it was either unknown or not regarded as legitimate during the time that Kings was written.  This is mostly interesting from a dating perspective.  And I don’t mean dating in the sense of like, “do you wanna hang out Friday night and go see a movie together”.  Instead, I mean in terms of figuring out when these three books (Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah) were written relative to each other and to the historical events they describe.  I hope that doesn’t cost me too many readers.  :)

Anyway, my readers should have already known that Chronicles is a post-exilic book and Kings is a mid-exilic book.  We can tell that through a variety of signals, but one of the simplest is because the book of Kings ends with Jehoiachin living in the middle of the exile (2 Kings 25:30) and the book of Chronicles ends with the invitation for the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem (v. 23).  The more interesting question is to figure out when Jeremiah was written and perhaps even more importantly, when it entered the common culture and lexicon of the Judean people.  The crude answer we get here is, “sometime between the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles”.  The book of Jeremiah itself (combined with evidence in Chronicles) suggests that Jeremiah was both living and prophesying before and during the exile, as early as the reign of Josiah (which ended roughly 22 years before the exile).

We can reasonably infer that Jeremiah was indeed prophesying during this period, but was excluded from the Kings narrative.  If Jeremiah was a known prophet during this time but left out from Kings, it suggests that his prophecies were perhaps not regarded as authoritative or from the LORD.  It’s possible that only their fulfillment during the reign of Cyrus elevated these prophecies to be regarded as the word of the LORD.  It’s hard to be certain, though.

The third and final difference between the Kings narrative and the Chronicles narrative is the declaration by Cyrus that the people of Israel may return from the exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (v. 23).  I’ve already touched on this briefly as it relates to dating the book of Chronicles.  This passage serves two other roles in the narrative.

First, it connects the end of Chronicles with the beginning of Ezra (the next book we will read).  In fact, the next three books (Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther) are all a specific class of post-exilic historical narrative that continues the story from Chronicles into the post-kingdom era.  I will discuss these books in more depth later, but for now I just want to emphasize the tight integration between the post-exilic declaration that ends this book and begins Ezra.  In fact, the first three verses of Ezra are virtually identical to the last two verses of Chronicles, which is almost definitely intentional.  There is a lot of speculation about how Chronicles relates to Ezra, whether they have the same author, the same editor, or simply drew that quotation from a common source.

While I can’t answer that for sure, what we can do is divide up the histories of the OT into two distinct segments.  The first segment is from Genesis through Kings, that forms a continuous history from the creation of the world through the exile, and was written as a pre-exilic work(s).  The second segment is from Chronicles through Esther, and ignoring the genealogy at the beginning of Chronicles, it covers from the death of Saul through the early post-exilic period with the repairs to the wall of Jerusalem and the construction of the second temple (a replacement for the temple of Solomon that was destroyed by the Babylonians).  While Chronicles had much in common with the pre-exilic tradition, Ezra and Nehemiah are entirely post-exilic in origin and do not have any equivalent text in the pre-exilic history.

Second, ending with Cyrus’s declaration of the return to Jerusalem puts a much more hopeful and optimistic spin on Chronicles vis a vis Kings, which I think matches the generally more hopeful and optimistic attitude that predominated during the early pre-exilic era.  The book of Kings has a lesser “hopeful ending”, when it says that Jehoiachin was granted favor by king Evil-Merodach of Babylon and was given a better position than any other imprisoned king.  The way I interpret this passage in Kings is that it is trying to show that the Judeans are given favor by God in how their captors treat them during the exile.  Chronicles ends on the much more powerful note that just as God spoke through Jeremiah, the people are allowed to return to Jerusalem and the promised land.  They are similar in tone, but different in magnitude.

In conclusion, we have covered an awful lot of material with a lot of broad themes when going through Chronicles.  I think if there is one thing I have learned from this study, it’s that Chronicles is just as much a reflection of the time in which it was written, as it is a reflection of the history that it depicts.

In the context of the post-exilic world, it is trying to present ancient Israel (as exemplified by David and Solomon) as both their people’s connection to the promised land and as an idealized society they should seek to emulate.  It presents the temple worship system, the priesthood, and the Passover ceremony as essential components of their national faith.  While it affirms that the exile is a devastating consequence of sin and idolatry, it also presents restoration as a consequence of humility and returning to the LORD.  It shows this in the lives of individual kings (Hezekiah and Manasseh), but also in the collective life of their nation.  To the post-exilic Jews, this serves as both a warning and a promise for them to shun idolatry and follow the LORD in their own time as a means to ensure the safety and prosperity of their people in the promised land.

In the next book, Ezra, we will learn that the return from the exile does not put an end to all of their struggles, but that faith and devotion to the LORD continues to ensure victory over all opposition.

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