1 and 2 Chronicles

Like the books of Samuel and Kings, Chronicles was originally one book that was divided into two by those who translated the original Hebrew manuscripts into Greek (the Septuagint).

Chronicles is a history of Israel’s monarchy, much like the books of Samuel through Kings. The fact that Chronicles comes right after 2 Kings, however, is unfortunate. For many readers there hardly seems to be any sense in reading the long books of Samuel/Kings and then continuing right along and reading “the same thing” in Chronicles. But Chronicles is not merely a repetition of Samuel/Kings; rather, it tells Israel’s story very differently.

The fact that Chronicles comes right after the previous history (of Samuel-Kings) no doubt contributes to its misunderstanding. In the Jewish canon, however, Chronicles is the last book, far removed from Samuel-Kings.  It was not until the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, that Chronicles was tucked neatly away after 2 Kings. The Greek translators also gave Chronicles a name that betrays their interpretive attitude: paraleipomenon, which means, “the things left over.” This is hardly a way to encourage readers of the book’s independent significance! Contrary to this attitude, being placed last in the Jewish canon is a signal that Chronicles is not just a repetition of Samuel/Kings, but a book with its own story to tell.

Chronicles is a retelling ofIsrael’s monarchy in light of the return from Babylonian exile in 539 BC. Its message is a strong theological statement that claims, despite experiencing God’s punishment through exile, that the God of Israel’s ancestors (those living before the exile) is still with God’s people after the exile. Whatever else may have changed, Yahweh is still Israel’s God.

By recording Israel’s history differently from what we read in Samuel/Kings, Chronicles makes a theological point. For example, when compared to Samuel/Kings, Chronicles has its own unique theology that includes things like: a diminishment of David’s sins, an emphasis on unity among the Israelites, an emphasis on the temple and on Solomon’s role in building it, and a theology of “immediate retribution” (not being held responsible for the sins of the ancestors but only for one’s own actions).

One specific example may help illustrate. Compare the two accounts of Nathan’s prophecy to David, the first from 2 Samuel and the other from 1 Chronicles. Nathan the prophet is speaking for God and making a promise to David about the longevity of his dynasty. He says, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me. Your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Nathan refers to David’s “house,” meaning that David will perpetually have descendants on his throne. Compare this to how Chronicles relays this very same episode: “I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever” (1 Chronicles 17:14).

In 1 Chronicles, the house and kingdom are God’s, whereas in 2 Samuel they are David’s. Likewise, in 2 Samuel, the throne is David’s, but in 1 Chronicles it is merely “his.” This “his” refers to Solomon, who built the temple, and who for the author of Chronicles is Israel’s ideal king, the model for Israel’s restored glory in the postexilic period. The message of 2 Samuel is “Don’t worry, David, your line is safe,” but the message of 1 Chronicles is “Remember it is my throne and my kingdom, and I will put the right person there in time.”

These differences cannot be harmonized, as if they only look like they disagree. The differences between these accounts are theological and must be explained on the basis of their differing historical settings. The focus in 2 Samuel was still on the hope of continuing David’s line. However, the author of Chronicles wrote long after the Israelites had already returned from Babylon—no earlier than the mid-fifth century BC judging from the names listed toward the end of the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1–9. He had a different perspective. David’s perpetual line had been broken in exile. For the author of Chronicles, the lesson of the exile is that Israel’s royal dynasty is not dependent on the establishment of David’s house and throne, as 2 Samuel has it. In fact, it is not really David’s throne at all, but God’s, and God will put the right person there when and how God wishes.

Scholars agree that the author of Chronicles was working off of the text of Samuel/Kings. That means that the Chronicler changed the wording of this older text in order to communicate the theological convictions of his postexilic community. The author of Chronicles changed a dashed promise into a messianic hope. His message is a declaration that Israel’s ultimate hope is not in whether David’s literal line continued, but in what God is doing with God’s throne.  The implicit conviction of both authors is that God will return Israel to its by-gone days of favor.

1 Chronicles begins with nine chapters of names in order to connect postexilic Israel to its pre-exilic glory days. Most readers today gladly skip over these chapters (and you shouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing!). However, for postexilic Israelites, the genealogy made a vital point: it traced Israel’s history from the postexilic period all the way back to Adam (1 Chronicles 1:1). Chronicles is a postexilic rewriting of Israel’s entire history to remind the Israelites that they are still the people of God—regardless of all that has happened, and regardless of how much they deserved every bit of misery they had received. They remain God’s people and their lineage extends to the very beginning, to Adam.

The exile prompted the Israelites to write a new national history that would be meaningful to them. Rather than simply repeat the stories of the past, they rewrote them to speak to their continued existence as God’s people; they rewrote the past in order to come to terms with their present. Chronicles is not an  “objective history” as we might expect as modern readers. It is a “theological history,” and the sooner we accept this, the more quickly we will truly understand this fascinating book.

 – Peter Enns