Glimmerings from the First Book of Chronicles
First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, and First and Second Chronicles: These are the books which repeatedly survey the rise and fall of the monarchy in Israel, each with its different emphasis.* I have already discussed Samuel and Kings. The Chronicles were written after the Exile, during a time of religious revival. But the two books of Chronicles are very different.
Today’s subject, the First Book, joins some of the books of the Pentateuch as among the least interesting (to us) Scriptural texts. But it would have been of great interest to the Jews after the return from the Babylonian Captivity for the rebuilding of the Temple, because it carefully listed all the families descended from Adam through Abraham, David, Solomon and so to the present day. It also grouped many of the key families and individuals according to the services they performed under David and Solomon, and at other key historical junctures.
Most of us do not find such genealogies or enumerations very interesting now, both because our culture tends to be non-traditional and because we have little idea of how these ancient Jewish leaders and families are related, if at all, to ourselves. Thus, while some of us might be vaguely interested in our own ancestry insofar as we know it, these lists go well beyond the range of our reckoning. But after the Exile, as the Jews were attempting to recover their very identity as a people, such lists must have been a vital source of both pride and direction.
One indication of how important this “looking back” was to the Jews—in contrast to our constant “looking ahead”—is seen in the history recounted by all the of these “monarchical” books. Again and again, the sacred authors explain that this king or that king walked, or did not walk, in the ways of his fathers. This was good or evil depending on who the fathers were, but the ultimate tribute was that a king walked in the ways of his father in a more ultimate sense—that is, his father David.
I certainly do not want to idealize this sense of ancestry. We have just finished a long and depressing review of how many kings, officers, families and people in general failed to take seriously the values and purposes of their forbears. Nonetheless, insofar as respect for ancestry and tradition is a kind of glue (which, clearly, it often is), we could use a good deal more of that glue in our own fragmented cultural understanding today.
While there was doubtless great textual attraction in the First Book of Chronicles for those who returned to their homeland after the Exile, there are very few highlights for the rest of us, partly because the most interesting developments have already been recounted, sometimes more than once, in the earlier books. But my own rereading of this book brought some important spiritual lessons into clearer focus. In each case some new detail was included, or some previously-recounted episode was emphasized in a new way. I will mention two of these.
First, the confidence of the Jews in the Providential character of their history is unabated in Chronicles, and one of the distinctive instances of it in the First Book comes in Chapter 4, when the sacred author enumerates the descendants of Judah. We learn that one Jabez “was more honorable than his brothers.” His name means “he makes sorrowful”, and his mother named him that “because I bore him in pain.” When he grew older, therefore, Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not hurt me!” See verses 9 and 10, which conclude simply with this sentence: “And God granted what he asked.”
Tiny Scriptural lessons can leap out at us at any time, even in the midst of a genealogy! We are all in some sense Jabez, and we all need to pray, for “with God, all things are possible” and “all things are possible to him who believes” (cf. Mt 29:26; Mk 9:23, 10:27, 14:36).
A second passage also struck me with more than usual spiritual force. You will recall that David was embarrassed because there was no house for the LORD, and the King wanted to do something about it. But God disappointed David by telling the him that it was not for him to build the house of God. As if to soften this rebuff, God—through the prophet Nathan—went on to make that special promise to David which has stirred the hearts of all his spiritual descendants. We find it in chapter 17:
Moreover, I declare to you that the LORD will build you a house. When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son; I will not take my merciful love from him, as I took it from him who was before you [Saul], but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom for ever, and his throne shall be established for ever. [1 Chr 17:10-14]
Now compare how this was reported earlier, in the Second Book of Samuel:
I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my merciful love from him as I took it from Saul…. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. [2 Sam 7:12-16]
In the earlier account (Samuel), this prophecy sounds very closely tied to David (“your house”, “your kingdom”, “your throne”) and his immediate offspring (“who shall come forth from your body”); it also allows for something already typical in the lives of the kings, namely “iniquity” on the part of this son of David. But in the later account (Chronicles), there is a subtle shift. Chronicles speaks of “his throne” and of confirming “him in my house and in my kingdom”. A little more distance, both historical and spiritual, seems to open here. This “space” that makes it easier to imagine possibilities other than Solomon, and to understand what it might mean for this son of David to be chastened “with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men.”
Too subtle? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But it is glimmers like this, constantly changing in their impact on the awareness of each reverent reader, which personally verify the astonishing power of the Word of God.
* Again, the alternate nomenclature designates these books as First, Second, Third and Fourth Kings, followed by First and Second Paralipomenon.
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