Wednesday, August 6, 2014

1 Chronicles: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, and then summarize it in my own words.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The books of Chronicles (1 and 2) are a re-telling of the events of the books of Samuel and Kings, from the perspective of the Israelites living in captivity in Babylon around the 6th century B.C.E.  No new events happen, plot-wise.  Rather, the intent seems to be to show continuity between Israel’s history and their current state of affairs.

To this end, 1 Chronicles is heavy on genealogies, to show that the Israel in exile is still connected historically and spiritually to the nation that existed before.  The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are genealogies, which makes for some pretty monotonous reading.  

Hebrew Genealogical Record 

The genealogies begin with Adam, showing his descendants down to Abraham, to the descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel, to King David, to the current leaders and priests living in exile.  After all these genealogies, the chronicler writes, “So all Israel was enrolled by genealogies…and Judah was carried away into exile to Babylon for their unfaithfulness.”

Special attention is given to the families of the priests, and their duties.  Presumably, it was the priests who gave the people in exile a sense of spiritual and cultural identity after they’d lost their actual land and political power.

And then, the stories of the books of Samuel and Kings are recounted, beginning with Saul, then David and his successors.  However, because 1 Chronicles was written in a different time and under different circumstances than those books, the writers emphasize some different things.

Much importance is placed on the so-called “Mighty Men of David.”  These were powerful warriors  who helped the king defeat his enemies, and they were from all over Israel, north and south.  Also, the armies of David came from all the tribes.   Specific family names are listed.  Again, this emphasis on historic unity would have resonated with the community in exile, who had lived through all the regional divisions which led to Israel’s fall.  The armies of David represented the dream of a unified Israel.

David's Mighty Men (Badasses) by James Tissot

King David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and built a tent for it.  Then a priest named Asaph wrote a song whose themes of hope, memory, and the promises of God would definitely have resonated with a people living in exile.  Despite their circumstances, Israel was still God’s chosen people.

Then God renewed his covenant with David, saying his kingdom would last forever (an admittedly confusing idea for people whose kingdom had been destroyed).  This promise, I think, is also meant as a future hope of a renewed kingdom.  

As recorded in Samuel and Kings, David defeated many enemies and strengthened Israel, unifying the tribes into one nation.

It is in the book of 1 Chronicles that the character named “Satan” appears for the first time in the Bible.  Not much is said about him, or where he came from except that he prompted King David to take a census of Israel, and that this was somehow seen as evil by God.  So God sent a pestilence, which was only stopped when David built a new altar to the Lord.  On the site of this new altar, David planned to built the first great Temple, a task that would fall to his son Solomon.

The names and duties of the priests of the Temple are described in minute detail.  Indeed, Chronicles seems to have been written by and for priests and their worship communities.  For the Jews in exile, even though their temple had been destroyed, they still held onto their faith through worship, observance of laws, memory, and the telling of stories.

I think it is in the books of Chronicles that the real purpose of the Bible (or, at least the Hebrew Scriptures) begins to emerge.  It is not simply a book of history, nor is it a book of mythology.  It is a complex mixture of history, laws, songs, stories, and traditions whose purpose is to give hope and meaning to a community of people living in difficult and confusing circumstances.  In this case, the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.

"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion." --Psalm 137
Painting by James Tissot

No comments:

Post a Comment