Friday, August 1, 2014

Second Chronicles: Shoring Up the Image

Holy crap! It’s been more than a month since my last post! I’m slipping!

Well, Second Chronicles has been a little bit of a challenge. Like First Chronicles, it is a retelling of stories we’ve already read. As such, it’s tempting to jump back and forth between the Chronicles version of each story and the Kings version, comparing every little detail. But let’s be honest: this isn’t really that kind of a scholarly exercise. I’m not a historian; just some dude with a life of his own trying to read his way through the Bible and share his thoughts on what he reads. So I’m gonna try and get this done in a single post, and just highlight a few things that I think get at the general theme of the similarities and differences.

Second Chronicles starts with the reign of Solomon, and follows the story up through the destruction of Judah and the kidnapping of the surviving Jewish people to Babylon. But where First Chronicles tells abbreviated versions of the stories it covers, Second Chronicles fleshes out the stories it tells a great deal compared to the writings in Kings. It does this at the expense of ignoring Israel altogether and focusing almost entirely on the stories of the kings of Judah.

It seems that the general thrust of the expansions of the stories in Chronicles is to make God come off a little better than the impression given in the Kings accounts. For example, Chronicles tweaks the story of Solomon building and sanctifying the temple in Jerusalem. In both accounts, Solomon holds a massive ceremony to dedicate the new temple, which features a long speech about prayer and blessings and stuff. In both books it’s essentially the same, but you can see by comparing 1 Kings 8:50 to 2 Chronicles 6:39 where the Chronicles account goes off the rails. In First Kings, Solomon proceeds from that point to invoke a blessing on the people and enjoin them to be true to God before moving on to perform the burnt offerings part of the ceremony. In Chronicles, he instead ends the speech by inviting God to take up residence in the temple, and “fire came down from heaven” to consume the burnt offerings. Just a little touch added to make it look more like God was an actual participant in history.

Chronicles moves on through the rest of Solomon’s reign, covering basically the same territory as the Kings account. We get the Queen of Sheba story, and the waxing eloquent on the vast wealth of Solomon and Israel under his rule. Chronicles leaves out the bit about Solomon falling into idolatry near the end of his life due to the influence of his many foreign wives and concubines, as well as God’s declaration that he would split Israel after Solomon’s death as a punishment for that faithlessness. Kinda glossing over the whole “punishing the son for the sins of the father,” aspect of the original story.

So the story moves on through the splitting of Israel in two kingdoms (Israel under Jeroboam, God’s hand-picked ruler who immediately turns to idolatry; Judah under Rehoboam). Same story as before. And we go through Rehoboam’s reign to his son Abijah, and from him to his son Asa who enacts a lot of reforms that basically amount to persecuting adherents of any other religion. The story of Asa gets expanded in Chronicles to condemn his making an alliance with Syria to prevent Israel from invading, rather than “relying on Yahweh,” to prevent the invasion. God declares that Asa’s punishment for this is to have more wars (which means, essentially, that God punishes Asa by causing a lot of other people who had nothing to do with his political decision to die violently, which I’m sure we can all agree is the very embodiment of perfect justice). And the expansion leads on to this little gem as well:

2 Chron 16:12 In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became seere. Yet even in his disease he did not seek Yahweh, but sought help from physicians. 13 And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign.”

So yeah, in the context of Asa just having been punished (well, others punished on his behalf) for failing to rely on God for war, this is a rather strongly implied condemnation of his decision to see physicians to treat his illness. And while that may have been a bad idea for the state of medicine at the time, people who read this silly fable as unchanging wisdom for all time would certainly be drawing horrifically bad medical advice from this passage in modern times.

Let’s see… we next get an expansion on the reign of Jehoshaphat, complete with the usual grossly inflated numbers for the size of his army and crediting his sending priests about to spread the worship of Yahweh for the increased prosperity of the kingdom. We also get a repetition of the story about God sending a spirit to lie to his prophets in order to trick Ahab into going into a battle where he will die (See my post titled “Second Kings: Lies, Damn Lies, and Prophecies,” for details). This one is pretty much unaltered from the original telling, so I guess the author was still comfortable with the idea of God and his prophets lying to people.

Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s son, gets a major expansion. In Kings his tale was just a run-of-the mill “he did what was evil in the sight of God, and then he rested with his fathers,” story. Chronicles expands him into a fratricidal tyrant (he literally killed all of his brothers after assuming the throne) who is eventually punished by God by having his family stolen by invaders and his bowels destroyed by disease so that he dies in agony.

The story moves on to Jehoram’s son Ahaziah. The Chronicles story doesn’t really expand on the Kings version, but does manage to get many of the few facts it does relate different. If you recall the Kings version (it’s covered in my entry titled “Anniversary! And Murder Most Foul!”), Ahaziah’s uncle Jehu was commissioned by God (through the intermediary of one of Elisha’s servants) to kill all of Ahab’s direct descendants. So he murders Joram (the king of Israel, Ahab’s descendant) at Jezreel, and also has his men shoot down Ahazael (who was visiting Joram at the time) as he tried to flee the ambush. Then Jehu goes on to murder all of Joram’s family (including the children). After that, he kills forty-two of Ahazael’s family that he meets on the road. In the Chronicles version, Jehu slaughters Joram and his family, then kills Ahaziah’s family on the road, and only after that do his men track down Ahaziah hiding in Samaria and bring him back to Jehu to be executed. So the deaths occur in different scenes set in different places and in a different order. Y’know, in the manner Biblical perfect consistency.

Skipping generations, we get to an expansion of the story of Uzziah (also called Araziah in the Kings version). The Kings version only said that he did what was right in the sight of God (except for not destroying the worship sites of other religions), and that God made him a leper in his old age for no stated reason. Chronicles comes up with a reason: Uzziah tried to burn incense in the temple himself, instead of leaving that to the priests. I’m sure that was a reason that must have made sense to the guy writing the book.

Anyway, those are just a few illustrations of differences between Second Chronicles and Second Kings. The general thrust seems to be to add stuff that makes some of God’s decisions seem less arbitrary, the punishments more the fault of the people receiving them instead of their ancestors, and God himself less absent. Like Second Kings, Second Chronicles runs up to the destruction of Judah and the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon. It ends after the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, which controls Babylon, when the Persian king Cyrus decides at God’s urging to rebuild the temple in Jerusalam and to release the Israelites to return home.

Phew! Hopefully we’re done with redundant books for a while! At least reading new stories should help to maintain interest, and I’ll be able to pick up the pace of postings. We’ll be picking up next with the Book of Ezra which, clocking in at only ten chapters, should be a pretty quick read.

Until next time, be happy and well!

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