History is boring, right? It consists of regurgitating irrelevant information about people long dead. Historical study involves memorizing pointless dates and making sense of oblique references to obscure events. It is not for normal people who want to live in the here and now.
In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. We preserve history because it matters to us. The stories, events and individuals we choose to remember, tell us something about who we are and where we came from. They forge our identity, purpose and meaning.
The Old Testament historical books are no exception.
The Former Prophets – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings
In the Hebrew Bible, the first four historical books are collectively known as the ‘Former Prophets’. They trace the history of Israel from their entry into Canaan down to the Babylonian exile. This sweeping narrative, covering a period of more than 600 years and drawing on numerous older sources was completed during the VI century BC. The destruction of Jerusalem and the deportations to Mesopotamia (2 Kgs. 24-25) marked a watershed moment in the experience of the people of God. It was a time of trauma and defeat.
It was also a time of doubt. The Davidic monarchy and the temple worship were gone. The country was in ruins. Was the God of Israel overpowered by Marduk of Babylon? Was he unable to save his people? Or did he not care anymore?
The ‘Former Prophets’ were drawn upon during this time of unprecedented turmoil. They provided a prophetic perspective on the present by offering a prophetic view of the past. For centuries now, the history of Israel and Judah had been a downward spiral of idolatry and sin. The exile was neither an accident of history nor an unfortunate divine slip. It was the inevitable outworking of deep-seated corruption which had been impossible to eradicate.
Several key passages structure the presentation of Israel’s history in the Former Prophets (Josh. 1:1-9; 23:2-16; Judg. 2:11-23; 1 Sam. 12:1-25; 1 Kgs. 8:23-53; 2 Kgs. 17:7-23). They mark transition points of Israel’s history: from the tribal period to the United Monarchy, from the disastrous reign of Saul to the ambiguous reign of Solomon, from the division of the kingdom to the exile of Israel (2 Kgs. 17) and Judah (2 Kgs. 25). These passages highlight the central theological themes in the Former Prophets. Israel was unfaithful to God’s covenant and suffered the consequences of its unfaithfulness.
The Former Prophets also offer a glimmer of hope in the dual themes of repentance and the promise to David. The shadow of the exile looms large in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple (1 Kgs. 8:46-53). Yet, even in captivity, if the people ‘repent with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies… [God will] forgive [his] people’ (1 Kgs. 8:48-40 NRSV). To each of the descendants of David, God has promised: ‘when he commits iniquity I will punish him with a rod… but I will not take my steadfast love from him’ (2 Sam. 7:14-15). God will always hear the prayer of his repentant people.
The Former Prophets guided their readers through dark times of pain and loss. They ask the questions: How did we get here? What now? From the narrative emerges a picture of a just and powerful God, involved in the lives of his people. The historical books suggest that the God of the past can be experienced in the present through hope, faith and repentance.
The Writings – Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah
The Old Testament contains two versions of Judah’s history, one in the books of Kings and the other in the books of Chronicles. Why tell the same story twice? It’s because history carries different meanings in different situations. Its relevance varies from generation to generation.
In the VI century BC, the Former Prophets helped with the spiritual and psychological trauma of the exile. The book of Chronicles was written a couple of hundred years later, during the post-exilic period.
In 539 BC the armies of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great entered the city of Babylon. This marked the end of the Neo-Babylonian empire. The descendants of the Judean exiles were allowed to go back to their ancestral homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chr. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; 6:13-22).
This new beginning came with its own challenges. Back in the land of Judah, life was hard. On the outside, there was pressure from neighbouring peoples. On the inside, there was a lack of justice and sometimes lukewarm commitment to God (Ezra 3-5; Neh. 1-7). The Davidic kingdom was not restored. Judah was just one small province in the vast Persian empire. People wondered: If God is so great, why are we so weak and insignificant?
The book of Chronicles tackles this question by offering a new reading of the history of Judah. It begins not with the conquest of Canaan, not even with the exodus from Egypt, but with… Adam (1 Chr. 1:1). The implicit claim of this unconventional start is outrageously bold. The small community gathered around the restored temple in Jerusalem is a key part of God’s cosmic design. God’s plans began with the first humans at the creation of the world and continue with us today. Chronicles invites the post-exilic community to look at history with the eyes of faith. Only then can they perceive their true identity and grand theological significance, thinly veiled by their obscurity in the present.
To this end, Chronicles omits some stories and adds others. Its razor-sharp focus is on the Jerusalem temple which marked God’s presence amongst his people. The second temple, rebuilt in 515 BC (Ezra 6), was an heir to Solomon’s temple (1 Chr. 22-2 Chr. 7). In it, the Lord dwelt among his people. Israel’s identity was to be sought not in military prowess, cultural achievements or economic prosperity. God who lived among them defined who they were.
Trauma and identity
The historical books of the Old Testament are never simply about the past. They are, in some sense, always about the present. They look at history to rebuke, guide and encourage. In times of judgement, they point to the justice and grace of God. In times of doubt, they provide clarity and reassurance.
Naturally, today we read these books differently from their original readers. We are not Judeans back from exile building a new temple in Jerusalem.
However, as Christians, we can still approach these narratives as part of our own spiritual history. We can face the great upheavals of our times, be they economic troubles, health emergencies or military violence, knowing that God has not been defeated. He has not abdicated his throne or forgotten about us. In times of trouble, we are to seek him in repentance, faith and hope.
We may be bewildered by the fast-paced changes in the world but those changes cannot destroy our identity. It rests not in our cultural heritage, national achievements or economic power. The presence of God, through the power of his Spirit, ultimately defines who we are and where we are headed.