Today we continue blogging through Pete Enns’s new book on the Bible.
As I’ve said in our recent posts on The Bible and the Believer, one of my tasks this year will be to work on answering two questions that Pete raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:
- What is the Bible?
- What is the Bible for?
Last time we discussed the diversity of the Hebrew Bible, how it is like a conversation carried on over generations as God’s people interacted with their sacred past by changing, adapting, rethinking, and rewriting the stories and texts they had received to reflect their growing understanding of God and God’s ways. God, in a mysterious way, was intimately involved in this process, and we call that “inspiration.” The community of faith ultimately recognized these sacred stories and writings as God’s words to them, finding in them God’s message of wisdom, faith, hope, and love.
But it is important to see that God did not just drop his words from heaven. The First Testament represents a long, utterly human process of wrestling with what God was doing in the lives and experience of the Hebrew people. And ultimately, it is the product of scribes and religious leaders editing the final product into something that would give the Babylonian exiles wisdom for a whole new reality and hope for the future.
One example of the way this worked, pointed out by Pete Enns, is the book of Chronicles. In our English Bibles, 1-2 Chronicles is placed right after 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and represents another look at this historical period in Israel’s history. However, in the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles is the conclusion of the whole book.
Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. In fact, it is nothing less than an act of reimaging God.
To make a long story short, 1 Samuel through 2 Kings were probably written before and during the Babylonian exile, and the main question these books address is, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” The short answer is, “You committed apostasy by worshiping foreign gods, with your kings leading the way.” In other words, these books interpret events of history and pronounce a guilty verdict on Judah.
But 1 and 2 Chronicles were written centuries later, probably no earlier than about 400 BCE and more likely closer to 300 or even a bit later—so somewhere in the middle of the Persian period (which began in 538) and perhaps as late as the Greek period (which began with the conquest by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332). And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?”
Once again, we revisit our theme: as times changed, the ancient Jews had to reprocess what it meant to be the chosen people—if indeed that label even meant anything anymore. (p. 108-09)
A main example Pete Enns points to is that of King Manasseh. Manasseh is the ruler in the book of Kings that is deemed responsible for causing Judah to be taken into exile. His wickedness is so epic that its consequences carry on for generations, and even the great revival and reforms under his grandson Josiah could not remedy its effects.
However, in Chronicles, the story of Manesseh is completely reimagined. Manasseh himself goes into exile, humbles himself, and is allowed to go back to Jerusalem. The people are blamed for the exile, and Manasseh ends his days as a repentant, restored, righteous ruler. As Enns says, this portrayal serves as a “symbolic retelling of Judah’s exile and return home after the captives had learned their lesson and repented of their sins” (p. 110)
The author of Chronicles, by retelling this story, wants the exiles to learn the wisdom of humbling themselves and seeking the Lord in their hard circumstances. He illustrates this by showing that even the most wicked sinner — King Manasseh! — was not beyond redemption and restoration.
That is to say, the retelling of the reign of Manasseh (and 1 and 2 Chronicles as a whole) is an act of wisdom—of reading the moment and reimagining what God is doing and, more important, what God will do in the (hopefully not too distant) future. pp. 111-112)