Friday, July 03, 2009

5. Critical Issues in the Historical Books

Previous posts include:

1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
4. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch

We mentioned in the second section on the Old Testament Canon that the books we currently call the "Historical Books" actually incorporate books from two quite different sections of the Jewish Bible. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are the "Former Prophets" of the Hebrew Bible. Meanwhile, Ruth, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther were part of the Writings, the third part of the Jewish Bible. Ruth and Esther in particular were two of five scrolls in the Writings collectively known as the Megilloth.

Since the days of Martin Noth (1902-68), it has been conventional to call the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings the deuteronomistic history. Prior to this time, individuals like Wellhausen and others had noticed how smoothly Deuteronomy flowed into Joshua and so had spoken of the "Hexateuch," including Joshua as part of the same final product as the Pentateuch, drawing on the same J and E sources. Indeed, some scholars believed the original epics of Israel went all the way from parts of Genesis to parts of Kings.

Noth's suggestion went rather the other way, namely, that Genesis through Numbers formed a kind of Tetrateuch and then that Deuteronomy was a quite different document that served as a kind of a preface to the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. He believed that the same person who wrote the opening chapters of Deuteronomy was the final editor of the deuteronomistic history.

As with other source debates, the conversation has continued in the years since, with some suggesting that the deuteronomistic history went through at least two major revisions, beyond the use of previous sources such as a collection of David material and so forth. Theorizing about such things has not faced much resistance because these books do not have a traditional author that the New Testament mentions. In general, the New Testament does not engage these writings as much as they do Genesis, the Psalms, and Isaiah.

The "deuteronomistic history" is so called in part because it interprets history according to a certain theology, namely, the theology of Deuteronomy. Some of the key features of this deuteronomistic theology are 1) a sense that as long as Israel keeps God's commandments, God will bless them in their land, 2) that if Israel does not appropriately serve Yahweh, they will be cursed and become enslaved to foreign powers, and 3) that part of obeying Yahweh's commands involved offering sacrifices to Him only in the place He would put His name, namely, Jerusalem and its temple. This same theology is also associated with the book of Jeremiah.

We thus find throughout these books that Israel only loses in battle if someone has disobeyed God's commandments in some way. Similarly, none of the kings of the north can by definition be good kings, because none of them offer sacrifices to Yahweh in Jerusalem. We also find operative the idea that the sins of the fathers can be visited on the children. This is particularly noticeable when Josiah, the most righteous king of all (from a deuteronomistic standpoint), is unable to offset the sins of his long dead father Manasseh, whose unrighteousness sends Judah into exile (and not the sins of the actual generation that suffers).

This theological perspective seems to be sub-Christian, as the New Testament and indeed other parts of the Old Testament itself (like Job) teach that a righteous person can suffer. Indeed, it seems difficult to account for Jesus' suffering purely on the basis of deuteronomistic theology. Herein is an argument that the books of the Old Testament are in a flow of revelation, and the books of the Jewish Bible are not yet Christian Scripture until they are read through Christian eyes and in the light of further revelation.

There persists to this day a collection of scholars, many of them ironically Jewish, whom we might call biblical minimalists. Such individuals might deny that there ever actually was a king named David or Solomon. On the other hand, recent archaeological discoveries would seem to put the existence of David on secure evidentiary ground.

Nevertheless, we are sorely lacking in archaeological evidence to confirm the historicity of much of the Historical Books. As it is often said, however, "absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence." For example, when John Garstang (1876-1956) excavated Jericho, the science of archaeology was still in its infancy. His team blew through thousands of years of dirt without carefully cataloging it and discarding most of it in a pile that stands to this day.

When he arrived at an impressive structure, he assumed it was the ruins of Jericho from Joshua's invasion. Even to this day you occasionally hear someone hail Jericho as one of the great confirmations of the historicity of the Bible. However, the subsequent archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon (1906-78) determined that the structure dated to about 3000BC. The layer from the time when Joshua would have lived is thus lost to Garstang's rubble.

Again, you will find differing senses among Christians of how important the precise historicity of such individuals and events are, ranging from those for whom it is essential for all the historical of details of the Historical Books to be accurate, to those who think the theological import of the stories is what is important. Each believer must wrestle with such questions in the context of their relationship with God.

The ending of Chronicles makes it clear that it was written in the post-exilic period. Chronicles covers the same territory as 2 Samuel and Kings, so it is fairly easy to see the theological emphases of its author at work. For example, Chronicles clearly has a much greater interest in the Levitical priesthood and in priestly matters by far than Kings did. It seems to reflect a time when the temple had become the center of Israel's political life, while the kings were more likely the center in the memory of Kings.

Other theological shifts are evident as well. For example, 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God incited David to number the people of Israel and Judah. But in 1 Chronicles 21:1, it is the Satan who does so. Like Job, Chronicles has developed a sense of the Satan as a servant of God who goes around testing the loyalty of people to God. Chronicles thus gives us a moment a little further along in the flow of revelation than Samuel, at least on the subject of the Satan.

Ezra-Nehemiah is a single book in the Hebrew Bible, and the storyline picks up where Chronicles left off. Some have suggested that Ezra returned after Nehemiah, but the majority opinion is that the returns took place in the current order of the two books: Ezra first, then Nehemiah a little over ten years later.

The book of Esther poses some interesting issues in relation to the canon. For example, it is one of only two books of which no trace at all was found among the Qumran documents. It seems reasonable to assume that it was not a part of the Essene canon.

Indeed, it poses some interesting theological issues. It is the only book of the Old Testament that does not use the word "God." And Esther's apparent sexual cooperation with a pagan, Gentile king as one of many candidates, clearly created issues for later Jews. It is no surprise that the Greek translation of Esther includes a number of additions and revisions that soften these issues. It is this version of Esther that is considered Scripture by the Orthodox, and these expansions are in the Roman Catholic Bible as well.

1 comment:

Kent said...

Have you seen the new collection of books on Deuteronomistic History from Logos Bible Software? I thought you might be interested in this new collection:

Deuteronomistic History Collection (5 Vols.)