Sunday, October 26, 2008

2 Chronicles 1 - 9: Solomon Redux

That Déjà vu Feeling, Again

1 Chronicles outlined the history of the Biblical chronology from Creation to (mostly) the reign of King David, with lots of specific individual names and genealogies thrown in. So, I expected that 2 Chronicles would start with an outline of Solomon's reign, with lots of supplementary data about the individuals in his civil, military, and religious administration. But as usual, the Bible defeated my expectations.

What we get instead in the first nine chapters of 2 Chronicles is just a very slightly altered retelling of the material on Solomon in 1 Kings 3 - 10. There are a few differences -- the famous baby-splitting story is not in 2 Chronicles, nor (in contrast to the expected pattern) is a long list of court and local officials that's in 1 Kings -- but for the most part it is a nearly word-for-word retelling. The speech that Solomon gives to dedicate the Temple -- the one I argued established a whole new religion -- is also here, with only a few differences in phrasing. The description of the building of the Temple is repeated, as is the account of the Ark being moved into the new temple.

I Ain't No Queen of Sheba, Baby, Whatever THAT Means....

The visit from the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12) is virtually identical in both books, too, which was kind of disappointing to me. "Queen of Sheba" is one of those phrases you hear all the time, and I had hoped that I would come out of this knowing why she was significant, and what people mean when they toss her around as a metaphor. No such luck.

The Queen is a nearby ruler who hears that Solomon is very wise. She comes to Jerusalem and chews the fat with him; "Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for [the king/him] to explain to her." (10:3 or 9:2, take your pick). She's said to be very impressed with the Israelite court, and remarks that the Israelite God must be very praiseworthy to have put Solomon in charge and made hims so prosperous. Then she gives lavish gifts (which are enumerated), recieves even more lavish gifts (which are not), and leaves.

So, why is the Queen of Sheba important? Beats me. Sounds like an state visit from a wealthy neighbor, is all. Anybody know more about the significance of this passage?

As with the visit from Sheba, so with Solomon's life as a whole: there is so little of substance in the Bible about someone who is one of the biggest of the Biblical Big Names. I was hoping we'd get more details here in 2 Chron, but it didn't happen. On the other hand, now that the text is not running in a straight chronology, maybe there will be more information in coming chapters about the man. The Song of Solomon, for instance, seems like it might be relevant....

Next Time: More Retellings!

Monday, October 20, 2008

1 Chronicles 10 - 29: The Return of 1 Samuel

More Grist for the Biblical Genealogist

I don't usually cover this much Biblical real estate at one go, but as with the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles, the remainder of the book is also primary genealogical. And hey, I love my Bible project, but I'm not so far gone that I'm going to start filling notebooks with family trees, just because I can. Others have done so, and good for them.

This section is kind of like the class yearbook for 1 Samuel. There are brief summaries of some of the events in Saul's and David's reigns, all of which we have read about before, but this time they are accompanied by long lists of the various leaders, musicians, warriors, and what-not involved. You can imagine excited Israelites picking out great-great-great-great-grandpa Jahath, son of Sholomoth, from the line-up of "other Levites." For the modern reader, however, they are a bit impenetrable, and when people suggest turning to the Bible for guidance, inspiration, or enlightenment, it seems a safe bet that this is not really the part of the Bible they are thinking about.

Dynastic Wrangling Revisited

The only difference in the Samuel narrative and the Chronicles narrative that jumps out at me is the difference in the way the succession of kingship is handled. As I mentioned in the section on 2 Samuel 1-6 the original story of David's succession from Saul was highly dodgy indeed. This is all glossed over in Chronicles, where we are just told that all Israel come together to David at Hebron (11, 1) and asked him to take charge, and he did.

In 1 Kings, similarly, Solomon's succession from David -- he is designated the heir behind closed doors, at his father's deathbed and by his mother's urging, while the son everybody expects to inherit the throne is holding his own coronation -- smells as fishy as it possibly could. It's a rather different story in 1 Chronicles 21-23 and 28-29, where we are shown David publically announcing Solomon as his heir, commanding the local leaders to accept and support Solomon as his heir, and working together with Solomon to design the Temple. Once is not enough; then they acknowledged Solomon son of David as king a second time, anointing him before the LORD to be ruler. (29:22) All of this, in this version, with David still lucid, upright, and able to preside over large assemblies.

The sequencing of the Bible, with the Samuel & Kings books coming before the Chronicle books, leaves the impression that we get the accurate version the first time around -- basically a coup d'etat engineered by Solomon and his mom against his older brother, with or without the knowledge or consent of the failing King David -- and that this second version is a sanitized gloss intended to shore up the legitimacy of the royal line. The story cleaned up for the yearbook, as it were.

I don't know (and haven't checked) that the two versions were actually written in that sequence, however, and it's not automatic that the Samuel/Kings version was written first, or that it's more accurate. Maybe this second story is the earlier and more accurate version, and the Samuel/Kings version is a smear job? Maybe neither of them are accurate? Maybe they are both semi-accurate, but represent two strands of an oral tradition after a few generations of independent evolution? Hard to say as an amateur reader. This is one of those occasional moments, though, where the Bible is not internally consistent on a simplistic factual level.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

1 Chronicles 1 - 9: Chroniclezzzzzz

The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles trace a geneology from Adam -- remember him? THE Adam, Human #000-00-0001? -- through the descendents of King Saul. It does not mention each and every single human being who was alive during this period, but it sure seems like it does when you are trying to read it. This is a pure, stereotypical kind of Biblical drudgery that I don't believe we've seen since Genesis. Random example:

16 The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari.
17 These are the names of the sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei.
18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel.
19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi.

These are the clans of the Levites listed according to their fathers:
20 Of Gershon: Libni his son, Jehath his son, Zimmah his son, 21 Joah his son, Iddo his son, Zerah his son and Jeatherai his son.
22 The descendants of Kohath: Amminadab his son, Korah his son, Assir his son, 23 Elkanah his son, Ebiasaph his son, Assir his son....

Had enough? Sure you have.

For the most part, it's just a family tree in a textual format. On occasion, we are given a detail or two about occupation, location, wealth, or accomplishments, but these are definitely footnotes to the main show. Which is: lineages! It's all about the lineages! Well, some people are into geneology, I guess.

Confusion in the Source Material

There are a lot of literal footnotes in this section too. I haven't talked much about this, but throughout the Bible up to this point there have been occasional footnotes that refer to contradictions in the various source manuscripts. Now, I don't know much about the Biblical source material, but footnotes refer to multiple Hebrew, Septuagint, Syriac, and "Vulgate" sources. As with anybody working with pre-modern or early modern texts for which multiple "originals" exist, the editors of the N.I.V. (or any other Bible) have taken their best shot at reconciling the contradictions into a coherent, consistent single narrative.

This poses another modest technical problem for anyone who would approach the Bible as an absolutely literal document. 1 Chronicles 1:42, for instance, lists:
The sons of Ezer:
Bilhan, Zaavan and Akan.
The sons of Dishan:
Uz and Aran.
OK. But when you chase the footnote down, you find that there's disagreement about the sons of Ezer. The sons as listed above are according to "many Hebrew and Septuagint manuscripts." "Most Hebrew manuscripts," however, say that the sons of Ezer are Zaavan and Jaakan. Moreover, it's unclear about whether Dishan is named "Dishan" or maybe "Dishon."

This is a minor problem from a strictly factual standpoint, of course, because nobody gives a damn who Ezer's sons were. Philosophically, however, it is one of the thousands of loose threads that make strict literalism such a tough gig. If you profess to believe the absolute truth of every word of the Bible, and I ask you who Ezer's sons were, you have a crisis on your hands. You've got two contradictory absolute truths.

There are only so many ways you could respond to this paradox, and none of them are very satisfying. Here are the ones I could think of:

1) You could pick one of the original sources and run with it. Problem is, to pick the RIGHT source with any confidence would be the work of many lifetimes. Have fun in your Syriac class!

2) You could say something like "they must BOTH be right! Ezer must have had FOUR sons!" But that's a cheap out; each text clearly implies that it is a complete list of sons.

3) You could assume that the N.I.V. editors must have been inspired by God, and that therefore the current translation must be correct. Except that, if the current Bible in your hand is always correct, things turn quickly into a textual free-for-all. I could take the N.I.V. and, say, rip all of the pages about Solomon, and hand it to you. Neither you nor I would be in any position to say that I hadn't been inspired by God, and that my new Solomon-free Bible didn't represent a new, unexpected revelation.

4) You could learn of the correct answer through personal revelation. Obviously problematic, since personal revelations aren't known for lining up when more than one person is involved.

Or, 5) I suppose you could acknowledge the contradiction and claim it as a mystery beyond human understanding. According to a logic passing human comprehension, you could say, each of the Biblical sources must be Truth, and the apparent contradiction about Ezer's sons progeny is just something we have to live with. I respect this line of thought, actually, but it too has a problem. Saying that the Bible is true but not always open to human understanding is to claim meaning that is beyond the literal meaning of the text. The same reasoning, after all, could be used to suggest that the Biblical creation story describes, in a way that is not open to direct human understanding, a long process of biological evolution in which human beings emerge after various misadventures from primordial proteins. SO, it is not a gambit that's really open to a literalist.

Did I miss any options? Feel free to jump in here, vast army of beloved readers.

Next Week: More Geneology! Now, with anecdotes! Or, the Return of 1 Samuel!