Wednesday, April 13, 2011
As I was finishing II Samuel and beginning I Kings, I was reminded of a common misconception regarding this portion of the Bible. This misconception revolves around the difference between "historic" and "historical" and how that then relates to the purpose of these books. When most people pick up the Bible and read the books considered part of Deuteronomic history (Joshua-II Kings), they assume they're reading history records. More specifically they think they're reading from a history genre, and when we modern readers think history we think facts and dates. We want details and we want those details to be right. We are typically interested in the event itself. What we fail to realize is that this type of historic writing is a relatively recent genre. It wasn't really until the Enlightenment, and the valuing of objective fact above all else, that history books as a genre emerged. What we're really dealing with before that, at least more times than not, is historical writing.
Historical writing is a slightly different thing than historic writing. Historical writing doesn't ignore history or make up history, but it is much more interested with what history tells us about how we got to where we are than the facts of the events themselves. That may not seem like much of a distinction, since our culture is starting to come to grips with the fact that no historic reflection is truly objective, but it does explain why much of the "history" we read in the Bible seems jumbled.
For example, in II Samuel 14, Absalom is said to have had three sons and a daughter named Tamar, but after Absalom's death in chapter 18 there is a little blip of a story about Absalom setting up a pillar so that people would remember him. He supposedly did this because he had no sons to be remembered by. Now we historic readers want to harmonize those two accounts. Maybe he put up the pillar before he had children. Maybe his sons died in battles or from disease. Absalom can't both have sons and not have sons...that isn't logical. Either there's an explanation or the Bible is wrong, and if the Bible is wrong about Absalom it must not be inspired, and if the Bible isn't inspired I can't trust anything it says. It must also be wrong about God in general, Jesus, the Apostles, the Church, life after death.... People literally bring themselves to theological crises over insignificant details like Absalom's sons or lack there of.
All such issues can easily be explained by realizing that the historical books of the Old Testament are just that: historical. In other words, why did Absalom have a daughter named Tamar? Well, because he had a sister named Tamar that he obviously cared about deeply. Why is there a pillar in the Valley of the Kings named Absalom's Monument. Well, because Absalom put it there. For another example, a great deal of effort and energy is wasted debating whether the armies mentioned in the Deuteronomic history were in fact as large as the Bible says, but these books in the Bible are far more concerned about what God is going to do with those armies. Does it really matter if two-hundred thousand is literally two-hundred thousand, two-hundred oodles and gobs (which was my Hebrew professor's favorite way of translating eleph), or two-hundred clans (a theory based off the close comparison between eleph and aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet which could signify the idea of clan head)? Seriously, who cares? Well, we might, but I can tell you who doesn't: the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, and I & II Kings. Our questions aren't their questions, and as my freshman level Old Testament professor was fond of saying, "You have to learn to ask the same questions the Bible is asking." Frankly, those are the only questions the Bible is interested in answering.
This debate can easily lead into a much greater discussion over the nature and meaning of inspiration, but I'll leave that alone for another day. In the mean time, live and read in the tension. Don't try to smooth it over. We might just discover that the Bible has more to say than our historic brains want to consider.
Stopping point: I Kings 2