Understanding Biblical Genres: History

There’s an old saying that history is written by the victors. While this isn’t always the case, the saying speaks to a big problem about the nature of history and historicity. At its most basic level, what we call ‘history; is nothing more or less than a story about the past. But, historicity is the question of how accurately that story reflects ‘what actually happened.’ Thinking of these two ideas as distinct terms helps to reveal important things about all history as a literary genre: It has a point of view, it has beliefs, it has an agenda. This isn’t bad; it’s simply how stories work. (A group of historians once tried do history by providing only a chronological accounts of events; the project failed because, not only was this extraordinarily uninteresting, but they quickly found that even the choice of which events to include ended up in some way constructing a story about the events. that would reveal the biases of the writers.) This is true of the historical writings within the Bible too. Today I’ll be looking at the perspectives of Biblical history, spending most of the time on the so-called ‘Deuteronomistic history’ of Joshua through 2 Kings, but also referencing the books of Chronicles and, in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles.

First of all, the concept of ‘biblical history’ is primarily a Christian one. ‘History’ is not part of structuring of the Hebrew Bible, and Jews consider Joshua through 2 Kings to be prophetic works rather than ‘historical.’ This is a helpful place to begin a discussion of biblical history, for it is not a school-book kind of history. While, yes, it covers the rise and fall of kings, wars, and international politics, it does so through a perspective that positions all of these things in reference to their relationship with Israel’s God. More specifically, through a particular perspective of that relationship within Israelite religion, which has come to be known as the Deuteronomistic history. It got this name from historical critics who noticed that the books Jews call the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings) all share a common theological emphasis, and that emphasis is that of the book of Deuteronomy. You might think, ‘Well duh, they’re in the Bible, of course they have the same theology’, but while in the biggest terms we can think of the Bible as speaking with one voice, it’s more helpful to think of it as orchestral music, with many voices joining together in harmony (and sometimes in dissonance) to form a unified piece. And so we can identify certain theological emphases present in some books, or in the case of Genesis through Numbers, stories within books, that are not emphasized in others. The particular theology of Deuteronomy, which the Former Prophets share, includes such things as the connection of Torah-observance with divine blessings or curses, singular devotion to YHWH and the rejection of idols, the legitimacy of the Davidic line, and the focus of the Jerusalem Temple as the only legitimate place of YHWH-worship. Note that these last two are the particular concerns of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Outside Deuteronomy, the Torah speaks very favorably of the establishment of the altars where the Northern Kingdom of Israel worshiped YHWH. But to the Deuteronomistic history, only worship in the Jerusalem Temple is allowed. And, of course, with David being a southern King from a southern tribe, the Northern Kingdom had no vested interest in his line. As such, it is widely accepted that Deuteronomy was the work that precipitated King Josiah’s reforms in Jerusalem and that the Former Prophets were the official history record of the story of the Hebrew people seen through the perspective and values of the late-Judahite court (or its members in Exile in Babylon).

The Books of Chronicles, which Christian Bibles include as ‘history’ and Jewish Bibles include under the section known as the Writings, which are miscellaneous collections of stories, folk tales, and wisdom literature, include much of the same material as the Deuteronomistic history (particularly that of the Southern Kingdom of Judah — the Chroniclers didn’t care much about the Northern Kingdom’s history), but rework it to slightly different purposes. As we saw last week, it starts with nine chapters of genealogies, which trace the twelve tribes of Israel all the back to Adam. It then tells the story of the united and divided kingdoms, before ending by talking about the Exile and the return to the land under Cyrus the Great. One might say that it generally accepts the theological framework of the Deuteronomistic history, but that theology is less the point. Whereas the Deuteronomistic history was written either to legitimize King Josiah’s reforms (if you think it was largely written before the Exile) or to explain to provide a theological justification for the fall of Jerusalem in the failure of Josiah’s descendants to follow through with those reforms (if you think it was written during the Exile), it seems that Chronicles was written to demonstrate how the community returning from Exile remained in continuity with the past. (In this light, the relative silence about the North’s history makes sense, since the returning community was Judahite.)

The only ‘historical’ work of the New Testament is the Acts of the Apostles. It outlines the history of the nascent Church, from Pentecost through the arrival of Paul in Rome for his trial. Because the book considers itself to be a second volume of the Gospel according to Luke, I’ll leave my thoughts on it to when we get to Gospel as a genre, but for now it’s worth comparing and contrasting it to what we’ve seen in the Old Testament. It’s still a history of the people of God told through the lens of their relationship with God, but the composition of that community and the nature of their relationship with God is very different. Stories of the rise and fall of kings were no longer relevant, since (with the exception of the highly problematic Maccabees) Jews had been subject to one foreign Empire or another for hundreds of years. And, one of the major themes in Acts is the slow shift of Christianity from being a Jewish movement to a faith that welcomed Gentiles and Jews alike under a new, shared set of practices, beliefs, and identity markers. Law-observance is replaced by faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth and the movement of the Holy Spirit is now the guiding principle through which history is to be understood.

Note how I haven’t touched on the questions of historicity at all here. That’s because they are to a great degree irrelevant for understanding these books as Scripture. The whats of biblical history are far less important than the whys. Where does this leave us for reading and interpreting these books? These books were included as Scripture not to tell us what happened, but to show how the community of faith understood itself and its history theologically in different contexts. But that perspective is not static or fossilized. Different circumstances, both historical and in terms of God’s revelation, require different theological lenses in order to be understood faithfully. This is important. If we don’t keep this in mind and treat the Deuteronomistic history as prescriptive for us today, we run into huge problems as Christians: First, our covenant with God is not about countries and states but about a supranational and multicultural community of all the faithful; second, our covenant is not about blessings and curses relating to possession of territory; and third, our covenant is not about law-observance, but about faithfulness to the way of Jesus. If Acts doesn’t read its recent history through the Deuteronomistic lens, we most certainly shouldn’t either. It’s a great example of the dangers of flattening Scripture so that the whole Bible is thought to be authoritative in the same way in all circumstances for all time for everyone. As Christians, the world is not to be viewed through the lens of the Law, countries, or power politics, but through the lens of Christ crucified and raised from the dead. If we’ve missed that, we’ve missed everything.

History is always written to tell a story. When approaching the ‘historical’ books of the Bible, our job is not to concern ourselves with the rise and fall of kings, but to understand the story the writers were telling and why they were telling it that way. And, then, to discern what story we should be telling about our own times, for it’s unlikely to be the same one.

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