Review of Ehud Ben Zvi, History, Literature and Theology in the Book of Chronicles

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Ehud Ben Zvi, History, Literature and Theology in the Book of Chronicles (Bible World; London: Equinox, 2006).  Pp. xi +  316.  Paper, US $26.95.  ISBN  978-1-84553-071-6.


This volume consists of ten previously published essays, two “new” essays published here for the first time, and an introductory chapter. The previously published essays appeared in a variety of venues over a fifteen-year period from 1988 - 2003. The essays are presented here not in chronological order but according to topic, in four sections: Introductory Essays (chs. 1-2), Chronicles and the Rereading and Writing of a Didactic, Socializing History (chs. 3-7), Chronicles and Theology as Communicated and Recreated through the Rereading of a Historiographical, Literary Writing (chs. 8-12), and Chronicles and Literature: Literary Characterizations that Convey Theological Worldviews and Shape Stories about the Past (ch. 13).

The Introduction surveys the essays in the volume and explains that cumulatively they lead “to a new understanding of the Book of Chronicles … and of the way in which the book serves to reshape the social memory of its intended and primary rereaderships, in accordance with its own multiple viewpoints and the knowledge of the past held by its community.” B.Z. uses the term “rereader(ship)” to stress that Chronicles was “mainly reread, time and again.” The second chapter brings forward and summarizes certain positions elaborated in the book. Above all it emphasizes the need to distinguish between messages conveyed by a particular episode in the book and those conveyed by the book as a whole.

The third chapter, one of the “new” essays, argues from tensions within Chronicles and between it and other books that the implied author of Chronicles and its ancient readers understood it as a didactic work drawing on a general image of the past “but not necessarily a detailed, mimetic and fully historically reliable picture of events and circumstances of the past.” Chapter four focuses on the material in Chronicles that was borrowed unchanged from sources. B.Z. proposes that there was a set of “core facts” accepted without change or contradiction and sometimes assumed by the Chronicler (= implied author) and that lack of reference to or highlighting of certain events or periods is best explained in terms of the book’s design rather than as dismissal or devaluation. Chapter five contends that building reports in Chronicles depend more on literary and ideological interests—in particular the effort to build a contrast between Judah and Israel—than on written records. The sixth chapter analyzes Chronicles’ presentation of the secession of Israel as coming from YHWH and the implications of this message for Persian-period Yehudite literati, who represented the book’s primary readership. The final chapter in this section examines the construction of time in Chronicles, suggesting that it is multi-faceted and affected by cultic and theological concerns.

The third section begins with a chapter (8) that articulates one of B.Z.’s main concerns—the contention that the “doctrine of immediate retribution,” while upheld by certain episodes in Chronicles, is contradicted by others, and in the context of the entire book is complicated as a principle of divine action and cannot be used to predict the future. The ninth chapter, co-authored by A. Labahn, discusses references to women in the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9 in an effort to show that common social boundaries were sometimes transgressed in the past with positive results. Chapter ten, the other “new” essay in the book, treats Chronicles’ ideology regarding peripheral Israel, i.e., the North. While part of Israel, they are removed from its main historical narrative. The people of Yehud are to teach peripheral Israel maintenance of the legitimate Jerusalem temple and its cult, but they are required not to annex Israel or end its exile. The eleventh chapter investigates the account of the reign of Ahaz (2 Chron 28) in depth as a paradigm of the Chronicler’s thought and draws numerous detailed implications from the investigation. Chapter twelve surveys the use of Chronicles in late Second Temple period literature, concluding that evidence of its authoritativeness is lacking and that the Dtr History was preferred as a source for the image of the monarchic period.

The final chapter, a section to itself, takes up the topic of speeches ascribed to foreign monarchs in Chronicles, specifically, those of Huram, the Queen of Sheba, Sennacherib, Pharaoh Neco, and Cyrus. Not necessarily evil or opposed to YHWH’s will (four of the five speak as though they were pious Israelites), their speeches reinforce the rhetorical appeal of the relevant texts.

This book is testimony to the fact that Ehud Ben Zvi’s has been an important voice in the study of Chronicles for at least the last two decades. It is handy to have his essays collected in a single volume. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the reader to get a clear sense of the evolution of his thought because the essays are not laid out in chronological order. Moreover, the groupings of the essays seem artificial and not representative of the real content or thrust of the individual pieces. The presentation here also suffers from an inordinate number of typos and infelicities in phrasing. This is especially true of the Introduction (ch. 1) and of Hebrew quotes. For instance, the summary given for chapter 8 (p. 12) is really for chapter 6, and “sheds light on” should be read for “shades light in” (p. 15).

As for the content of the essays, different readers will no doubt be particularly appreciative of different insights and chapters. As a rereader of B. Z.’s work, I found the chapters on women in the genealogies (ch. 9) and Ahaz (ch. 11) to be especially enjoyable and nicely done. As hinted in the quotations above, there are points at which B Z.’s phrasing can be dense and his meaning not readily apparent. Nevertheless, his insights more than repay careful (re)reading. One of its greatest values is the caution to which B.Z. urges us in regard to established theses about Chronicles and the way in which he challenges us to question such theses or at least to be more precise about them—as in the case of the “doctrine of immediate retribution.” At the same time, one might raise questions about B.Z.’s own assumptions here: What do we really know about the Yehudite (re)readers of Chronicles and how they approached it? Would they or the (implied) author of the book, especially as elites, have considered the death of the 70,000 because of David’s sin counter to the idea of individual responsibility or would they have been able to incorporate such tensions within the doctrine in the same way that they apparently incorporated tensions regarding historical data? We look forward to further essays on Chronicles from Ben Zvi, whose incisive mind has no doubt anticipated such questions.

Steven L. McKenzie, Rhodes College, Memphis, TN