The Complete Book of 1 Chronicles

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May 29 2007 12:31 PM

The Complete Book of 1 Chronicles

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The Book of 1 Chronicles I'm feeling pretty bummed reading First and Second Chronicles, because they are the last books of the Hebrew Bible, and thus mark the end of Blogging the Bible —at least for now. I wish my Bible finished with more spark—with a book like Jonah or Esther or Job. Instead, I'm stuck with the tedium of Chronicles. Chronicles are an odd pair of books, more an appendix to the rest of the Bible than their own thing. The Christian Bible groups Chronicles with the other historical books in the middle of the Old Testament. But Jews shove Chronicles into the trunk, at the very end of our Bible. The Jewish way makes more sense, I suspect. That's because Chronicles is largely a rehash of other books, mostly Samuel and Kings, but told more quickly and with less flair. It doesn't rate a place of honor.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

This with-a-whimper-not-a-bang conclusion of the Bible reminds me of how I felt as a 13-year-old when I finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When Frodo chucks the ring into Mount Doom and saves Middle Earth, we're only about halfway through the last book. The thrill of that climax is drained away by 200 pages of unbelievably boring wrap-ups, epilogues, back stories, blah, blah. If Tolkein, or the Lord Himself, had had more ruthless editors, they never would have let their books peter out like they did.

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Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
The first five books of the Bible are condensed into two chapters of begats. The purpose of Chronicles seems to be glorifying and legitimizing the Israelite kings who compiled the book, so this elaborate genealogy is clearly intended to link the monarchs by blood to the patriarchs. The family tree begins with Adam and follows the chosen through Noah's son Shem to Abraham to Jacob to the 12 tribes and then down through Judah's line to King David. A couple of notable moments: First, one of Judah's grandsons, Achar, is described as the person "who committed a trespass against the proscribed thing." Tell us more! What is "the proscribed thing"?

Second—and I'm not trying to pick nits here—Chronicles counts only 10 generations between Jacob and David. Considering that the Bible tells us that the Israelites spent 400 years enslaved in Egypt, 40 years in the desert, and another couple hundred under the rule of the Judges, this chronology doesn't make sense. Judah's descendants would have to have fathered their kids when they were 70 years old, or older. Is there another explanation that I'm missing?

Chapter 3 through Chapter 9
Incredibly detailed and boring genealogy of the other tribes. Its only diversions are the brief reappearances of minor characters from earlier books—the guy who was Solomon's priest, the sons of Aaron who got smote by God, etc.

Because I could barely stay awake while I was reading it, I almost missed an extremely important moment of pop theology. Chapter 4 mentions a descendant of Judah named Jabez, who audaciously beseeches God to "bless me, enlarge my territory, stand by me, and make me not suffer pain from misfortune!" God grants his prayer, and in so doing, the Lord lays the groundwork for a gazillion-copy best seller 2,800 years later.

Chapter 10 through Chapter 12
Chronicles starts to groove to its real subject: the kings of Israel. The remainder of the book retells the story of King David, only minimally tweaked from the version in Samuel and 1 Kings. It begins with the death of Saul, and the crowning of David as king.

The best part is the Bible's version of a Congressional Medal of Honor Citation: The heroic deeds of David's best soldiers, the Bible's special ops forces, are recounted. My favorites are the guy who killed both a lion and a giant, and the three commandos who fetched water from an enemy well when they heard David say he was thirsty.

Chapter 13 through Chapter 20
Rehash of David's reign. We hear once again about Uzzah, who's smote for grabbing the ark to prevent it from falling, about David's wife's anger when she sees him dancing with the servants as the ark is brought into Jerusalem, and about the idiot Ammonite king who, thinking that David's ambassadors were spies, shaves their heads and strips them. Big mistake—David ends up personally removing the crown from that king's head.

Close your ears, animal lovers. When David conquers a rival king with an army of 1,000 horse-drawn chariots, he has all but 100 of the horses hamstrung, a nasty chop to the leg that cripples but does not kill the animal. (Joshua did the same to his enemies' horses, too.)

Chapter 21
Remember how I puzzled about 2 Samuel, Chapter 24, in which David angers God by taking a census and is offered a choice of punishment, either famine or plague. David chooses plague. After thousands of deaths, he begs, begs, begs God to spare the innocent and punish only him. God relents. Back then, I asked why God would get steamed about a census. That question is answered here, sort of. The chapter begins, "Satan arose against Israel and incited David to number Israel." So, God's angry about the census because it's Satan's idea! But 1 Chronicles leaves unanswered why Satan was mad.

Chapter 22 through Chapter 27
God has told David not to build a temple but to leave the work to his heir. David stockpiles iron, copper, and wood for the temple-building project, figuring it will make it easier for his son Solomon to erect it. He also donates 100,000 gold talents to the building fund. At my synagogue, a gift that size would win him naming rights to at least a couple of pews, or maybe even one of the smaller religious school classrooms.

A bunch of very dreary chapters about the duties of each clan, which are decided by lot. (Shelemiah guards the east gate; Shebuel runs the treasury, etc.) David favors a peculiar rotating bureaucracy. Each month, a new group of 24,000 clerks and parchment-pushers serves the king. There are obviously good political reasons to rotate jobs—he surely didn't want to irritate the Gadites by favoring the Reubenites too much—but can you imagine what a mess it was? Suppose you needed to pay the 25-talent ticket you got last month for parking the ox on the wrong side of the street. When you show up at the office, you find that the entire Department of Unmotor Vehicles has been replaced, and no one has any idea where the right scroll is!

Chapter 28 and Chapter 29
In the first story of David, Solomon's succession was very iffy, secured only by serious scheming by his mom, Bathsheba. But in the Chronicles version, there's no question Solomon is the rightful heir. David clearly announces Solomon as his successor, albeit condescendingly—describing his son as "an untried lad." David also gives Solomon all his temple blueprints, with elaborate instructions. David's plans are so detailed, they even specify the size and shape of the cutlery. If I were Solomon, I would be seriously irritated. Not only does David talk down to him in public, he expects his heir to build the temple exactly as he designed it.

Solomon clearly doesn't heed Dad too closely, since he gleefully ignores David's urging that he serve God "with single mind and fervent heart … if you forsake Him, He will abandon you forever." Solomon proceeds to go off and marry 700 foreign women and then build shrines to all their gods.

David dies, setting us up for 2 Chronicles.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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