Friday, 26 December 2014

Interpretations challenged

Hi - in today's post I am copying you in on an email (slightly edited for this post) that I recently sent to an experienced teacher specialised in inter-faith dialogue. Further context is provided in the email itself. Happy reading!

At one point, you described a passage in 1 Chronicles 22 as a “criticism” of God on David. I later raised my hand, tentatively I must say, to ask you publicly if you were absolutely sure of this interpretation. This subsequently opened up quite a few questions, but while you stuck to your position, I was impressed that you also invited me to respond. So it is with no little gratitude that I have a go here, especially as this gives me the opportunity to have a better look at these issues that are attached to this interpretation.

The passage in question is in 1 Chronicles 22 from verse 6, with some emphases from me:

Then he called for Solomon his son and charged him to build a house for the LORD, the God of Israel. David said to Solomon, “My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth. Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 

You were very clear, that this has to be a criticism from God of David. I was initially unsure your interpretation was sound.  Now I am convinced it is not completely so, and will here attempt to respectfully demonstrate this, even if I am lead to confess by the end of this brief examination that the tone is somewhat more sombre than the joyous account provided by the author of Samuel. I will also show a commentary excerpt from Stephen McKenzie, which will also develop the Chronicler’s unique interpretation in this passage.

  1. Interpretation

First of all, we have to agree on your position being an interpretation and not some form of “literal” or “plain” reading of the text. Obviously I can have absolutely no issue with interpretation per se, as like everyone else, I also interpret this passage according to certain assumptions, we all do! The key assumption to getting from “so much blood” to “criticism”, is to assume that shedding blood is always bad/disobedient/sinful etc, is that correct? It may well be a defensible interpretation, but we have to agree that the bridge we cross here comes from us or elsewhere in the Bible, and not from the pericope.

If you have agreed that you were bringing an interpretation to the text, about God being critical of David in the shedding of blood, then I would invite you to read what I have to say about my interpretation, that is to say that God, and the Chronicler, is not directly criticising David about the blood shedding.

2. Criticism as given by the Chronicler

When I read the stories recounted by the Chronicler, I believe he makes it very plain when he understands God to be displeased with Israel, and Judah, and their respective monarchs. When God is “critical”, he knows how to make it explicitly clear. But what is it that arouses God’s displeasure and “criticism”? The fundamental and underlying principle that I can see is disobedience. Would you agree? To come back to the question of interpretation and what is explicit, I feel sure you would agree that God is explicitly unhappy and critical of kings who do not kill as he has commanded. These constitute some of the harder passages for us as Christians to “own”, but I remember you challenging us to be careful about shrugging off too quickly the Old Testament, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Here are some passages that illustrate this with my underlining:

1 Chronicles 22:9

I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 

My interpretation here is that the Chronicler wants to chronicle the source of peace or war for the Israelites is YHWH. The bloody work of conquest is now done.

The impression I get reading the Old Testament is that God is more angry about disobedience than blood-shedding where blood-shedding is part of his plan and command.

2 Chronicles 25:2-4

[Amaziah] did what was right in the eyes of the LORD , but not wholeheartedly. After the kingdom was firmly in his control, he executed the officials who had murdered his father the king. Yet he did not put their children to death, but acted in accordance with what is written in the Law, in the Book of Moses, where the LORD commanded: ‘Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children be put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.’

If we work off the assumption that blood, or "too much blood" is a personal criticism rather than a simple statement of fact in 1 Chronicles 22, then we might be tempted to think here we see the same principle, connecting "not wholeheartedly" with the executions.

I am again definitely arguing for a different interpretation here, which seems much more connected to YHWH's disapproval:

Neutral / did what was right:

  • Putting the kingdom under his control
  • Execution of officials

Did what was right in eyes of the LORD:

  • Not executing the families and children of the executed officials, according to God's law
  • Sending the Israelite troops home despite prepayment
  • Fighting with just the Judah forces, killing "10000 men of seir" in the battle before sending another 10000 over the cliff edge!

"Not wholeheartedly"

  • Bringing back the idols of the Seir people, worshipping them
  • The anger of the LORD burned against Amaziah. (V 15)
  • Ignored advice to not take on Jehoash king of Israel in battle.

I really liked the way, Charlie, you encouraged us to not disown the Old Testament, and some of its gruesome details, nor to minimise some of the problems we face there (presumably the Jews also are faced with some difficulties here). That is exactly why I am taking this position.

Where I acknowledge I am interpreting (I hope carefully) is to consider that different rules apply to war and non-war scenarios (not to execute officials families commended, but 20000 killed without further comment).

Let us move on to a recent commentary to see if I am off-track here.

3. Commentary support

Steven L. McKenzie, I & II Chronicles (Abingdon Old Testament Commentary, 2004). I have seen this scholar’s name mentioned in other works too, and believe he is a reliable source.

 I have also included in the attachments the three whole pages concerned by his analysis of this section of the Chronicles, that is p 179-181. [readers of this blog can consult these pages here]

I have attempted to remain faithful to the passage in question, and not digress to the “Deuteronomistic History”, by which I presume McKenzie is implying 2 Samuel 7, which is a different take entirely on why David is not to go about building it. It seems that by preventing David from doing so, God is bestowing an even greater blessing on David, for the blessing is on his family line and not just him alone. David’s response, from this same chapter of 2 Samuel 7:

“Lord God, who am I? What is my family? Why did you bring me to this point? 19 But even this is not enough for you, Lord God. You have also made promises about my future family. This is extraordinary, Lord God.

20 “What more can I say to you, Lord God, since you know me, your servant, so well! 21 You have done this great thing because you said you would and because you wanted to, and you have let me know about it. 22 This is why you are great, Lord God! There is no one like you. There is no God except you. We have heard all this ourselves!”

Over to you - I look forward to hearing your response! There are of course so many issues and related questions that would have been helpful to explore, so I would appreciate your helping me to do so properly. For example, would one way of maintaining your “critical” position, could we assume that the Chronicler shows God criticising in different degrees and intensities, ranging from the implicit and slight, to the explicit and severe?

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