The “special study” of the month was the book of Kings (First and Second).
Little did I know.
[Here’s some backstory: Our daughter swam competitively as a child – I’m a swim mom, not a soccer mom. One thing I learned from being a swim mom: there’s a world of difference between swimming summer league and swimming year-round. Here’s how that applies to reading books about the book of Kings: I knew I was summer league, but I didn’t realize how many practices I’ve missed. I still thought there was such a thing as The Deuteronomistic History – as in, just the one, and that everyone knew more or less who wrote it and why. Evidently what I learned in seminary along these lines wow has it been that many years ago has been obsolete for some time now. This is why people need continuing education.]
On the other hand, right about the same time I brought home a sackful of books on Kings that I seem to have thought I would be able to read while puppy sitting [as if I didn’t know that puppy sitting is the kind of task where “reading while” means reading the exact same paragraph over and over and over again and then going outside – which it is, btw, and which I did know, or should have] I was also reading this:
I assume that [God] did not and *would* not leave his message to humankind in a form that can only be understood by a handful of late-twentieth-century professional scholars, who cannot even agree among themselves on the theories that they assume to determine what the message is (Willard, 4).
That was some comforting perspective.
So briefly, before the puppy wakes up, here’s what I learned about the book of Kings this month:
It is much more complex than meets the eye. People have read it in the past as pretty straightforward “history.” Some people still read it that way – Christians, in particular, maybe; Jewish readers think of it as part of “the former prophets.” But the more carefully and questioningly we read it, the more we will begin to wonder things like “What kind of historian was this?” “When did they compose this history?” “How many people worked on this??” And perhaps especially, “What was their agenda?”
The “old” idea was that a historian during the Babylonian exile, or shortly thereafter – perhaps a scribe, or someone with an old priestly connection – composed this text, which is the last part of the longer text that came to be called “The Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua – Judges – 1&2 Samuel – 1&2 Kings, and maybe we need to include part of Deuteronomy in this as well). Composed it as a reflection on the historical events that led up to that exile. That historian was working with sources – some of them are named in the book of Kings itself – and was editing them together to make a point: we should have been more faithful to YHWH; especially the kings.
The newer idea is that even that story about how this text came about is too simple. Instead, there are several different candidate stories about who this historian/these historians might have been, what sources they might have been using, and why. One of the popular ones is that a supporter of Josiah wrote a text that positioned Josiah and his reform as something really important – something “we” should all get behind! And then later – after “we” hadn’t all gotten behind it, and were sitting by the rivers of Babylon wondering how everything went so wrong – other authors used that work as the backbone of a revised edition that brought the work up to the present, and tried to make sense of some of the new developments.
Alison L. Joseph, in Portrait of the Kings: the Davidic Prototype in Deuteronomistic Poetics, works with this perspective, albeit in a more scholarly fashion. Her main focus is how the authors and editors of Kings have used the resources of style and literary function to get their points across. In particular, she focuses on the way the figure of King David is used as a “prototype,” which can then be used to economically communicate something like a report card on the various kings: like David, not like David, good, bad. Following that through the narrative, it seems clear that Josiah becomes the principal hero of the work: he out-Davids David, he is not only a man after YHWH’s heart, he actually follows YHWH’s instructions, even better than David, who had highly-publicized lapses in that department.
Jeroboam, on the other hand, stands as the anti-David par excellence, and the negative prototype against which subsequent kings can also be assessed.
Joseph also argues that deviations from this use of the Davidic prototype serve as clues to “redactional levels” in the book. That is, when the text shifts away from comparing a king to David, and instead starts comparing him to Ahab (as it does with Manasseh), it’s a sign that we are reading text by a different author/editor, from a different time, with different concerns.
Joseph’s overall thesis, and her approach, are interesting; I didn’t feel I gave it the attention it deserves, but even so, I felt I learned something. In particular, it was a pointed reminder that “historians” are also “writers,” and “theorists” (historiographers), and that what kind of writers and theorists they are matters for the kind of history they write.
There is a lot in the book of Kings, probably more than most casual readers realize, and it matters for contemporary readers. Whoever wrote/edited it, they have been attentive to symbolism and to narrative structure and to the relationships between kings and prophets … and to the theological implications of all of these elements. Paying attention to all of that is not just a sterile exercise in learning ancient history; ideas being communicated in Kings are important for people, like us, living thousands of years later.
Alice Laffey’s straightforward, accessible commentary on First and Second Kings called a lot of attention to numerical symbolism in the text (threes, sevens, forties), and also to the significance of animals, which I am [probably too often] inclined to overlook, as well as to the way it needs to be read in concert with the contemporaneous prophetic literature.
Peter J. Leithart’s much denser commentary, 1 & 2 Kings, is a volume in the Brazos series, which has a specific, guiding theological focus. Along with thought-provoking theological reflection on the text, however, Leithart offers a close reading of the text, with devoted attention to its literary features.
The close reading itself is illuminating. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, for instance, that a mule – being a “mixed-breed animal” – is related to the cherubim who transport God’s throne (see Ezekiel 1), so that when David lets Solomon ride his mule in 1 Kings 1 he’s symbolically identifying him with God and God’s authorization even more emphatically than I realized (32).
The theological commentary is illuminating as well. One of the comments that stood out to me had to do with the way “[i]ssues of political theology are invariably connected with the problems of historiography” such that “if the church is to offer a theological account of politics it must also offer a theological historiography, which is to say, a doctrine of providence” (34). He goes on, in that connection, to point out that theologians are willing to say things in the abstract that they are much less likely to say in the concrete. He quotes Charles Hodge’s confident Calvinist pronouncement, “God uses the nations with the absolute control that a man uses a rod or a staff. They are in his hands, and he employs them to accomplish his purposes” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1986, 1,588), and then notes “Substitute ‘the Pol Pot regime’ for ‘the nations,’ and theologians begin running for cover” (34).
As well they should.
So I appreciated these commentaries. But I was smitten with John Goldingay’s 1 & 2 Kings for Everyone. What a delight. Goldingay’s project is making the “Old Testament” available to regular readers, and this volume on 1&2 Kings is part of that project. Goldingay offers readers the fruit of that year-round swimming kind of scholarship and theological perspective, in plain-spoken and winsome prose that makes good on the promise of the Bible being for “everyone,” including out-of-practice summer-leaguers.
Here he is on the historiographical and redactional complexity of Kings:
Although the books presuppose a context in the exile, they were hardly written from scratch then. They put together material from older written records, stories people told, and theological judgments on the part of the authors. Sometimes as you read the story, you can get the impression that the judgment of exile has not yet happened, and that may indicate that the first edition of the books was produced before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, perhaps in the time of King Josiah (see 2 Kings 22-23). At that stage, the future was still open; if the people really turned back to Yahweh’s ways (as Josiah sought to get them to do), then disaster could be averted. The first edition was then updated after the exile had actually happened. (4)
Here he is on its theological significance:
The Old Testament knows that when you have betrayed God (never mind Babylon), all you can do is cast yourself on God’s mercy. Christians often think that Israelites thought that the way you get right with God is by offering sacrifices. Perhaps there were Israelites who thought so, but that is not what the Torah told them. Sacrifices can deal with taboos such as skin disorders of the kind we have considered in 1 and 2 Kings, but they can’t deal with deliberate religious or moral waywardness. When you have come to your senses about such waywardness, all you can do is plead for God’s mercy. One way of looking at 1 and 2 Kings is to see it as a telling of Israel’s story that invites the people to acknowledge the books’ truth and in doing so throw themselves on that mercy. Paradoxically, then, whether 2 Kings ends in hopelessness or in hope depends on how people react to it. If they affirm its truth, they open up the possibility of hope. They do not guarantee it. But they open up the possibility. (189-190)
In between, it’s all like that: clear, intelligent, honest, and human. Along with strikingly lovely translations of significant portions of 1 & 2 Kings. So despite Goldingay’s comment on the seeming futility of “writing all these commentaries” (90), in the face of the state of the church’s ignorance and neglect of the Old Testament, I for one am glad he has done it, and am fully set to look for the others.
There is a lot more to wonder about. One of the things that this reading on Kings has taught me, or maybe more precisely, reminded me, is that the ancient world was a world. That is – it was full of human drama and social significance and political expectations and machinations, and all that. So, various real human beings, individuals and groups, were trying to do things, and using the resources at their disposal to do them. They may not have had mass media, but they had forms of propaganda and persuasion, including literature and rhetoric.
The texts we have come from that world. They meant something specific in the context of that world of drama and significance and machinations, something as clear and specific within that world as a contemporary political bestseller or Facebook meme or special investigator’s report would mean in our own.
Whether we, ourselves, can learn that meaning is a different question. We have what we have, not what we don’t have, bequeathed to us from the ancient world as scripture. We have something less than the full context we’d need to have to be able to reconstruct that precise meaning. Imagine if, by some twist of history, the only texts from the 21st century that were still around 1,000 years from now were those authored by government economists, or books by talk radio hosts? How distorted would our picture of this century be?
So I admit to being curious about the perspectives on the kings that are not preserved in the Biblical canon.
On the other hand, the canon is the canon, and that was presumably no accident, either. So the picture I come away with after this month’s reading, in light of the evidently complex history of the text, and the evident complexity of the human processes that had to have gone into its creation, is of the Bible itself as an amazing kind of document. The more we know about it, the more amazing it seems to be.
How astonishing, that we have, through these complex and circuitous routes – this selection from multiple sources, this editing and re-editing, and so on – this work of literature. How incredible that we can read it at all, and can even still see and feel the hand of God in it. How thoroughly human and historical and “socially constructed” and “political” all of this is – and how miraculous.
Goldingay, John. 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Joseph, Alison L. Portrait of the Kings: Davidic Prototype in Deuteronomistic Poetics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
Laffey, Alice L. First and Second Kings. (New Collegeville Bible Commentary, vol. 9.) Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2012.
Leithart, Peter J. 1&2 Kings. (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.) Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. HarperCollins ebooks, 2009 (1997).