You think you know what history is?

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

We turn from law to history, or from instruction to prophecy, depending on whether you’re a Christian or a Jew. The second major division of the Old Testament in the Christian tradition is a group of historical writings. At this point the contents page of the church’s bible begins to look different from the Jewish one. The Jewish tradition puts what Christians call the historical books in two different categories, with the earlier books classed as Prophets, and some later ones put in the category of Writings.1

The historical books classed as Prophets are Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel (treated by Jews as a single scroll or book) and 1 & 2 Kings (also treated as a single book). These make up what are known in Jewish tradition as the four Former Prophets.2 This Jewish classification is a good reminder that we are reading history with a message: the books are concerned not simply to relate what happened, but to tell the story of God’s activity with, for and sometimes against his people, or at least their rulers.

These early historical books, Joshua through to Kings, take up the two ways of Deuteronomy. Good kings are those who promote the worship of the one God of Israel, and him alone. Bad kings are those who promote or allow the worship of other gods in common with most of the ancient world.

Many of those “bad” kings encouraged such polytheism as a policy of “live and let live” with the various people groups living in and around the land of Canaan. As a result the reigns of “bad” kings could often be longer, and more peaceful, than those of the “good” kings. Prophets who called people to the single-minded worship of just one God were politically dangerous. What secular politics might explain in terms of good and bad alliances, the prophetic politics of the historically minded editors of Deuteronomy explain in terms of faithfulness and idolatry.

History in the bible is much more understanding meaning than excavating facts

Yesterday I briefly mentioned the exile. At the beginning of the sixth century BC, the Babylonian empire conquered the kingdom of Judah and took Jerusalem. Over the next decade or so, they deported significant numbers of the leading families, priests and scholars to Babylon. This period is known as the Babylonian exile, or simply the Exile (usually with a capital E).

What makes the Jewish Exile unique among other such defeats and exiles, is that instead of seeing this as a defeat of their God, some prophets proclaimed that it was a punishment from God for the rulers’ and people’s disobedience. It was all the work of YHWH, and the Babylonian gods and rulers were irrelevant as an explanation; the Babylonian empire was simply God’s instrument. The history from Joshua to Kings is written from the viewpoint of a writer or writers taking up earlier work, and building on it as they try to explain why the nation has been punished by God. This particularly colours their view of the kings.

This prophetic history is told from a vantage point some time after the events it narrates. It consciously goes against the grain of what many people thought. Once you take the demands of the God of Israel, and God’s activities into account, the past looks rather different. The times of peace were a comfortable illusion, but sooner or later all that disobedience and promiscuous polytheism was going to catch up with the rulers and their people. The early historical books – Joshua to 2 Kings – need reading in that light.

The later historical books, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah have a rather different take to these early ones. The two books of Chronicles tell the same story over again, but with an emphasis on the role of the priests and Levites, including those who have roles like gate-keepers and cantors in the temple. Right ritual and worship are central. A similar emphasis on the temple, but this time on its rebuilding after exile, comes in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Unlike the earlier books, these all belong in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings.

The remaining historical books are a mix of undisputed (Ruth and Esther) and deuterocanonical writings (Tobit, Judith and 1 & 2 Maccabees). Ruth, Esther, Tobit and Judith are all short stories with historical settings. The books of the Maccabees tell slightly different versions of the events of the second century before Jesus. These tell of a successful rebellion led by theologically conservative Jews, first against their own leaders’ adoption of the new globalising Greek culture, and then against their Greek overlords. The rebellion leads to the establishment of an independent but short-lived Jewish kingdom, and these second century events decisively shape the world we meet in the New Testament.


  1. The three sections of the Hebrew Bible (and their Hebrew names) are Torah (Teaching – which we have just finished looking at), Nevi’im (Prophets – which we are just beginning) and finally Ketuvim (Writings – a miscellaneous collection of the books that don’t fit into the first two main sections). This gives the acronym TNK, and a name sometimes used for the Hebrew Bible – TaNaKh.
  2. They are complemented by four Latter Prophets, which include most of the books Christians also call the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and (as a single collection) the twelve minor prophets.

2 thoughts on “You think you know what history is?

  1. Pingback: From triumph to disaster: 1 & 2 Kings – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: Making prophets: the economy of justice – Liturgica

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