“The things that were left out” (not more Levites please) – 1 & 2 Chronicles

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The two books of Chronicles provide a kind of alternative history to the one we’ve been exploring. It goes back to the very beginning with an opening series of genealogies starting with Adam. These lists of names and generations take us through the various tribes of Israel and with an emphasis on where the writer wants to focus: the tribe of Levi, and the work of the Levites. For most modern, and quite a few ancient, readers, it probably has – at least in its opening chapters – at least a small claim to be the most boring book in the Bible.

Part of a word cloud illustrating modern genealogies

The Anglican newspaper, The Church Times, will often relate major news stories of the past week, but unlike the mainstream media, will include some mention of how local clergy responded to the events, opened their churches, offered prayers and commented on their significance. The books of Chronicles are something like that: the history you’ve already heard about, now with added clergy.

The Greek name for the books of Chronicles, Paralipomena, means “the things that were left out”. This creates the idea of the books as supplements to the existing history told in the Former Prophets. However, this rather underestimates the books as literature in their own right, with their own purpose, and their own very distinctive slant.

They were written relatively late, by people who were concerned that the Second Temple, built after people had returned from Exile, should get its worship right. Although they are historical books, Chronicles don’t belong in the Jewish category of Former Prophets, but in the third miscellaneous collection of Writings. One significant feature of this retelling is to stress the importance not only of the temple as a building, but as a focus for worship and liturgy. David is credited with all the planning for the temple, and the preparations for its building. Solomon simply carries out his father’s designs.

The traditional way of looking at the book, when taken together with both its love of lists in the opening genealogies, and the details of the temple preparations, means that it barely appears in the lectionary. The Anglican lectionary provides an optional reading for the Feast of St Stephen, and the first reading for the Dedication Festival of a Church (in Year C). The Roman Catholic lectionary offers one reading from Chronicles on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) and another for the Vigil Mass of the Assumption.

You are relatively unlikely to come across this book. It does, however, have its treasures, and one of my favourites is the story of Josiah’s death. Egypt responds to the weakening of the Assyrian Empire, by sending an army on an expedition against Assyria. Josiah is alarmed by the Egyptian army marching through his land (always the squashed jam in the sandwich of war between the great powers). He musters his army to fight the Pharaoh’s troops.

Pharaoh Neco sends a message saying he is not interested in fighting Israel, but God has commanded him to fight Assyria. He tells Josiah: “Cease opposing God, who is with me, so that he will not destroy you” (2 Chronicles 35:21). Josiah (unsurprisingly) does not believe him, and goes into battle. He is wounded, and dies. It is a powerful vignette. The word of God is spoken by an enemy king. The king of Israel doesn’t recognise it. (Would you in those circumstances?) As a result of this inability to discern God’s voice, despite a long history of obedience, he dies.

Whatever else we may think of the story, it is a powerful parable of the way in which God’s word is not confined to regular channels. God can speak through even the most unlikely medium. And very often, God’s own people are so hostile to the medium, they (and we) can’t recognise their (our) own God as the source, especially when we don’t like the message.

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