As I’ve mentioned from time to time, I’ve been teaching a class on how to study the Bible. Our approach, after some introductory lessons, has been to survey the Bible and talk about specific keys to understanding that portion of Scripture. In tonight’s class, we’re coming to the United Kingdom, which is the first time we really see multiple accounts that run parallel to each other. As we look at the Kingdom Period of Israel, we have a continuous account running through the books of Samuel and Kings, then a separate account running through the books of Chronicles (then continuing into Ezra and Nehemiah upon the Jews’ return to the land). This isn’t the only time in the Bible this happens, of course. The other major time this happens is in the four gospel accounts. Then there are times where the Prophets or the Epistles run parallel to the recorded history.
So what do we do with multiple accounts that cover the same events? The typical approach I see is to smash them together into a single harmonized account. I’ve done this myself, where I’ve taken the four accounts of the crucifixion and brought them together into a single reading. A lot of our Bible class teaching and preaching is based on this approach. Even if we use a single text as our point of reference, we often roll in details that are revealed by the other accounts.
There’s certainly a lot of value in doing this. It helps us not to draw bad conclusions from a single text. Another text might answer questions raised by the text at hand. But there is also a downside to this. Think about it: why did God provide us four accounts of the life of Jesus instead of one comprehensive account? Why are there two accounts of the Kingdom Period, one probably written at the beginning of the Captivity and one probably written after the return from captivity? Some of it, particularly with the gospel accounts, is likely symbolic. The standard for testimony under the Law of Moses was two or three witnesses, so God gave four witnesses of Jesus’ life. But on a more practical level, God used each writer—their background, their circumstances, their perspective—to tell a unique story with a unique focus.
When we flatten the text into one harmonized account, we lose some of these textures. We lose the individual portraits of the scenes at hand. If I can use a modern example, biblical history goes from being a Pulitzer-winning book by David McCullough to being a Wikipedia article. Sure, all the information’s there, but none of the personality that makes it compelling.
Let’s look at the differences between the Samuel/Kings account and the Chronicles account. In particular, the opening of Solomon’s reign (after he finishes cleaning house from all of the succession drama) in 1 Kings 3 and 2 Chronicles 1.
In 1 Kings 3, right off the bat we’re told about Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter. The writer mentions the use of the high places because the temple hadn’t been built, and Solomon’s offerings at the high places. Gibeon is “the great high place,” with Solomon offering 1,000 burnt offerings there. It’s at Gibeon that the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream wherin Solomon requested wisdom to rule. After the dream, Solomon went to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices before the ark of the covenant.
In reading this account, we are struck by the fact that Solomon flirted (sometimes literally) with idolatry, in contrast with his father. The dream is a turning point, where Solomon moves from worshiping at the high places to worshiping the Lord in Jerusalem. It is the point at which Solomon “knows the Lord” (to borrow from Judges and 1 Samuel, which falls in the same narrative tradition). But the life of Solomon is symmetrical. He started with the high places and the foreign wives. They are, chronologically, his “first love.” And so they are entrenched in his life from the start of his reign, and by the end of the Kings account, his foreign wives have pulled him back to the high places and idolatry.
The historical narrative running from Joshua through 2 Kings places a heavy emphasis on Israel’s keeping of the covenant as expressed in Deuteronomy. In particular here is Deuteronomy 17, which provides regulations for the kings who would eventually be set over the people. Solomon’s life as presented in 1 Kings reads like a point-by-point breaking of those regulations. Multiplying wives. Acquiring much wealth. Going back to Egypt for chariots.
Compare this to 2 Chronicles 1. No mention is made of the Egyptian wife. Nor sacrifices at the high places. The only high place mentioned is Gibeon. This account tells us why Gibeon was the great high place: the Tabernacle (the tent of meeting) was there. At this point in history, the ark of the covenant was separated from the Tabernacle: David had moved the ark to Jerusalem and pitched a tent for it there, but that tent wasn’t the Tabernacle. So the 1,000 burnt offerings at Gibeon were offered at the Tabernacle.
If we put the two accounts together, it’s easy for us to handwave a lot of what is going on at this point in the narrative. The sacrifices at Gibeon are okay because he really was offering to the Lord since that’s where the Tabernacle was. Really, it flattens the Kings account because Solomon’s behavior change is less drastic. Honestly, it flattens God’s role in the narrative because God isn’t showing grace to Solomon to the same degree. Under the law, Solomon was an idolater deserving death. The text doesn’t say it, but I think it’s there for us to draw out. There is an overarching theme throughout the Samuel/Kings narrative (and even going back to Judges) of God’s people (and especially God’s rulers) falling short of God’s ideal. If this account was written shortly into the Captivity (perhaps by Jeremiah) it serves as an explanation of how God’s people got to that point.
The Chronicles account is written from the other end of the spectrum. The people have returned from captivity, so it is time to rebuild. Accordingly, the account puts a heavy focus on the construction of the First Temple, both in David’s planning and in Solomon’s construction. It seems like the writer doesn’t want to distract from this by bringing up David and Solomon’s shortcomings. The Tabernacle is mentioned to show a progression to something greater. The Tabernacle is the “tent of meeting,” but the Ark of the Covenant is the place of God’s presence. I suspect that the reason the Kings account doesn’t mention this detail is because ultimately it didn’t matter whether the Tabernacle was in Gibeon. The Ark (the symbol and place of God’s presence) was in Jerusalem.
Neither of these accounts is deficient. Each accomplishes its own purpose. But it is only by carefully considering each on its own merits (with consideration of why each only includes the set of events and details it does) that we can appreciate the depth of what God has left for us in each account.