Old Testament of the Bible Summary and Analysis 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah

Summary

1 and 2 Kings

Often called the Deuteronomic History of the Kings of Israel and Judah because of the prominence attached to the Deuteronomic law of the Central Sanctuary, Kings discusses the attitudes of Israel's kings toward the observance of the law of the Central Sanctuary as the most important factor in their various reigns. In this respect, the kings' conduct determined more than anything else whether they did that which was evil or that which was good in the sight of Yahweh. Although some of the kings ruled for a comparatively long time and others occupied the throne for only a brief period, all were judged by the same standards. Any king who failed to destroy the high places of worship or permitted the people to offer sacrifices at any place other than the Temple in Jerusalem was said to have performed evil in the sight of Yahweh and was responsible for the disasters that fell upon the nation.

Kings begins with the history of the kingdom at the point where the history ends in Samuel and continues the account until the time of King Josiah of Judah. The work is divided into three parts: The first part deals with the united kingdom under David and Solomon; the second division discusses the parallel history of the divided kingdom until the fall of Samaria; and part three focuses only on the southern kingdom of Judah. The writer used a number of sources, including the Book of the Acts of Solomon, the "Temple Annals," stories about Elisha, and other documents that report particular events. Taking from these sources only the materials that were suited to his purpose, the Kings author shaped the materials to emphasize the lessons that he wanted to teach.

1 Kings begins with an account of how Solomon was chosen as the successor of King David. The author of this history was evidently an admirer of Solomon, for he credits him with great wisdom in administering the affairs of the kingdom. He tells of the prayer that Solomon offered at the dedication of the Temple and of his wise decisions in dealing with difficult problems. He does mention that Solomon did not destroy the high places of worship and that Solomon brought many foreign wives to the court in Jerusalem, conduct that the writer strongly suggests is the main reason for the rebellion and division of the monarchy that occurred after Solomon's death.

The second part of the history follows a very definite pattern in describing the activities of the kings of both the northern and the southern kingdoms. The writer begins by telling when it was that a king began his reign and for how long his reign lasted. Next, he states whether the king was good or evil. In some instances, the record of events that occurred during the reign of a particular king is fairly long, while in others it is comparatively short, but the standard of judgment is always the same: the attitude of a king toward the law of the Central Sanctuary. The writer regards a king's permitting worship at any of the local shrines, or so-called high places, as a more serious offense than any other form of social injustice. Because the only legitimate sanctuary was located in Jerusalem, which was now the capital of the southern kingdom, the kings of the north did not have access to it; consequently, any worship that they authorized had to take place at some local site, which is why the writer of Kings opens his account of each one of the northern kings by saying "He did evil in the eyes of the Lord." Of course, the southern kings did not always destroy the high places either, but the writer is more charitable in dealing with them: He usually finds some excuse for their failure in this respect.

An interesting feature in this second part of the history is the system of chronology that the writer uses. Dates are recorded in terms of the number of years that the corresponding ruler of the other kingdom has reigned. For example, one northern king is said to have begun his reign during the fifth year of the corresponding king of the southern kingdom.

The history's third part focuses only on Judah. The northern kingdom is held in captivity because of the transgressions of its inhabitants; now, only in the southern kingdom are the hopes of the Hebrew people to be realized. King Hezekiah's reign is described at greater length than those of most of the other kings because the writer regards him as a great reformer. The invasion of the Judean kingdom by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib is reported, as is the visit to Jerusalem by Merodach-Baladan of Babylon. The reign of Manasseh, Hezekiah's son, lasted for over fifty years but is passed over lightly, as is the reign of his son and successor, Amon, who was assassinated. With the coming to the throne of King Josiah, Amon's son, the writer expresses great optimism, for it was during Josiah's reign that the law book was discovered in the Temple and the great reformation inaugurated. Probably at this point, the Kings writer ended his history, for scholars assume that Josiah was still king when the author wrote. Later writers extended the Deuteronomic history, but their work is recorded in Judges, Samuel, and other portions of the Old Testament.

1 and 2 Chronicles

If the Deuteronomic law is the standard of judgment in 1 and 2 Kings, then the Priests Code is the standard in 1 and 2 Chronicles. Chronicles' history appears to have been written later than Kings'; the date usually given is approximately 300 B.C. The authors of the two books have the advantage of using the Deuteronomic history, as well as the many other documents that appeared prior to 300 B.C., as source material. Apparently, they accepted the older histories' idea that personal suffering and national disasters are punishments for wrongdoing, while long life and material prosperity are rewards for righteous conduct.

This conception of punishments and rewards adequately explains some historical events, but other events contradict this view. For example, King Uzziah, whose reign preceded Isaiah's becoming a prophet, was regarded as one of the ablest and best kings of Judah, yet he was smitten with leprosy and died in a leper colony; King Manasseh, judged by all the accepted standards of both priests and prophets, was a wicked man but reigned for more than half a century and died a natural death; and Josiah, the good king who started the Deuteronomic reformation and followed as closely as he could the teachings of the great prophets, was slain on the field of battle, and his son was taken to Egypt as a prisoner. The chronicler felt it necessary to explain these events. Believing as he did that Yahweh orders the course of events, he interpreted the entire course of Hebrew history from the point of view of the laws and regulations embodied in the Priests Code.

The introduction to Chronicles consists of a brief sketch of the period from Adam to David, whom the chronicler idealizes — in contrast to the record preserved in 1 and 2 Samuel. The law of the Central Sanctuary is projected back into this early period by identifying it with the tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them in their march through the wilderness. The Priests Code, too, is presumed to have been in force during the early periods of Hebrew history. No mention is made of the kings of northern Israel: The assumption is that the people in that kingdom were no better than heathens and, as a consequence of their behavior, were no longer to be counted among the true people of Israel.

Ezra

This book, which along with the Book of Nehemiah is also part of the history produced by the writers of Chronicles, contains ten chapters, six of which are concerned almost entirely with recounting events that led to the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. Ezra had in his possession a royal decree authorizing him to make the return along with all the Jews who wished to return with him. As soon as they entered Jerusalem, they built an altar and later rebuilt the Temple, having overcome Samaritan opposition. Ezra protests against the intermarriage of Jews with foreigners and insists that such guilty Jews should obtain divorces from their spouses.

Nehemiah

In the first part of this book, Nehemiah is presented as the cup bearer to Artaxerxes, the Persian king who granted Nehemiah permission to visit the city of Jerusalem. During this visit, Nehemiah takes an active part in helping to rebuild the walls that were demolished. The book's second part centers on Ezra rather than on Nehemiah. Ezra gathers the people into one great assembly and reads to them from the law book. Part three contains a number of miscellaneous items, including lists of those who returned from exile. The Book of Nehemiah closes with an account of Nehemiah's second visit to Jerusalem after an interval of twelve years.

Analysis

With the Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah, the historical survey from Adam to the rebuilding of the Temple in the postexilic period is nearly complete and includes the words of many different authors who lived at different times and, in some cases, represented conflicting points of view. The work as a whole began with the Judean and the Ephraimite histories, which form part of the Pentateuch, and was continued at various intervals by Deuteronomic and priestly historians. These later writers not only used as source materials the older narratives that were available to them, but they supplemented and revised the accounts according to the ideals and institutions that were dominant when they did their work. The rewriting of the J and E histories did not, however, replace the earlier accounts, whose value and prestige were too well established for them to be put aside. Hence, the newer histories have been preserved in the Old Testament along with the older ones.

1 and 2 Kings relate the historical story as seen by an enthusiastic supporter of the Deuteronomic code of laws. Although this code includes both moral and ritualistic requirements, the later historian emphasizes ritual. Perhaps one reason for this emphasis is that ritualistic observances can be enforced in a manner that is not possible in the case of moral requirements, which involve motives, as well as overt acts. The work of supplementing and revising the older histories continued over a long period of time, with an increasing emphasis on details concerning the place, form, time, and manner of worship. Although such emphasis is expected of priestly historians, they did not ignore moral matters. They wanted, no less than the prophets, to bring the people into harmony with the will of Yahweh. But the priests' business was to conduct the various forms of worship, and it seemed obvious to them that obedience to divine commands was a prerequisite to any satisfactory relationship with Yahweh, a point of view expressed so clearly in 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Ezekiel finds that the scroll he must eat tastes




Quiz