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Asbury Bible Commentary – Historical Literature
Historical Literature

Historical Literature

The connected narrative of Israel's story extends beyond the Pentateuch narrative of Israel's history from the conquest of Canaan to Judah's fall at the hands of the Chaldeans. This complex of material (Jos-2Ki) shows evidence of literary and theological unity, in that it consistently links the vicissitudes of Israel's history to the measure of her obedience to the Mosaic covenant. From this vantage point, the whole story can be reduced to the dictum that faithfulness brings life and prosperity to the nation, while disobedience brings national disaster.Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series no. 15 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), 89-99.

A unified work of such magnitude as the Deuteronomistic HistoryNot all of Noth's proposal need be accepted to recognize the cohesiveness of Joshua-2 Kings. and Chronicles may be termed a History, a genre that may have arisen in or around the royal court among scribes who would have had access to court records and other related sources. The Bible's historical narratives will not conform to certain modern expectations that historiography be dispassionate and “objective.” The biblical writers wrote, rather, with intense desire to affect the behaviors and values of their readers. Its treatment of various periods in Israel's history and her kings is not so uniform and proportional as some might prefer. The twelve-year reign of Omri is dispensed with in eight verses (1Ki 16:21-28), while the twenty-two year reign of his son Ahab swells to six chapters that contain an assortment of related stories. Little light is shed in the economic, social, and political concerns that are the focus of modern historiography. Instead, the biblical writers were consumed with the question of Israel's relationship to God. In short, biblical history selects and arranges its material according to its own viewpoint in the service of its own ends.

Among the larger components of histories are Accounts, which employ a rather simple, straightforward style in narrating or explaining thematically related events (e.g., 1Ki 6:1-7:51; Solomon constructs the temple).Our discussion of these genres is largely dependent upon Burke O. Long, I Kings, Forms of the Old Testament Literature Series, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 4-8; 262-263. Shorter still are Reports, which narrate a single incident without attention to plot or character development (e.g., 1Ki 5:1-12; Solomon and Hiram make a treaty). The Notice is indistinguishable from a single statement (e.g., 1Ki 3:1; Solomon's marriage alliance). All readers are familiar with the List, which may present with or without ordering a collection of items (1Ch 2:1-3:24, genealogy; 2Sa 23:24-39, soldier; 1Ki 4:2-19, officials). The original settings and purposes of these genres may have varied widely.

By means of the Theological Summary, a narrator interprets various persons or events theologically (e.g., Jdg 2:11-3:6, evaluating the period of the judges).David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), 102. A more formulaic summary found throughout the book of Kings is the Regnal Résumé, which appears in both introductory and concluding formats. In the former may appear a) the king's name and date of accession, b) the king's age at accession, c) the length of reign, d) the name of the king's mother, e) a theological evaluation. “In the twelfth year of Joram son of Ahab king of Israel, Ahaziah son of Jehoram king of Judah began to reign. Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem one year. His mother's name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of Omri king of Israel. He walked in the ways of Ahab and did evil in the eyes of the Lord, as the house of Ahab had done, for he was related by marriage to Ahab's family” (2Ki 8:25-27). In the concluding formula may appear a) reference to other sources of information regarding the king's reign, b) the king's death and burial, c) succession. It is hardly possible to overestimate the value of such summaries for tracking the historian's theological evaluation of the parts and whole of Israel's history from the divine point of view.Long, I Kings, 259. Judean kings more regularly follow the pattern.

Distinguishable from the histories (e.g., Deuteronomistic, and the Chronicles) are Nehemiah and Ezra. Though the first-person perspective of the latter would at first blush suggest biography, their greater focus upon the nation and its struggles than upon the person of the narrator argues for their generic classification as Memoir.Ibid., 8.

Literary features identified in the Pentateuchal narratives (i.e., skillful plot development, characterization, use of irony, repetition of key terms or motifs, etc.) pertain as well to narratives with Israel's history. And the artistry of the history narratives pertain to the Pentateuchal narrative materials.