Theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history
The Old Testament historical books were written to witness to the God of history, fulfilling his purposes through the ebb and flow of the story of his people. The writers’ concern was not so much to record “accurate” history, but to record accurately just what it meant to be the people of God through their history. Their agenda was primarily theological, not historical.
Stories of events drawn from oral tradition or written down in the various annals that were kept – the Old Testament mentions around twenty of these, writings that were used by the biblical writers as the source material for their own works – were knit together at key times in Israel’s history to create the books that we know today. These significant moments probably included the revival under Josiah as well as the return to Judea from Babylonian exile. As such, they were motivated by profound spiritual concern, a desire to point towards the God who had been with his people through thick and thin and thus call current readers to faithful worship.
They did this by drawing on the literary forms current at their time and shaping the story of God’s work around these. It may be useful to highlight a few of these – though do remember that rigid distinctions between these types cannot be made which are found intertwined throughout the historical books.
Hardest for us to relate to, perhaps, are the sacred epics, sagas of the “heroes of old”. Formed from songs to be sung round the evening fire, poetry and dramatic celebrations of successes in war, these narratives are characterized by God’s constant and clear intervention, pointing to him as the real hero of the story. Data or numbers may appear exaggerated and hyperbole is often used to communicate the great victories God’s people were led into. Characters like Samson stand out, very human heroes, painted “warts and all”, but whose life allows us to see God beyond Samson’s evident failings. With undoubted historical value, the hero sagas were never written with a concern for “history” as such, and it is unfair to read then in that way.
Much more accessible for the modern reader are the “secular” narratives. Through passions and intrigues, ambition and power struggles, the story seems to flow with precious little intervention from God. The whole retelling of David’s ascent to the throne and his conflict with the house of Saul, for example, makes little mention of God, focusing instead on the will and desires of men (and the occasional woman!). But these writings nevertheless follow a theological agenda and call us to find that thread of God’s dealings with his people through the “ordinary” events of human life, stamped with the strength of human self-centredness to their very core.
Finally, and most predominantly in the Old Testament, we find the clearly religious and theological retelling of history. Written by a succession of seers, prophets, priests and other religious specialists, these offer the markedly theological perspective of teachers who wanted to communicate a religious message through their work. They aim to build faith and are not impartial in any sense of the word, nor do they claim to be. Decidedly biased when viewed from a modern perspective, they annoyingly – for us – leave out details that we would love to know, but which were not important in their own scheme of things and hone in on narrow details that help them communicate their message. So, for example, the huge battle of Qarqar in which Israel under Ahab faced the Assyrian army doesn’t even get a mention whereas pages and pages are devoted to the confrontation between Elijah and Jezebel’s idolatrous influence. It must also be said that they can be particularly “creative” with events. Again, though, this should not be seen as a “distortion of history”, for they wrote within the confines of their own concept of history and must not be judged by our criteria.
History, in a very real sense, can only be understood with hindsight. Just like any modern historian, all the biblical writers reinterpret history in the light of their own circumstances but then go beyond this to draw out lessons to stimulate the faith of their contemporaries. We too will gain most by making that stimulus to faith the focus of our own reading of their “histories”.