Reading the Bible Better: How Out-of-Order Chronology Serves Biblical Theology

bibleWhat do you do when you come to a passage of Scripture that is out of sequence? Like in the case of Genesis 10, which speaks of various tongues (v. 5) before God confused human language in Genesis 11?

Do you challenge the authority and intent of the author, presuming that there is some kind of error?Do you simply ignore it, pretending that the problem is not that large?  Or do you stop and assess what the author is doing? How you proceed in those cases will, in large part, determine (over the course of time) how well you read the Bible.

Biblical Authors Write Selectively . . . Which Includes Order and Arrangement

When an inspired author of Scripture records a collection of events he naturally delimits his account with some measure of selectivity. In conveying his inspired message, he is not just rehashing history.  He is exercising his office as prophetic messenger.  This kind of intention is confessed in places like Luke 1:1–4 and John 20:30–31, but it is also seen in the warp and woof of the biblical text itself.

1 Samuel 16–17

Consider the chronology of 1 Samuel 16-17. Historically, David’s defeat of Goliath precedes his musical service to Saul. But not in 1 Samuel. 1 Samuel 16 recounts the anointing of David, the transference of the Spirit from Saul to David, and David’s spirit-filled worship in the presence of Saul. Moreover in 16:18, David is described as “a skillful musician, a mighty man of valor, a warrior, one prudent in speech, and a handsome man, and the Lord is with him.” The challenge of this verse is not its contents, but its placement. He is pronounced a warrior before he has participated in any battle.  How so?

It appears that the author of 1 Samuel is not bound by chronology. His purpose is larger—he writes his history in service of theology. He shapes his account to exalt David as the true king of Israel. Some have called this kind of writing historiography, instead of history. But it is more than just writing history with certain intentions. The Spirit-inspired author of Samuel is shaping his story to elevate the kingship in Israel, but also to present a pattern of rulership, that in canonical context, will point eschatologically to Christ, the son of David (cf. 2 Samuel 7). His work anticipates the coming of a greater king, Jesus Christ.

The Gospels

Another place where the author’s theological aim shapes chronology is in the Gospels. Critics often accuse the Gospel writers of contradicting themselves. And while there are challenging reconciliations in these accounts, most of the time opponents of biblical unity fail to see how and why the different authors are different.

Take for instance Jesus’ clearing of the Temple. In John it is placed in the second chapter; in Matthew (cf. Mark, Luke) it is placed in Jesus’ final week. Clearly, the chronological ordering appears different; and this has posed the hypothesis that there are two temple clearings.  Yet, it may be better to read these ostensibly different events in their divergent literary-theological contexts.

In John, Jesus’ temple clearing is used to illustrate that Jesus is the True Temple, a theme that is found in John 1, where John records “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt [or tabernacled] among us,” and again in John 3. Following Jesus temple clearing, Nicodemus comes to ask how “God is with him” (3:2). As Jesus goes on to explain the new birth, spiritual regeneration, and the locus of the kingdom, it is obvious that it is not in the Jerusalem temple. In fact, according to John 2, the temple is going to be torn down and raised again in the resurrected Christ.

By contrast, the Synoptics record a temple incident in the final week of Jesus’ life, where it has great eschatological import. Whereas John uses it to develop Christology; Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the seen to show how the judgment of God has come on the Temple, the outward evidence of God’s dwelling with Israel.  The cleansing of the Temple is placed next to the cursing of the fig tree, and both show in parabolical language what is and is about to happen—God is going to judge Israel, the temple will be torn down, and the curse of God will rest on Jerusalem. Nevertheless, God is drawing people to himself who will believe in the Messiah of God, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, a comparison between John and the Synoptics shows how these Spirit-filled men are taking up events in history and then crafting their gospels so that men may believe (John 20:31) and so that men might understand (Luke 1:1–4).  And even if there were two temple cleansings, the point stands: the placement of the event supports the theological aims of the author.

Out-of-Order History Tells Us to Slow Down and Take Note

So, should we read the Bible as Theology or History?  Well . . . both!

The Bible is an historical book, one that accurately represents the events of history. Yet, it is also a book about God—hence, theological. Therefore, in all of its historical presentations, the authors (impelled by the Author) is always doing theology—faith-inspiring, literature-conscience, Christ-centered theology.

In sum, let me quote John Bimson (The Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament), as he wrestles with the same chronological-canonical puzzles in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. He writes of the ‘out-of-order’ sequence in these post-exilic books:

This is frustrating for the historian, but has its own significance for a theological reading.  [Quoting H.G.M. Williamson, he continues],”Historically time-bound events are becoming detached from their chronological moorings in order to be viewed rather as divinely related steps in what may properly be regarded as a history of salvation” (141).

As we read Scripture, it is important to realize that some parts are written out-of-order. This is not an accident of a man’s errant writing. Rather, it is done intentionally. And it tells us (the reader) to slow down to see what the author is doing. In most cases, he wants us to see something about God, something “theological”.

Therefore, as we read the narratives of Scripture, may we see the chronological aberrations and give pause to find out why the author deviated from chronology.  It may be the literary key that opens up the otherwise puzzling disorder.

Sola Deo Gloria, ds