Getting Into 1 Chronicles without Getting Stuck: Or, How to Read a Genealogy

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“Just skip the first 9 chapters in 1 Chronicles and start in chapter 10.”

This is something I’ve both said and done. And yet in this post, I want to return to 1 Chronicles 1–9 to show you how important these chapters are for understanding Chronicles and the theme of royal priesthood in the Bible.

For those reading the Bible for the first time or the fiftieth time, the likelihood of reading 1 Chronicles 1–9 with profit is challenging, to say the least. Yes, these chapters do include the cottage industry known as Jabez’s Prayer (1 Chr. 4:9–10). But appeals to that blessed man, whose name means pain—probably a prophecy for the way his life would be misused by 20th C. Christians—only confirms how hard it is to read these chapters with anything but the most general profit—i.e., God is Lord of history. (For a proper interpretation of Jabez’s prayer, read this).

Our approach to 1 Chronicles 1–9 changes, however, when we discover (1) the structure of this passage and (2) its purpose in the book of 1–2 Chronicles. Assisting in both of these endeavors, James T. Sparks has written The Chronicler’s Genealogies: Towards an Understanding of 1 Chronicles 1–9.

In Sparks’ research, he argues for the intentional placement of this genealogy and how it works in this book. After correcting a few modern errors on reading genealogies (check back for a post on that point), Sparks identifies a chiastic structure in these nine chapters that focuses on the cultic personnel (i.e., the priests).

His structure (see p.29) helps explain the order of the genealogies and from the placement of the Levitical priests, he calls us to see what is most important—namely, the priestly genealogy of Levi.

A The world before Israel (1:1–51)

B The sons of Israel (2:1–2)

C  Judah – the tribe of King David (2:3–4:23)

D Tribes of Israel in victory and defeat (4:234–5:26)

E The descendants of Levi (6:1-47)

F The cultic personnel in their duties (6:48–49)

F’ The cultic leaders (6:50–53)

E’ The descendants of Levi (6:54–8:1)

D’ Tribes of Israel in defeat and restoration (7:1–40)

C’ Benjamin – the tribe of King Saul (8:1–40)

B’ “All Israel” counted (9:1a)

A’ Israel re-established (9:1b–34)

In his explanation of this genealogy, he actually puts the priestly work in the temple over and above the royal personnel of Saul and David. In my estimation, this goes too far. He is right to put the priesthood at the center, but as I have argued elsewhere (The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, forthcoming), Chronicles leads us to see how a better priest is needed—one that comes from the line of David, not Levi. In this way, the opening genealogies sets in place two things—the centrality of the priesthood (see E-F-F’-E’) and the supremacy of David over Saul (see C-C’).

Sidestepping whose interpretation about David is right for the minute, the point remains: to read Chronicles on its own terms requires understanding how the first 9 chapters introduce the book. Indeed, in English Bibles (and in many reading plans), 1–2 Chronicles comes right after 1–2 Kings. Because they cover so much of the same history, it is easy to treat 1–2 Chronicles dismissively. One could reason: “Well, because, I just read this, I don’t need to read it again.”

That sentiment, however common, would miss the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, Kings and Chronicles do not stand side by side. Likewise, Chronicles’s opening genealogy sets the story of Israel in the history of the whole world. Remember, 1 Chronicles 1:1 begins with “Adam.” Going in the other direction, by placing the Levitical priests at the center of the genealogy, it explains the importance of these priests for the life of Israel returning to the land. And by focusing on David over Saul, it will show the place of David’s sons in Israel’s history.

All in all, when we see the chiastic structure of 1 Chronicles 1–9, it gives the reader assistance in seeing the forest, not just the trees. By keeping our eyes on the total shape of these nine chapters (see the outline above), it helps us understand the message and how each tribe fits into the story. It also teaches us that we must read the nine chapters as a whole unit, not just nine individual chapters.

Often reading plans train us to read these chapters over multiple days; the McCheyne plan calls for 4.5 days—two chapters a day. This hinders our ability to appreciate the whole section and trains us to find mystical puffs of meaning in people like Jabez. But that’s not the point.

The point is to introduce the storyline of Israel’s history, with a central focus on kings and priests. This can be seen through an inductive reading of the two volumes, but royal and priestly themes are confirmed and strengthened when we realize how 1 Chronicles begins.

In the end, 1 Chronicles 1–9 are not chapters we should skip, but something we should read according to the author’s intention. Yet to do that, we need to see the whole forest. We are so accustomed to reading a verse or a chapter and mining it for devotional truth. But here, in this genealogy, we need to keep in mind the whole unit. When we do, it leads us to the twin themes of kingship and priesthood, two themes that ultimately bring us to Christ, and to a, if not the, main point of 1 Chronicles.

So go try to read those nine chapters again, but read them with a better view of the whole section. Hopefully, keeping the chiasm in mind will help you get into 1 Chronicles without getting stuck.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

One thought on “Getting Into 1 Chronicles without Getting Stuck: Or, How to Read a Genealogy

  1. Pingback: David Among the Priests: Seeing the Royal Priesthood of David in the Book of 1 Chronicles | Via Emmaus

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