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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Another Surprise in 1 Chronicles: The Devastating Exile

People who think that some parts of the Bible are a waste of time are wrong.  I know this in part because I'm continuing to pore through one of the biggest, time-wastingest parts of the Bible, the genealogies in 1 Chronicles (see earlier post), and I'm learning stuff that isn't purely trivial.  I've recently made my painstaking way through the genealogies of the tribe of Judah (2:1-4:23).  I'm not going to lie to you: this took some serious time.  And I admit that the ratio of time spent to divine insight received is probably higher in these two and a half chapters than in any other part of the Bible I can think of.  But insight came nevertheless.

The insight is that the genealogies of Judah are a strange, quiet, unexpected exhibit of how devastating the exile was, how small the surviving and returning remnant was, and how arduous the reestablishment of Jewish society in its homeland was.

The genealogies of Judah are wildly uneven.  Great detail is given to some parts of the family tree while other parts are gapingly neglected.  For example, nearly the entire set is dominated by the descendants of Judah's son Perez.  His twin brother Zerah gets three verses (2:6-8).  All of the descendants of Perez in the set come from his son Hezron; none of the descendants of Hezron's brother Hamul are listed.  This kind of thing happens repeatedly through the generations delineated here.  Then there are weird decisions about which lineages get more attention.  On the one hand, it's hardly surprising that the ancestry and immediate family of David get a good bit of space, as well as the sons of his wives and the line of kings extending even to their postexilic descendants (which, sad to say, lines up with neither Matthew 1 nor Luke 3, though Matthew is a smidge closer).  But why in the world do we get 13 generations of the descendants of Sheshan, not one of whom we know anything about (except that Sheshan may be the same guy three verses earlier who comes five generations after Hezron's son Jerahmeel)?  And there are other weirdnesses too, like people who appear with alternate names like Chelubai in 2:9, who for the rest of the section is called Caleb (not that Caleb) except in 4:1 where he's called Carmi.  Similarly, the last group of genealogies appears to be a miscellaneous category where bits and pieces of family lines go that generally aren't connected to anyone else.  The famous "prayer of Jabez" (whoever that is) is found here as also are fragmented descendants of Shelah, Judah's third son, that include the cryptic note in 4:22 that "the words are old."  Trust me, I could go on.

It seems that the Chronicler (perhaps Ezra), writing during the resettlement after the exile, is trying hard to reconstitute a sense of nationhood and family that was almost destroyed by the deportation.  One can imagine him interviewing his fellow returnees, asking them what they know and remember and if any of it had been written down anywhere.  He takes all he gets and tries to put it together into a coherent whole, but vast amounts of information are missing because the records and the descendants themselves are either scattered through the Persian Empire or didn't survive the destruction, and what little remains is enigmatic and conflicting with no one to answer the questions.

The situation of the returnees to Judea from exile must have been something like the settings of post-apocalyptic movies a la The Road Warrior, The Postman, etc.  It certainly wasn't (quite) as lawless with the Persian military nearby, but the remnants of physical destruction, the depopulation, and the social and psychological effects of the loss of so many people are hard to imagine.  We cannot wrap our minds around the severity of God's discipline of his people and the intensity of his wrath, nor can we fully grasp the miracle of how he preserved a remnant through it all out of his faithful love, for the purpose of his master plan.

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