Historical Books or Former Prophets

In Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s newest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, one of the main characters gets into a philosophical debate over the nature of history. In the course of the discussion one of the participants says:

History is merely a pattern we see in what has passed. It has no power to reach into the present.

I think this view of history is similar to the ways in which many Christians regard portions of the Old Testament.

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We often refer to the books of Joshua-Esther, following an old tradition, as the “historical books.” There are good reasons to use this label–this section emplots the histories of Israel and Judah (histories because are parallel accounts, like Kings and Chronicles, which contain differences and particular theological interests). But often times when we hear the word “history” we think of it in terms similar to the character in Coetzee’s book–history is in the past, it relates some trivia but for the most part it is irrelevant for those of us living in the present.

Jewish tradition viewed these books very differently. Instead of calling these books “historical,” within the Hebrew canon Joshua-Kings is seen as a collection of “former prophets” (the “latter prophets” being Isaiah and the like), while Chronicles-Ezra were lumped into the “writings,” a catch all collection of texts that were, for the most part, written rather late in the development of the Hebrew Bible. What’s really striking about the designation of Joshua-Kings as “former prophets” is that this moniker regards these books not as dead records of the past but as living voices for the present. They are prophetic books that teach their readers how to live flourishing lives, give warnings concerning dangers to avoid, and provide insights into the fragile states of humankind and the gracious and fractious relationship that we have with God.

When is the last time that you’ve heard the book of Kings preached in church? I’m guessing that it’s been a while, if ever. If more pastors thought of Joshua-Kings as “former prophets” rather than “historical books” would they preach on them more often?

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