Introduction to the Historical Books
THE CHRISTIAN BISHOP Athanasius, in the fourth century CE, first used the term “histories” for this section of the Bible, which now covers the books Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther. It is a misleading title, since these books cover a wide range of genres and often are not historical in modern senses of the word. Furthermore, there are several books that are similar to some of these Historical Books, yet they are found in different sections of the Bible.
Large sections of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, and much of the introduction to Deuteronomy in the Torah, contain narratives about the past. Similarly, there are several psalms that survey the past (e.g., Ps 78, 105, 106, 107 ). Yet, this material is not incorporated into the Historical Books. Thus, this section does not represent the collection of all works of the same genre, and its development as a canonical division is best understood in relation to the broader development of the biblical canon (see pp. 453–460 ESSAYS ). Moreover, in the traditional Jewish arrangement of the books of the Bible, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are called the Former Prophets, thus opening the second major division of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets, which follows the Torah. The books of Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra‐Nehemiah, and Esther, however, are found in the third major division, the Writings. For these reasons, the rest of this introduction examines the nature of biblical historical texts, broadly construed, with a focus on the books Joshua through Esther, which now comprise the section of the Bible called Historical Books.
The idea that historical writing should capture the events “as they really were,” that historians should attempt to write an objective account of the events of the past, is a relatively recent notion that developed in the European universities several centuries ago. Before that, history was often didactic in nature, teaching the readers how to be good citizens or how to lead proper religious lives. Sometimes histories were produced in the royal court, in which case they were apologetic, showing how the king fulfilled his royal duties. Surviving historical documents from the ancient Near East show similar religious and ideological goals. Thus, it should not be surprising that the biblical writers are not primarily interested in the accurate recording of real events; rather, they use narratives about the past to illustrate various issues of significance to their earliest audience, the ancient Israelite community.
It is easiest to understand the biblical notion of history by first focusing on works that are outside this canonical division. Exodus 13.3 begins: “Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’” This would seem to suggest the importance of history for its own sake. However, this unit continues with a set of commandments that directly result from this event: “no leavened bread shall be eaten” (v. 3 ); “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the LORD” (V. 6 ); “no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory” (v. 7 ); “You shall tell your child on that day …” (v. 8 ); “It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead” (v. 9 ); “you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD's” (V. 12 ). Read in context, it is not important to remember the Exodus as a disembodied historical event, as the beginning of v. 3 might suggest; rather, the Exodus is key because it serves as the basis for the observance of a central set of laws or norms.
The use of historical material in Psalms is even more instructive, since these traditions about the past are typically surrounded by a framework that explicitly highlights their theological significance or purpose. For example, in Psalm 78 a particular set of traditions is chosen and shaped so:
“that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (vv. 6–8 ).
Psalm 106 tells how God saved Israel time after time, despite their covenant violations. This is used as an argument to God that they should be rescued again:
“Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise” (v. 47 ).
Unfortunately, the material collected in the Historical Books is not as straightforward about its purposes as these psalms or Exodus 13 ; for this reason, the Historical Books need to be subjected to internal analysis, in order to see what motivations and interests best explain their shape.