Narrative Texts: Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah

Ralph W. Klein

Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are the final works in the Hebrew canon, but they appear there in the order of Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. The Books of Chronicles tell the story of Israel from the death of Saul, the first king of Israel (1 Chronicles 10), to the announcement of the rise of Cyrus, king of Persia, who authorized the Jews who had been exiled in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (2 Chr 36:22-23). The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are genealogies of the tribes of Israel.

The book of Ezra begins by repeating the final verses of Chronicles and then reports the return of the exiles, their rebuilding of the temple (chaps. 1-6), and the first part of the mission of Ezra, who had been sent by Artaxerxes to make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of God (chaps. 7-10). The book of Nehemiah tells the story of Nehemiah, who was also sent by Artaxerxes to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, but it also describes Ezraís reading of the law and the subsequent confession of the people and their covenant-making (chaps. 8-10), and a number of corrective measures initiated by Nehemiah (13:4-31). In addition to the narrative texts, all three books contain numerous lists of names and genealogies, which will not be discussed in any detail in this chapter.

For the better part of the last two centuries, the majority of scholars believed that these books formed a unity known as the Chroniclerís History, beginning with Chronicles and concluding with Ezra and Nehemiah. While some scholars still advocate that today (e.g. Blenkinsopp: 47-54), it seems likely, for both linguistic and theological reasons, that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah had separate origins. Two prominent themes in Chronicles, for example, immediate retribution and prophecy, are virtually absent from Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles has a much more favorable view of the Northern tribes and an inclusive view of Israel, whereas Israel in Ezra-Nehemiah is limited to Judah and Benjamin. Even if these books had separate authorship, they deal with common themesóJerusalem, its temple, its clergy, and its worshipóand all of them were written during the post-exilic or Persian period (539 BCEó330 BCE). We will give primary attention in this chapter to reading the narratives in Chronicles, but we will also provide some orientation to the narratives in Ezra-Nehemiah.

Narratives in Chronicles

Methods used to read narratives elsewhere in the Bible also apply to Chronicles (see Miscall: 539-552), but Chronicles also provides a unique challenge and opportunity since the author (hereafter: the Chronicler) drew upon and recast Israelís history as it had been recounted in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. Hence readers can compare Chronicles with its major source, using a synopsis that lists parallel passages side by side (see the English synopsis by Endres, Millar, and Burns, and the more technical Hebrew-Greek synopsis by Vannutelli). In such study interpreters note what has been added by the Chronicler, what has been omitted, where the order of passages has been rearranged, and where individual words have been changed. Among additions made by the Chronicler are materials from the Psalms and other canonical writings. The genealogies and lists, not to be considered here, were drawn both from Genesis and other canonical writings and from archival sources that are no longer available.

We propose to consider the Chroniclerís treatment of David in 1 Chronicles 10-29 in order to understand the emphases of this book and to illustrate one common method of reading this book. Using a synopsis, readers will then be able to investigate the Chroniclerís message and literary method in 2 Chronicles 1-36 as well.

The Chroniclerís Story of David

1Chronicles 10-29 and their Canonical Parallels


1 Chronicles

1 and 2 Samuel


10:1-12-death of Saul

1 Sam 31:1-13


10:13-14-evaluation of Saul




2 Sam 1:1-4:12-interregnum


11:1-3-anointing of David




5:4-5-chronology of David


11:4-9-David and all Israel capture Jerusalem



11:10-chiefs supporting David



11:11-41a-Davidís warriors



11:41b-47-more warriors



12:1-22óleaders rallied to David at Ziklag



12:23-40-armed troops rallying to David at Hebron



13:1-4-invitation to bring ark to Jerusalem



13:5-7-the arkís journey begins




6:4-brief note about Ahio


13:8-14-Uzzah killed for touching the ark



14:1-2-Hiramís support; Davidís kingdom established



14:3-7-Davidís wives and children in Jerusalem



14:8-16-Philistines defeated



14:17 Davidís fame



15:1-3-preparations for moving the ark



15:4-10-six Levite chiefs



15:11-15-clergy ordered to carry the ark



15:16-24-installation of Levitical musicians




6:12a-house of Obed-Edom blessed


15:25-16:3-ark brought to Jerusalem



16:4-7-David appoints Levites to thank and praise



16:8-22-Israelís praise

Ps 105:1-15


16:23-33-international and cosmic praise

Ps 96:1b-13a


16:34-36-thanksgiving and petition

106:1b, 47-48


16:37-42-regular worship established



16:43-Davidís blessing




6:20b-23-David rebuked by Michal


17:1-15-oracle of Nathan



17:16-27-prayer of David



18:1-13-defeat of the Philistines



18:14-17-officers of David




9:1-13-story of Mephibosheth


19:1-19-defeat of Ammonites and Arameans



20:1a-spring as time of war




11:1b-12:25-David and Bathsheba


20:1b-Joab attacked Rabbah of the Ammonites




12:27-29-David summoned to Rabbah of the Ammonites


20:2-3-David seized Ammonite crown and returned to Jerusalem




13:1-20:26-rape of Tamar and murder of Amnon; revolt and death of Absalom; negotiations for Davidís restoration to the throne; rebellion of Sheba; and a listing of the officers of David



21:1-17-dismemberment of Saulís descendants; exploits of Davidís warriors.


20:4-8-Elhanan killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath




22:1-51 = Psalm 18:1-50



23:1-7-last words of David


21:1-4a-David incited to take census




24:4b-7-Joabís census


21:4b-15-report of census



21:16-angel with drawn sword



21:17-27-purchase of threshing floor of Ornan and altar to Yahweh erected



21:28-22:1-tabernacle of Moses and altar of burnt offering were at Gibeon



22:2-5-David provides materials for the temple



22:6-16-Davidís private speech to Solomon



22:17-19-leaders commanded to build



23:1-2-Solomon made king by David



23:3-32-families of Levites and their functions



24:1-31-twenty-four priestly houses; more Levites



25:1-31-Levitical singers



26:1-32-gatekeepers; other Levites



27:1-34-commanders of the monthly divisions; tribal leaders; Davidís administrators



28:1-10-Davidís public speech to Solomon



28:11-21-Instructions for building temple



29:1-9-Davidís contributions to the temple



29:10-22a-Davidís praise of God; sacrifices by assembly



29:22b-25-anointing of Solomon



29:26-summary of Davidís reign




1 Kgs 1:1-2:10-David warmed by Abishag on his deathbed; revolt of Adonijah; intervention by Bathsheba; anointing of Solomon; death of David


29:27-length of Davidís reign




2:12-Solomonís kingdom established


20:29-30-sources: words of Samuel, Nathan, and Gad


The Chronicler strongly encourages his readers to support the temple in Jerusalem and maintains that it, its priesthood, and its worship patterns were established by the kings of the United Monarchy, David and Solomon. In 1 Chronicles 10-29 he tells the story of David as a model monarch who made Jerusalem and its worship life his chief priorities. To make these points the Chronicler drastically reworked the story of David that had been told in 1 Samuel 16-1 Kings 2 and that had been included in the Deuteronomistic History that was probably completed in the mid sixth century BCE, roughly two centuries before the Chronicler wrote.

Additions in Chronicles

It is in his additions to the text of Samuel-Kings that we expect to find some of the clearest statements of the Chroniclerís theology and the reasons that led him to write his lengthy literary document. In the Old Testament Chronicles, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are all virtually of the same length; only Psalms is longer. Among the more significant additions of the Chronicler are the following:

Omissions in Chronicles

The Chronicler omitted much of the "History of Davidís Rise" (1 Sam 16:14-2 Sam 5:10) by choosing to begin his account with the death of Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 31). But he also omitted other major passages from Samuel, most of which contained deeds that are harmful to the reputation of David and therefore would diminish his credibility as the founder of the temple, the priesthood, and the cult.

Passage 39: 1 Chr 20:1a = 2 Sam 11:1a

Passage 41: 1 Chr 20:1b = 2 Sam 12:26

Passage 43: 1 Chr 20:2-3 = 2 Sam 12:30-31

Passage 46: 1 Chr 20:4-8 = 2 Sam 21:18-22

Thus the Chronicler retains only eleven verses out of some eleven chapters. His omission of the final part of the Succession Narrative, passage 70 (1 Kgs 1:1-2:10) probably came about because of its news about the attempted rebellion by Adonijah while David was on his deathbed and, perhaps, because of the somewhat compromising ministrations of Abishag.

Representative Changes in Chronicles of Texts Taken from Samuel-Kings

In this essay we can only review a few representative changes introduced by the Chronicler. A full study would require an examination line by line in a synopsis.

Changes in Chronicles based on an alternate form of the Text of Samuel

Readers of Chronicles and Samuel-Kings in a synopsis, whether in Hebrew or in English, probably begin with the assumption that the Chronicler used a text of Samuel-Kings that was much like the one we now have in our Hebrew and English Bibles. Scholars have long known, however, that the Hebrew and Greek texts (the Septuagint or LXX) of Samuel often differ considerably from one another and in many cases the ancient Greek translation seems to preserve a superior version of the text. That conclusion was reinforced with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and especially of three copies of Samuel from Cave 4, called 4QSama, 4QSamb, 4QSamc. In some cases, including in the Chroniclerís story of David, it is possible to show that where Chronicles differs from the present text of Samuel-Kings it is because the Chronicler used a different version of Samuel or Kings. Hence the change was not introduced by the Chronicler himself, but had already been introduced into the text of Samuel and Kings by the time the Chronicler wrote. Students who can use the Hebrew-Greek synopsis of Vannutelli need to be on the constant lookout for such readings. Here are a few examples.

2 Sam 5:21 The Philistines abandoned their idols there, and David and his men carried them away.

1 Chr 14:12 They abandoned their gods there, and at Davidís command they were burned.

The person who introduced this change made Davidís actions conform to the letter of the law in Deut 7:5: "But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altarsÖand burn their idols with fire." It would not be surprising to find the Chronicler making such a change, but a careful study of the Septuagint of Samuel, in this case the Lucianic family of LXX manuscripts, shows that this change had already been made in some texts of Samuel: "They abandoned their gods there, and David and the men who were with him took them, and David ordered to burn them with fire." In this case the reading in the Lucianic text is conflate, that is, it contains both a clause about David taking them away the gods and about his burning them. The change, in any case, was not introduced by the Chronicler, but it had been inserted in his Hebrew copy of Samuel, and the Lucianic LXX preserves a translation of this divergent Hebrew text in Greek.

1 Chr 21:15b And the angel of Yahweh was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. 1 Chr 21:16 And David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of Yahweh standing between earth and between heaven. And there was a drawn sword in his hand stretched out against Jerusalem. And David and the elders, covering themselves in sackcloth, fell down on their faces. 1 Chr 21:17 And David said toÖ.

2 Sam 24:16 And the angel of Yahweh was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 2 Sam 24:17 And David said toÖ

The present Hebrew text of Samuel (the Masoretic Text or MT) lacks an equivalent for 1 Chr 21:16, which could easily lead to the conclusion that the Chronicler added this verse because of the greater emphasis on angels in his day. But this verse does appear at this place in Samuel in 4QSama. We believe this verse was accidentally omitted in the MT because the words "and David lifted up" and "and David said" are similar in Hebrew and a scribeís eyes skipped inadvertently from the first to the second verb.

1 Chr 11:13 He [Eleazar] was with David at Pas-dammim, when the Philistines were gathered there for battle. There was a plot of ground full of barley.

2 Sam 23:9b He [Eleazar] was with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle. The Israelites withdrew, but he stood his ground. He struck down the Philistines until his arm grew weary, though his hand clung to the sword. The LORD brought about a great victory that day. Then the people came back to himóbut only to strip the dead. Next to him was Shammah son of Agee, the Hararite. The Philistines gathered together at Lehi, where there was a plot of ground full of lentils. The materials printed in italics are not attested in the text of Chronicles, but this is not because the Chronicler deleted them. Rather, a scribeís eye had shifted from end of the words "the Philistines were gathered there for battle" (2 Sam 23:9=1 Chr 11:13) to the end of the words "the Philistines gathered together at Lehi" (at the end of 2 Sam 23:11a) and left out everything in between. So the difference between Samuel and Chronicles in this case is due to an accident of textual transmission which may have occurred in some manuscript of Samuel or even in the transmission of the book of Chronicles itself. While the Chronicler omitted all of passsage 14, 2 Sam 6:4, a major portion of that verse ("new [cart]. And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill") is a duplicate writing (dittography) of words in 2 Sam 6:3 and is omitted by the LXX and 4QSama in 2 Samuel. It is unclear why the Chronicler omitted the rest of the verse.

1 Chr 18:4 David took from him one thousand chariots, seven thousand cavalry, and twenty thousand foot soldiers.

2 Sam 8:4 David took from him one thousand seven hundred cavalry and twenty thousand foot soldiers.

Remarkably, the LXX of Samuel has the same numbers as the Chronicler. The large numbers, therefore, were already in the text of Samuel read by the Chronicler and they were not inflated by his own editorial hand.

Changed Order of Passages in Chronicles

In addition to his movement of passages 16-18 (1 Chr 14:1-16 = 2 Sam 5:11-25) to a position between the two journeys of the ark (see the discussion above), the Chronicler also repositioned passage 8, 2 Sam 23:8-39, the list of Davidís warriors, in order to express the widespread support of David shortly after he became king.

Narratives in Ezra and Nehemiah

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah bristle with historical and literary problems that have often diverted readers from the present shape of the text. Scholars have debated whether Ezra in fact came to Palestine in 458 BCE and Nehemiah in 445 BCE, during the reign of Artaxerxes I, as an initial reading of the book would suggest, or whether Ezra may have come after Nehemiah, in 398 BCE, in the time of Artaxerxes II. If Ezra were sent to establish the place of the law in the Jewish community, it seems strange that he would wait thirteen years after his initial activity (Ezra 7-10) to read the law to the people (Nehemiah 8). Some scholars have proposed transferring Nehemiah 8 to a position between Ezra 8 and 9 or to a position after Ezr 10:44. While the historical questions remain as baffling as ever, Neh 7:73b-10:39 forms a very coherent unit consisting of Ezraís reading of the law (Nehemiah 8), the peopleís subsequent confession of their sin (Nehemiah 9), and their entering a firm agreement to keep the law (Nehemiah 10). This unit shows that those people whom Nehemiah transferred to Jerusalem (Neh 7:4-5; 11:1-2) had in fact dedicated themselves to the law. Hence, whatever the correct reconstruction of the chronology of the historical Ezra and Nehemiah might turn out to be, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah need to be read in their present arrangement. To understand Ezra-Nehemiah as a literary and theological document, it is best to read it in its canonical order (Eskenazi, passim).

Ezra-Nehemiah is not a reworking of an earlier canonical document in the way that the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles had reworked the books of Samuel and Kings. Nevertheless, the following list indicates some of the sources which were incorporated into Ezra 1-6: 1:2-4, a Hebrew copy of the decree of Cyrus; 1:9-11, an inventory of temple vessels; 2:1-67, a list of those who returned from the exile (this list is repeated, with small changes in Neh 7:6-69); 4:6-7, summaries of letters from Jewish adversaries in the time of Xerxes and Artaxerxes; 4:8-16 a letter in Aramaic from Rehum to Artaxerxes; 4:17-22, Artaxerxesí reply, in Aramaic; 5:6-17 a letter from Tattenai, in Aramaic, to Darius; 6:3-12, Dariusí reply, in Aramaic, including an Aramaic copy of the decree of Cyrus. All of Ezr 4:18-6:18 is written in Aramaic, but we believe the editor of the book used that language when he wrote the narrative framework that now incorporates the Aramaic letters into his document. We do not believe he incorporated a preexisting Aramaic Chronicle consisting of 4:18-6:18.

Other probable source documents, in addition to lists, include Ezr 7:12-26, an Aramaic document giving the Persian kingís commission of Ezra, and the Ezra Memoir, consisting of first person (Ezr 7:27-8:34 9:1-15) and third person (Ezr 7:1-11; 8:35-36; 10:1-44) accounts of Ezra. Finally, the book of Nehemiah is dominated by a first person account by Nehemiah called the Nehemiah Memoir (Neh 1:1-7:73a; 12:27-43; 13:4-31) in which Nehemiah defends and promotes his own activities. One of its most striking characteristics is Nehemiahís appeal to God: "Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people" (Neh 5:19; cf. Neh 13:14, 22, 31).

Here are some of the emphases articulated in Ezra-Nehemiah. Yahweh brought about the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple through favorable actions of the Persian kings toward Israel. The community in Jerusalem is made up of those who returned from the exile, who constitute the true Israel. The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles after the completion of the altar (Ezr 3:4-5) anticipates the joyful dedication of the temple (Ezr 6:16-18) and the equally joyous observation of the Passover a few months thereafter (Ezr 6:19-22). The delay in the completion of the temple is blamed on the actions of the "people of the land," who opposed the work in Jerusalem and disheartened the returned exiles. (Ezra 1-6; Haggai blamed the delay on the peopleís neglect of the temple [1:4-6]).

Some fifty-eight years after the dedication of the temple, Ezra led a group of exiles home under authorization by Artaxerxes (chaps. 7-8). When the problem of mixed marriages arose, Ezra offered a prayer that indicated that the community was not yet the complete embodiment of Yahwehís will since it was still under bondage to Persian power (9:7). Within a year of Ezraís departure from Babylon, a purified community was created in Jerusalem. Ezraís actions included a forced divorce of 110 or 111 men who had intermarried with foreign women. (Ezr 10:9-44)

Nehemiah also led a group of exiles home and his work, despite the opposition of Sanballat, was successful. The purified community of Ezra 7-10 completed the building of the walls (Neh 6:15) around the holy city (Ezra 1-6). Nehemiah also corrected abuses in the making of loans and the charging of interest (Neh 5:1-13) and generously provided for others at his table without drawing on the taxes enjoyed by former governors (Neh 5:14-19). Nehemiah decided to remedy the low population in the city by selecting people for relocation whose genealogy could be correlated with the list of those who had returned with Zerubbabel (Neh 7:73a).

Before the repopulation of Jerusalem had begun, the people requested that Ezra read the law to them (Neh 8:1). The people resolved to study the law (Neh 8:13) and they held a unique celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles unparalleled since the days of Joshua (Neh 8:17). The peopleís confession in chap. 9 concludes with an acknowledgement that the present Persian rulership leaves the community in a desperate situation: "We are slaves this dayÖand we are in great distress" (Neh 9:36-37). The community then entered into a covenant to walk in Godís law and do all the commandments (Nehemiah 10).

The perfected community relocated one of every ten persons from the local towns to Jerusalem. Subsequent lists identify those who lived in Jerusalem and in the villages and provide the names of priests, Levites, and high priests at various times of the restoration period. The final chapter of the book consists of specific corrections of abuses during Nehemiahís second term in Jerusalem. The plea "Remember me, O my God, for good" calls attention to the virtue of Nehemiah, the wall builder and reformer of the community. Nehemiah 13 also reminds the reader that even the best intentions of the perfect community (Nehemiah 8-10) can fail and the people can lapse into sin. The final chapter of Nehemiah concedes that the behavior of the restored community was never fully perfected and often was in need of reform. The real circumstances in which people liveóstill under Persian rulership and in imperfectionóset limits to the salvation that God gives in fulfillment of promises.


The style of writing in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, replete with lists and genealogies, is not, at first glance, inviting, but the writers of these works were making a profound effort to forge community identity and unity at a time when the options for political independence were humanly out of the question. The Chronicler sought to support and promote the community worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem by grounding all aspects of this institution in the decisions and actions of an idealized David and Solomon. Lying behind the religious work of Ezra and Nehemiah may lie another political phenomenon: the law (Pentateuch) brought by Ezra according to Ezr 7:11-28 and to which the community obligated itself in Nehemiah 8-10 may also have been simultaneously recognized by the Persians as the legitimate Persian law of the land (Klein, 1999: 722) .

Key Readings

Special Studies

Eskenazi, Tamara.

  1. In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. SBLMS 36.

Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

Klein, Ralph W.

1992 "Chronicles, Book of 1-2," ABD 1:992-1002.

1992 "Ezra-Nehemiah, Books of," ABD 2:731-742.

Miscall, Peter D.

  1. "Introduction to Narrative Literature," pp. 539-552 in New Interpreterís Bible,

II, Ed. Leander E. Keck. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.


Endres, John C., Millar, William R., and Burns, John Barclay, Eds.

  1. Chronicles and its Synoptic Parallels in Samuel, Kings, and Related Texts.

Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.

Vannutelli, Primus.

  1. Libri Synoptici Veteris Testamenti. 2 vols. Rome: Pontificial Biblical

Institute, 1931.


Allen, Leslie C.

  1. "The First and Second Books of Chronicles," pp. 297-659 in New Interpreterís Bible, 3. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Nashville: Abingdon

Blenkinsopp, Joseph.

1988 Ezra-Nehemiah. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Braun, Roddy.

1986 1 Chronicles. Word Biblical Commentary 14. Waco, TX: Word.

Dillard, Raymond B.

1987 2 Chronicles. Word Biblical Commentary 15. Waco, TX: Word.

Japhet, Sara.

  1. I & II Chronicles. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John


Klein, Ralph W. Klein

  1. "The Books of Ezra & Nehemiah," pp. 661-851 in New Interpreterís Bible, 3.

Ed. Leander E. Keck. Nashville: Abingdon.

Williamson, H. G. M.

  1. 1 and 2 Chronicles, The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: