Author Archives: Shawn Aster

About Shawn Aster

Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.

The Book of Chronicles

Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible, according to the ordering in the Talmud (Tractate Baba Batra 14b) and in most printings of the Bible. (In the Aleppo Codex, a very accurate 11th-century C.E. manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the last book is Ezra-Nehemiah.) The division into I Chronicles and II Chronicles is first found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done in the second or third century B.C.E. 

Chronicles is generally considered to have been written in the fifth century B.C.E., and is therefore one of the latest books of the Hebrew Bible. The author of Chronicles evidently had access to most of the earlier books of the Bible, including Samuel and Kings, from which the book draws much of its material.

History With an Agenda

Chronicles retells the story of the Israelite/Jewish people, briefly summarizing the history until the reign of King David, and then focusing on the reigns of David, Solomon, and the later kings of Judah. (It largely omits any mention of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.) But Chronicles does not simply retell the narrative of the Davidic kings. Chronicles has its own particular view of Israel’s history to tell, in which particular events and groups are highlighted, while other events are de-emphasized.

One aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that Chronicles never mentions the Exodus from Egypt. One passage in particular–the story of Ephraim’s sons who were born in Canaan (I Chronicles 7:21)–suggests that the Chronicler does not think that all of the children of Israel were in Egypt. The period of the wandering in the desert and the giving of the Torah also do not figure prominently. Chronicles also does not focus on the Babylonian exile: All periods when the Israelites did not live in the land of Israel are de-emphasized.

leather booksOn the other hand, Chronicles very clearly emphasizes the two dynastic political institutions of Judah, the Davidic monarchy and the Temple. It highlights the covenant that God made with David, and describes David and his descendants as sitting “on the throne of the Lord” (I Chronicles 29:23). David and Solomon are idealized and the period of their reign is described in glorious terms. The story of Solomon’s succession highlights this idealization: David is described as announcing to all of Israel that God has chosen Solomon as David’s successor (I Chronicles 28:5).


Lamentations is one of the Five “Scrolls” (megillot)  in the Hebrew Bible. (The others are Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes.) Each of these scrolls is read in synagogue on a different Jewish holiday. The Five Scrolls form part of the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim, (also known as Writings or Hagiographia.) In the Roman Catholic version of the Bible, Lamentations is appended to the book of Jeremiah, which is in the Prophets section of the Bible. sad woman

Lamentations begins with the Hebrew word Eicha (how?), and the book is known in Hebrew as Megillat Eicha (the scroll of Eicha.) The book is a theological and prophetic response to the destruction of the First Temple (Beit Hamikdash), in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. The Talmud (The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 15a) states that it was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who lived at the time of the destruction. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations are an alphabetical acrostic, with each line starting with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 is a three-fold acrostic, with three lines for each letter of the alphabet.

Asking Why

In 586 B.C.E., the army of the neo-Babylonian empire destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple because the kingdom of Judah, of which Jerusalem was the capital, refused to remain a loyal vassal of Babylonia. The king of Babylonia at the time, Nebuchadnezzar, sought to counter Egyptian military power and political influence in Syria-Palestine, and so control of Judah was particularly important to him. Jerusalem was destroyed, and large parts of the population were exiled to Babylon.

But Lamentations is not concerned with the technical historical details of the destruction, but rather with larger and meta-historical issues: Why did God, who had once been Israel’s redeemer, acquiesce to the destruction of His holy city and temple? Why is God’s love no longer evident? How can it be that “the city that was full of people” now “dwells alone” (Lamentations 1:1)?  Lamentations offers more questions than answers, but asking these questions is an important step in dealing with the theological crisis posed by the destruction of the Temple.

Ezra & Nehemiah

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the only completely historical books in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim (Writings). In English Bibles, they are usually split into two, with the book of Nehemiah appearing as a separate book from Ezra, but in the Hebrew tradition, they are one book, entitled "Ezra," and Nehemiah is simply the second part of Ezra. In this essay, the term "Ezra" is used to describe the complete book.

Parts of Ezra are written in Aramaic, which was the common language of the Middle East at the time (Ezra and Daniel, which is also partly in Aramaic, are the only books of the Hebrew Bible that are not completely in Hebrew). Ezra is chronologically the last historical book in the Hebrew Bible, covering the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth centuries B.C.E. It tells the narrative of the return to Zion.

What Was the Return to Zion?

At the end of the sixth century B.C.E., the kingdom of Judah was dismantled by the Babylonian empire. Jerusalem and the Temple (the Beit Hamikdash) were destroyed, and thousands of Judahites were exiled to Mesopotamia. Those who were exiled, however, did not see this as a final stage in Israel’s history. They were aware that Jeremiah had prophesied that there would be an exile, but there would also be a return (chapter 32, especially vv. 26-44).

The opportunity for that return came about in 538 B.C.E. The Babylonian empire fell, and the Persian empire gained control of Mesopotamia and most of the Middle East. One of the first rulers of the empire, Cyrus, sought to show tolerance to all of the communities in Mesopotamia. Cyrus issued a famous edict, narrated at the very beginning of the book of Ezra, allowing Jews who wished to return to "Jerusalem that is in Judah” and build a “House for the God of Heaven” to do so.

Three Stages, Two Main Issues

The book of Ezra tells of the three distinct stages in the return, and of the challenges and practical difficulties that the returnees faced at each stage. Not all the Jews in Mesopotamia were interested in returning to Zion. Those who did were fired by the hope of building a society which would restore Israel’s ancient glory.

The Book of Samuel

Samuel is the third book in the Neviim (Prophets), the second section in the Hebrew Bible. In English Bibles, the book is usually divided into First and Second Samuel, but in Jewish tradition, Samuel is one book. 

Samuel is both a historical and literary work. It begins with the leadership of the prophet Samuel, the last of the pre-monarchic rulers of Israel, and continues with the narratives of King Saul and King David. Most of the book focuses on the rise and fall of King David. Since there is no extra-biblical attestation for the events in the book, it is not considered “historical” by critical scholars. Nevertheless, the book records a critical period in Israelite history, the transition from charismatic leadership, with leaders appointed at times of need, to an established, dynastic monarchy, politically uniting the Israelites. 

book of samuel

Infant Samuel,
by Joshua Reynolds, 1723

It is clear from the archeological remains at Hazor and Gezer that a strong monarchy existed in Israel during the 10th century B.C.E. (the period corresponding to the reign of Solomon, son of David). The historicity of the Davidic house cannot reasonably be doubted since the discovery in 1993 of the Tel Dan inscription, which dates from 841 B.C.E. and mentions “[Ahaz]iah, king of the house of David.”

Appointing a King

Samuel portrays the inherent tension in Israelite monarchy–the tensions between obedience to God and practicality, between acting in accordance with moral imperatives and acting with political expediency. The first example of this appears in I Samuel 8, when the Israelites demand that Samuel appoint a king. The demand is anchored in practicality: “So that we too may be like all other nations, that our king may lead us and go before us and fight our wars” (8:20). Samuel had both practical objections to this plan (the king will abuse his taxation and expropriation powers) and objections of principle (“the Lord your God is your king,” I Samuel 12:12).

God orders Samuel to appoint Saul as king, but tension between obedience and political expediency erupts almost as soon as Saul is anointed. Saul’s principal task was to fight the Philistines, the coastal people who sought to conquer the territory of Israel in the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.E. Samuel ordered Saul to wait for him at Gilgal , so Samuel could offer a sacrifice before the war began (I Samuel 13:8-9). Saul waited seven days, but, watching the Israelites melt away day after day, he resolved to take matters into his own hands and offered the sacrifice himself. For this act of insubordination, Samuel says to Saul: “Your kingdom shall not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (13:14).

The Book of Kings: Religion Meets Geo-Politics, Ancient Style

Kings is the ninth book of the Hebrew Bible and the fourth book in the Prophets (Nevi’im), the second section of the Hebrew Bible. In most English Bibles, it is divided into First Kings and Second Kings, but this division is late. The division appears first in the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and only entered Jewish [bibles] with the printing of the Venice rabbinic Bible in 1517. In Jewish tradition, Kings is treated as one book.

Kings tells the story of the Kingdoms of Israel and of Judah from the beginning of King Solomon’s reign (roughly 960 B.C.E.) until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The first eleven chapters of Kings deal with Solomon. After Solomon’s death, the united monarchy of Israel split in two: ten of the tribes of Israel left the rule of Solomon, and established a rival kingdom in the North [the southern kingdom’s capital remained in Jerusalem]. 

king solomon

King Solomon, 1872 or 1874,
by Simeon Solomon.

The capital of the Northern kingdom, usually known as Israel, moved from Shechem (known in Arabic by the Roman name Nablus) to Tirzah to Samaria. Kings from different dynasties ruled over the Kingdom of Israel, with the longest lasting being the House of Omri (882 BCE-842BCE) and the House of Jehu (842-747 BCE). In the south, the tribe of Judah remained loyal to Solomon’s descendants, who continued to rule over what becomes the Kingdom of Judah until 586. The capital of Judah remained in Jerusalem.

Historical Data From Other Sources

The period that the book of Kings covers is rich in historical data from non-biblical sources.  Much of this data correlates with the data in the book of Kings and helps us to construct a cogent and well-sourced history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  From 858 BCE on, the neo-Assyrian empire had contact with the kings of Israel and later, with those of Judah as well.  Several of the kings of Israel (Ahab, Jehu, Joash, Menahem, Pekah, Hosea) and of Judah (Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh) are mentioned in the royal inscriptions of the neo-Assyrian kings.

The 12 Minor Prophets

The "Twelve Minor Prophets" is the eighth and last "book" in the second section of the Hebrew Bible, the Nevi’im, or Prophets. It is, as its name implies, not a unified whole but a collection of 12 independent books, by (at least) 12 different prophets.

"Minor" refers not to their importance but to their length: All were considered important enough to enter the Hebrew Bible, but none was long enough to form an independent book. One of these, Obadiah, is only a single chapter long, and the longest (Hosea and Zechariah) are each 14 chapters. They range in time from Hosea and Amos, both of whom date to the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. ,to parts of the books of Zechariah and Malachi, which are probably from the beginning of the fourth century B.C.E.

One theme that unifies the 12 prophets is Israel’s relationship with God. What does God demand of humans? How do historical events signify God’s word? These are questions that appear throughout Biblical prophecy. But nowhere in the Bible does a single book present as wide a variety of views on these subjects as does the collection of the Twelve Minor Prophets. Even within a single time period, there is a remarkable diversity of views.

Hosea and Amos

Both Hosea and Amos were composed in the second half of the eighth century, in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The king of Israel from approximately 790 to 750 B.C.E. was Jeroboam II (son of Joash), who built Israel into a wealthy trading empire by controlling the trade routes to Damascus on both sides of the Jordan. In response to this, Amos focused in his prophecies on the economic disparities created by Israel’s newfound wealth, criticizing the wealthy Israelites’ lack of concern for the fate of the poor. He castigated those who "lie on beds of ivory, sprawled on their couches, eating the fattest of sheep and cattle from the stalls who drink from wine bowls, and anoint themselves with the choicest oils, but are not concerned about the ruin of (the House of) Joseph." (Amos 6:4-6). ("Joseph" is one term used to refer to the Northern Kingdom.)

In contrast, Hosea focused on the theme of Israel’s loyalty to God. The new wealth and new openness to foreign trade created, in Hosea’s view, other forces threatening Israel’s exclusive loyalty to God. One such force is the influence of Assyria: "Ephraim (i.e. the Kingdom of Israel, centered around the inheritance of the tribe of Ephraim) went to Assyria and sent embassies to the "great king," but he cannot heal you, nor can he remove your hurt." (Hosea 5:13) Hosea describes God as longing for the day when Israel will declare "Let us return to God, for He attacked us but will heal us, smote us, but will bandage us…we will know, no, rather we will run quickly to know God" (Hosea 6:1-3).


The next of the Minor Prophets, working historically, was Micah, who prophesied at the end of the eighth century in Judah, the Southern Kingdom. He was active at the same time as Isaiah, whose prophecies are recorded in first part of the long Biblical book bearing this name. During this time period, the Assyrian empire threatened to conquer Judah, and here we encounter a difference of views and emphases between prophets of the same period. Micah was a practical and national thinker; Isaiah had a more universal vision. Whereas Isaiah’s vision of the End of Days is universal, ending with the famous sentence "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4), Micah adopts but changes this vision, adding two sentences that focus particularly on the nation of Judah: "Each man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make him afraid, for thus has the mouth of the Lord God of Hosts spoken. For though all the nations will go in the name of their individual god, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever" (Micah 4:4-5).

Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, & Zephaniah

The next of the Twelve Prophets are Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk (especially chapters 1-2) and Zephaniah, all of whom prophesied around the time of the destruction of Judah, at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries. Despite the fact that they all

prophesied in the same period, they hone in on different issues. Zephaniah refers to idolatry and corruption in Jerusalem, describing the punishment of the impending "day of the Lord" (Zephaniah 1:7). Nahum’s prophecy speaks about the fall of Nineveh,which was conquered by the Babylonians in 612 BCE. Habakkuk focused on the social injustice in Judah and announced its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. "Behold, I bring up upon you the Chaldeans (a term often used to refer to the tribes in southern Babylonia), a bitter and furious people, going to the ends of the earth to take over others’ habitations" (Habakkuk 1:6). Obadiah picks up the theme of the destruction, raging against the Edomites for despoiling Judah while the Babylonians destroyed the cities.

Haggai, Zechariah, & Malachi

The last group within the Twelve Prophets is Haggai, Zechariah (especially chapters 1-8), and Malachi, all of whom prophesy after the Babylonian exile. (The history of this period, when the second Temple was being rebuilt,is described in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.) Each of the three was preoccupied with a different issue. Haggai encouraged the people to rebuild the Temple, despite their grinding poverty. Zechariah (in chapters 1-8) focused on the theme of God choosing and desiring Israel: "Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, behold I come and I will dwell within you, says the Lord" (Zechariah 2:14). Malachi spoke about the social and religious problems of the return to Zion: neglect of sacrifices (Malachi 1:6-14) and intermarriage (Malachi 2:11-12).

The historical setting of several passages in the Twelve Prophets are debated: Scholars argue about the dating of Habakkuk 3 and Zechariah 9-14, and it is quite probable that Zechariah 9-14 were written earlier than the time of Zechariah. The dating of the entire book of Joel is also uncertain. Joel chapters 1-2 prophesy about a plague of locusts that would come upon the land, and urge the people to pray and repent. It is not clear if this refers to an actual plague or is a metaphor for an anticipated invasion of Judah.


One of the Twelve Prophets stands out as unconnected to any historical event. This is the book of Jonah, also the only one to deal solely with universal themes, rather than with Israel’s particular relationship with God. In chapters 1-2, Jonah attempts to escape from God’s Presence; through his interactions with the sailors in chapter 1, he comes to see God as the source of life, and to long for God. In chapters 3-4, Jonah confronts God’s policy of reward and punishment, and is forced to undergo the experience of losing something he needs. Through this lesson, God teaches Jonah that His love for humans is overarching and that God is therefore inclined to be merciful and to prefer repentance to punishment.

Biblical and Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Non-Jews

Biblical and rabbinic attitudes towards non-Jews were shaped by the tension between two central concepts in Jewish thought.

On one hand is the belief in a universal creation. The shared origin of all of humanity creates a bond among all people that implies equality and a concern for each other’s fate. On the other hand, there is a sense of Jewish particularism, a belief in Jewish distinctiveness and in the need to maintain an independent Jewish ethnic and religious identity. The creation of such an identity is only possible if boundaries between Jew and non-Jew exist.

Universal and Particular Laws in the Bible

This tension is evident in biblical law. Certain commandments apply equally to Jews and non-Jews. For example, the law in Genesis 9:6, “He who spills the blood of a human, by means of a human shall his blood be spilled” is not meant to be applied differently to Jews and non-Jews. It is a universal law and derives from the divine creation of humanity, not from the experience of God revealing Himself to the Jews at Sinai.

The justification for this commandment is in the continuation of the verse, “for in the image of God, did He make humans.” This verse sees all humans, without distinction between Jew and non-Jew, as “created in the image of God” and this principle is accepted as axiomatic throughout rabbinic literature.

Other commandments, however, are designed to apply only to Jews, because they are based on a sense of brotherhood implicit in the biblical conception of Israelite society. Thus, the prohibition on taking interest and the commandment “When your brother becomes poor and is sold to you, you shall not cause him to work the work of a slave” (Leviticus 25:39), apply only to Israelites.

Similarly, the laws, “you shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17) and “Do not act vengefully or bear a grudge against members of your nation, but love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:19) are based on a concept of “national mutuality.” Israelites are told to act toward each other as part of a larger family.