Well, Chet gave us a good example — so good that I have to bump my next inspiration post.
The conflicting accounts of the death of Ahaziah is a good example of a genuine problem for inerrancy. The late Raymond Dillard, former OT prof at Westminster called it “one of the most difficult historical questions in the OT.” For those who want the scoop, I’ll let Dillard describe the problem:
The differences in the two accounts are in three areas: (1) Chronology: in 2 Kgs 10:12-14 the slaughter of the princes and officers of Judah is reported after the murder of Ahaziah, but in Chronicles, before. (2) Place of death: in 2 Kgs 9:27 Ahaziah is said to have fled wounded toward Ibleam and dies near Megiddo; in Chronicles he is found hiding in Samaria, brought to Jehu at an unnamed place and put to death. (3) Place of burial: in 2 Kgs 9:28 his body is taken to Jerusalem for burial in the City of David; Chronicles seems to imply that he was buried at the place of his death.
In a nutshell, no one has come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem. The Chronicler either has a different historical source for his version of Ahaziah’s death, one that is contradictory to 2 Kings, or he is deliberately departing from 2 Kings for some other reason.
If the former, then we have a clear error unless a coherent harmonization can be found, or unless a text-critical solution comes along (a manuscript divergence that solves the issues). Scholars have offered harmonizations. Dillard offers a summary:
Others have sought to harmonize the two accounts by essentially overlaying them something like this: Jehu went in search of Ahaziah [Chronicles]; Ahaziah had fled south from Jezreel to hide in Samaria [Chronicles]; he was brought to Jehu [Chronicles], fatally wounded near Ibleam [Kings], fled northwest toward Megiddo where he died [Kings]; his servants carried his body back to Jerusalem where they buried him [Kings].
While possible, this scenario has met with little acceptance, as it seems pretty forced. Dillard is a bit more tolerant toward the effort, while not embracing it:
[S]ome effort to ease the tension between the two texts should not be dismissed too quickly. (1) The Chronicler may have chronologically dislocated the death of Ahaziah’s relatives and servants in order to end his account on the note of the death of Ahaziah-no chronological point may be made by the narrative. Perhaps in an effort to draw parallels with Saul, the death of the family was reported before the death of the king himself (1 Chr 10:1-7). (2) Similarly, the specification of the place of burial may be assumed from the Kings account, in which case it would be wrong to infer that the Chronicler thought Ahaziah was buried in the North. The appeal to the righteousness of Jehoshaphat as a reason for the decent burial of Ahaziah would seem more natural if “they buried him” in Jerusalem (22:9).
Dillard doesn’t embrace this because the attempt cannot coherently account for part of the problem, the itinerary of Ahaziah’s flight before his death. This brings us to the latter of the two options noted above, that the Chronicler is departing from the text of 2 Kings for some deliberate purpose. I actually think this is a better tack to take, since there is precedent for the biblical writers to thumb their nose at historical precision for literary or theological purposes. That said, it doesn’t solve the bigger problem, which I’ll note in a moment.
Some have suggested that, since the Chronicler clearly writes with deliberate bias to put forth a theological agenda, this is another instance of that technique. Several scholars with no inerrancy axe to grind have proposed some possibilities as to why the Chronicler, who had the text of 2 Kings, would essentially ignore it or violate it. Dillard again summarizes:
It has commonly been the judgment of commentators that the Chronicler here followed some other source that is irreconcilable with the account in Kings (e.g., C-M, 421; Myers, 126; Rudolph, 269). Since the Chronicler does use his reports of the death and burial of kings to show approval or disapproval of their reigns (16:14; 21:19-20; 24:25; 25:27-28; 26:22-23), his account of the death of Ahaziah is associated with that Tendenz: the Chronicler does not report his burial in the City of David; rather he suffers the consequence of his association with the dynasty of Ahab by being captured in Samaria, executed, and apparently buried in the Northern Kingdom. Williamson (311-12), however, does not argue for another source: he suggests rather that the Chronicler presupposed his readers’ knowledge of the earlier account and rewrote that account to express a theological judgment of retributive justice rather than an alternative history; the readers of Chronicles could be expected to recognize the difference. (emphasis mine, MSH).
I boldfaced the portion above because it is important for understanding why the bias of the Chronicler in general shouldn’t be construed as giving us false history. If I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book called “A Feminist History of WW II,” I know I’m getting an incomplete history with historical analysis that will have a bias. I also know that everything in the book may still be true and accurate. It’s just incomplete and the “meaning” of the events are spun a certain way. I could look at how the author skips certain points and call that an error. I could also read places where the author gives me a reconstruction that is quite foreign to what I have read elsewhere. I know the author is sifting everything through a prepared filter. I have a certain expectation about the book, and that may keep me from thinking the author is just wrong. I know what the author is trying to do and I consider the material in that light. (Or not). Dillard’s quotation above says the same thing. The Chronicler’s readers had 2 Kings in their canon, and he knew that. The audience would have picked up on the Chronicler’s agenda quite readily since it was so transparent, but they would not have felt misled (“If we want the version that isn’t agenda-driven, we’ll read Kings”). They knew his theological point was to glorify the Davidic line so that their departure from David (the splitting of the kingdom away from the covenantal line) wouldn’t happen again, since it had disastrous results. They knew he was manipulating the material toward that end, and took it that way. Scholars of ancient historiography would also point out that ancient historians and their readers didn’t have the our sense of what history is supposed to look like, our modern sensitivity to having all the accounts match. (That isn’t my scholarly focus, so I’ll have to assume that those I’ve read in that regard are correct). And so, this approach says, essentially, “yep, the accounts differ, but the Chronicler had a reason for it that might escape us – or not, if any of the above proposals are on target.” Here’s the point: the divergence would be deliberate in this view, for some purpose recognizable to the original audience, and thus not an error, though it looks that way to us, who are 2500 years removed.
Now, let’s say this is the case. (I don’t know that it is or isn’t). Let’s say that such a thing as deliberate alteration of an earlier account for a theological purpose was an expected literary convention. Are readers 2500 years later still right for looking at this as an error? After all, one version could be “contrary to reality” as readers today expect it (sorry Ivan!). In short, does this solve anything, or is it yet another qualification we need to make so that such things are not construed as errors? I say that not because I think it’s cheesy to make such qualifications (if it was good enough for the original audience, I need to accept that, else I’d need to shut my mouth about contextualizing the Bible). I say it because errancy / inerrancy start to become very slippery things, which may beg the question of why we should even talk about the subject. I’ve come across some similar literary techniques that I know are “for real” in this regard since I’ve spent some time looking at them. A good friend of mine did his dissertation at Dallas Seminary on large numbers in the conquest accounts. He marshals a truckload of comparative Akkadian evidence that demonstrates that it was EXPECTED, as part of the genre of military conquest accounts, to deliberately inflate numbers so as to glorify the winning God. Readers knew the numbers weren’t actual, and they understood the larger point: “our god just kicked butt,” or “our army was huge and victorious because our god was with us” – that sort of thing. I could also point to instances in the Pentateuch where scholars who focus on its literary unity (as opposed to breaking it into sources) detect structural and thematic patterns in the text that require certain things be “out of place.” These are real, not items contrived by inerrantists. Is this what is going on in 2 Chronicles with Ahaziah? I don’t know. It might be, and it might not. I therefore file this one in the “may be an error, but I don’t know” file.
Taking the large numbers genre issue, the bias of the Chronicler, and the pre-scientific worldview together (and more could be added), we are faced with a question: Do these qualifications make a discussion about inerrancy meaningless? On one hand, it would be easy for someone to say, “Well, I’ll never find a real error for you if there are so many escape valves.” Someone else could say, “With so many legitimate qualifications to inerrancy, maybe it’s a useless topic – maybe the ancient biblical writers (and even God) just didn’t care about things that we, as modern readers tainted by Aristotle, Plato, the Enlightenment, empiricism, and other assorted intellectual forces that prompt us to want to label and package everything neatly think are important.”
No doubt we’ll have to hold that out as a possibility as we progress.