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With the arrival of the new pages of The Saint John's Bible, people are asking, "What is Historical Books, anyway?" Some of the more astute readers and scholars of the Bible are well aware of the drama and intrigue that plays out in the pages of Kings, Judges, Samuel and Esther (to name a few of the books contained in the collection). Others, however, will appreciate this month's article from Fr Michael Patella, Chair of The Committee on Illumination and Text and the acting director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, home of The Saint John’s Bible , which provides deeper insight into this powerful and important book. No matter your knowledge level, however, we all can appreciate the stunning new illuminations.  Enjoy!

Introduction to Historical Books
by Rev. Michael Patella, OSB

Of all the different genres comprising the Bible, no other collection has caused as much discomfort within the reader as the Historical Books. And with good reason. The wars and bloodshed their stories contain have inspired pious and holy people to the greatest extremes of intolerable behavior, all in the name of following God’s will. Parents, educators, and pastors find themselves in embarrassing conversations when children, students, or people of good faith observe such ruthless demands of a supposedly merciful God.


Elisha and the Five Miracles, Donald Jackson in collaboration with Aidan Hart, 2009.

While Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1and 2 Kings, Judith, or Esther have many off-putting stories, they also have their share of inspirational passages; moreover, works such as Ruth and Tobit are downright edifying and endearing. It is such a juxtaposition that can lead us to a greater understanding of God’s saving hand.

The Historical Books follow a trajectory, which goes beyond the Books themselves. From the opening of Joshua, into Judges, and on through the royal succession narratives described in the narratives of Samuel and Kings, this national history does not appear any different from the national history of any other conquering people. The story is told from the side of the winners at the expense of the losers, who are always demonized. Most likely, it is this slant, written by religious yet nationalistic editors, that most people today find so objectionable. A closer and studious reading of these texts, however, yields another set of findings. The winners, or God’s people, are not necessarily painted in the most glowing terms, and the neighboring peoples are not always presented as evil. Herein lies the key to the interpretation of the Historical Books.

Joshua and Judges certainly show the Israelites called by the Lord to annihilate all the other inhabitants of the land, but this theme shifts ever so slightly in the books of Samuel and Kings. In these works, the major sin of the very same people is their rampant disobedience of the Law of the Lord brought about by their forsaking the Covenant. In these later accounts, the people are chastised and punished for neglecting the well-being of the widow, orphan, and foreigner in their midst. In the case of the foreigner, the reader notices a change as the Historical Books progress. Whereas in Joshua, the sojourners are killed under the ban of the sword, in 1 and 2 Kings the Lord demands that the Israelites grant them their rights. We see Ezra commanding the Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives and disown their non-Jewish children, but we also hear of Ruth, a Moabite, who marries the Jewish man, Boaz, and becomes the grandmother of King David. Even the Maccabees stand as heroes for overthrowing their Greek oppressors, but then they turn and commit the same crimes with regard to the temple priesthood.

This shift in editorial direction offers the reader an entry point into the Historical Books. The history of the People of God is not a clean, perfect, or edifying one; it is fraught with inconsistencies ranging from abject cruelty to nobility of character. Rather than concluding that the hand of God in the lives of his people lacks justice and charity, we can see that the best of intentions of humankind can yield evil in the name of good and vice-versa. We can also see that this situation has not changed over the millennia; one look at the collective body of nations in addition to a hard gaze into our own individual souls should be enough to frighten the malodorous self-righteousness from our beings.

If we can glean anything from the Historical Books, let it be this: The history of God dealing with his people is not neat and tidy. Humankind, left to its own devices, can spiral downward into a moral abyss, even as we proclaim fidelity to the Lord. Because God has never wavered in his love for the people he has created, we have been spared the worst we could possibly do to ourselves and others. Furthermore, the grace of God’s justice and peace can rise from the most unlikely of places, and our Redemption is always close at hand.

Interested in learning more about Historical Books and the new illuminations?  We are posting new video clips weekly on our Facebook site that feature Tim Ternes, Director of The Saint John’s Bible, presenting and explaining some of the imagery behind the illuminations.  


  In This Issue

• Introduction to Historical Books

• Upcoming Exhibitions & Events

See the Bible

Print Exhibits

August 17 – September 30, 2009
Memphis Theological Seminary
Memphis, Tennessee

October 2- 11, 2009
Saint Martin's University
Lacey, Washington

October 2 - 22, 2009
United Methodist Church
Greenfield, Iowa


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