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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

King Josiah and the Great Reform in Judah

King Josiah (639–609 BCE) is one of the heroes of the editor of the book of Kings; he is depicted as a second David, who displayed loyalty to God as no other king had done before or afterward. Though he ruled at a time of major changes in the political map of the Near East, the biblical record speaks only tangentially of Josiah's position in the international arena; the focus is on his religious reforms and the renewal of the covenant between Judah and its God. Extrabiblical documentation, mostly from Babylonia, is not much more informative on affairs in distant Judah.

Even before the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BCE, dispute had broken out over the succession to the Assyrian throne pitting against one another several rival brothers and their supporters in the army. Babylonia seized the occasion of the king's passing, and under the leadership of the Chaldean Nabopolassar, rebelled and achieved independence. The Babylonian Chronicle records several failed Assyrian attempts to contain the loss. Within a decade, the once mighty empire had to be propped up by Egyptian aid, as the forces of Babylonia, now allied with the powerful Median army under Cyaxeres, carried the battles into the Assyrian heartland. In 614, the ancient religious capital Ashur fell, and in 612 the imperial capital Nineveh was overrun, its magnificent palaces and temples sacked and set ablaze in an act of fury and revenge. The Hellenistic historian Berossus adds a dramatic detail: Sin-shar-ishkun, the penultimate Assyrian king, “dismayed at this attack, burned himself together with his palace.” The Israelite prophet Nahum caught the mood of many who rejoiced over the empire's collapse when he intoned:

Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria; your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?

(Nahum 3.18–19 )

Though some of the army managed to escape to Haran in Syria and tried to regroup under Ashur-uballit, the last Assyrian monarch, Assyria effectively ceased to exist.

Given this picture of imperial dissolution, one wonders whether any of the territory of the Assyrian provinces in Israel was formally transferred to Josiah, as may have been the case with the Philistine city-states on the coast given over to Egyptian governance. Many historians have seen Josiah as reestablishing Israelite rule over most parts of territory of the former northern kingdom of Israel, though the extension of his rule beyond Judah cannot readily be established. Josiah did carry his reform measures into Bethel and the other cities of the province of Samerina at about the same time that Assyria was fighting for its life, but this need not have meant the formal annexation of Samerina to Judah. Often cited as relevant in this regard are discoveries at a site on the Mediterranean coast, Mesad Hashavyahu, just south of Yavneh. In this small fortress of some 6 dunams (1.5 acres), local as well as imported Greek pottery was excavated; a small number of ostraca in Hebrew were also recovered. One of these, a letter of fourteen lines, illuminates the administration of justice in everyday life: a complaint by the corvée worker Hoshayahu is submitted to his commander, in which he claims to have been wronged by his work supervisor, his cloak confiscated. While the ceramic styles and the Hebrew inscriptions fit the period of Josiah, drawing conclusions from them as to Josiah's control of the vital coast road and his engaging of Greek mercenaries in Judah's army is unwarranted. After all, the fate of Judah was dependent on Egypt's determination to assert its authority over the western kingdoms freed from Assyrian control, and Psammetichus was bent on just that.

It is more likely that an arrangement prevailed whereby the dominant Psammetichus, who himself employed Greek soldiers, permitted Josiah a sphere of influence in nonstrategic areas, while retaining overall authority for himself. This might well have included the frontier fortress of Arad in the eastern Negeb, where documents record the issue of rations to Kittiyim, a Hebrew term for Greeks. Throughout, the Egyptian army enjoyed unhampered movement on its way north to prop up the tottering Assyria until Josiah's final year.

During this turbulent period Josiah's home-front reputation was made. Jeremiah praised him as the dispenser of “justice and righteousness … [who] judged the cause of the poor and the needy” (Jer. 22.15–16 ), but it is the reform of Judah's worship that is most often associated with the king's name. Just from the amount of space given to the report of Josiah's reform activities in the book of Kings, one learns that in official circles Josiah was touted as the ideal Davidic king. What began as a routine royal duty, the repair of the Temple building, turned into a major milestone in Judah's history. One of the duties and prerogatives of ancient Near Eastern monarchs was the upkeep of temples and the maintenance of worship that took place in them, through gifts and dedications, notably after military victories. Inscriptions from as early as the third millennium BCE record such royal benefaction and voice the hope that reciprocal divine blessing will be showered upon the donor and his offspring. Josiah's initiative vis-à-vis the Temple of Jerusalem falls within the category of periodic repair and remodeling. But unlike the instances where the expenses were covered by royal donation, the present work was underwritten by public contributions specially earmarked for the purpose. This procedure was not new; King Jehoash (early eighth century BCE) is already credited with having instituted a regulation by which the repair funds were to be collected separately from the priestly revenues, then checked and distributed by a joint committee of two, the king's scribe and the high priest (2 Kings 12.7–17 ).

What distinguishes Josiah's enterprise is the reported discovery during the repair work in the Temple of a “book of law [Hebrew tôrâ],” which stimulated the movement for religious reform. Our sources depict Josiah as deeply moved by the message of the “book of law,” when it was read to him, that violators of Israel's covenant with God would be severely punished. After due consultation and encouragement from the prophetess Huldah, he convoked a kingdomwide assembly to renew the covenant between Judah and God based on the “law.” This commitment in hand, Josiah ordered a thoroughgoing purge of all non-Israelite forms of worship—the residue of centuries-long accommodation to foreign influence. Everything associated with these rituals was removed and burned, and the priests who attended them banned. And, like Hezekiah in his day, Josiah outlawed worship at the local shrines and high places, redirecting all ritual to the newly cleansed Temple; the priests who had served at the rural sites were accommodated in Jerusalem, though they were not granted equal status at the altar as the “book of law” stipulated (see Deut. 18.6–8 ).

Josiah also moved against the sites of worship in Samaria where, to his mind, aberrant Israelite ritual was practiced; of particular note is his dismantling the high place at Bethel constructed by Jeroboam at the time of the founding of the northern kingdom of Israel, a symbolic act of reprisal against the long-defunct rebel monarchy. To mark the completion of this year-long activity, the Passover was celebrated in Jerusalem as it had not been celebrated for generations.

A major difficulty in evaluating the foregoing description of the reform, which is based solely on biblical narrative, is the identity of the “law book” that stirred Josiah to action. The discovery of a law book in the Temple is not implausible, for as dwellings of the gods temples often became the repository of documents of state as well as of religious interest, their divine residents often being called on to defend and protect the agreements deposited with them. In the present instance, many identify the “book of law” with the biblical book of Deuteronomy or a significant part of it. The demand for centralization of worship at a single site and its purification from all foreign forms pervades Deuteronomic law. Deuteronomy 28's threats of frightening punishments for nonobservance of the law would surely spur a pious king to action. Furthermore, it is thought that Deuteronomy is not, as the book itself claims to be, a work of Mosaic origin, which supposedly had been secreted away during the dark years of Manasseh's rule. Rather, it was the ideological platform of the Josianic reform movement. Indeed, Deuteronomy is marked by a specific phraseology and rhetorical style in promoting a number of teachings, which distinguish it from the other books ascribed to Moses. It is hard to claim that Deuteronomy, as a pseudepigraph, was a wholly new creation of the late seventh century. Because it seems to include materials from an older age, the book of Deuteronomy might conceivably have been created by the reformers in anticipation of its “discovery.” It thus represents the first stage in the process of collection and canonization of Israelite law and tradition, which would culminate several centuries later under the direction of Ezra the scribe in the completed Torah that we know today. For certain, ascribing legal and sermonic material to Moses lent the reform program the justification needed to win vigorous royal support and public acceptance. King Josiah, with priests and prophets at his side, rallied the people of Judah behind the call for a renewal of the covenant, at a time when the kingdom was emerging from long years of Assyrian subjugation.

These days of glory on the home front did not stand him well on his day of reckoning, for Josiah met a sorrowful end. A single laconic sentence tells of his meeting at Megiddo the Egyptian pharaoh Neco II (610–595 BCE), who was rushing north with aid for Assyria, and of Josiah's being killed there (2 Kings 23.29 ). The circumstances behind this tragic encounter can in the main be reconstructed. The retreat of the Assyrians from Nineveh to Haran in 612 was followed by their ouster from that city two years later, despite continued Egyptian support, and for the next few years it was Egypt that thwarted the advance of Babylonia into the former Assyrian holdings in the west. These continuing Assyrian losses, as well as the death of the aged Psammetichus during the summer of 610, may have been interpreted by Josiah as a chance to advance Judean independence. At the same time, he may have reckoned that the future lay with Babylonia, and so sought to check further Egyptian moves. The modus vivendi that had marked Judah-Egypt relations for several decades became an open question now that the untried Neco sat on the throne.

The meeting at Megiddo did not end well; though a full-scale military encounter may not have taken place, Neco succeeded somehow in killing Josiah. From there, he hurried to his base camp on the Euphrates, where the combined Assyrian-Egyptian armies failed to retake Haran from the Babylonians. Meanwhile, the body of Josiah was returned to Jerusalem for burial. Tradition tells of a lament composed by the prophet Jeremiah in commemoration of the king's passing (2 Chron. 35.25 ) that, centuries later, was still recited as part of the standard liturgy, so enduring was the sense of great loss.

The true literary monument to Josiah, however, is the biblical book of Kings (in its first, preexilic edition). It was composed in Deuteronomic reform circles as the encomium for the king whose faithfulness to the “law of Moses” gave Israel a new lease on life. To prove that Josiah had indeed saved the nation from doom, the Deuteronomic author-editor of Kings surveyed the history of the monarchy from Solomon until his own day, judging each ruler on a simplistic, pragmatic scale: he did what was pleasing or displeasing to the Lord by observing the law of Moses. This author-editor utilized a number of sources in his work—palace and temple records, popular prophetic tales, perhaps even an earlier historical composition that used judgment formulas—and refers the reader to the “Book of the History of the Kings of Judah [or Israel]” for more detailed information on royal activities. While the audience for whom the editor of Kings wrote is unknown (perhaps it was the literati and official circles at court), the message of his synthesis of Israel's history is unmistakable. Disobedience and rebellion led to the inevitable punishment of Samaria, its destruction and exile; loyalty and a returning to the Lord as enjoined by Josiah spared Judah a similar fate.

Given such praise, it is proper to inquire after the immediate and long-range success of Josiah's reform, before pursuing Judah's political history after the Megiddo debacle. In truth, the evidence is meager and sometimes contradictory. The book of Kings is not helpful; its author reverts to the use of standard formulas and tells of Josiah's successors as behaving to the displeasure of the Lord without providing any details. Among the prophets who were active during the postreform decades, Jeremiah spoke out mostly against popular fetishes and forms of worship that he observed in his travels around Jerusalem. Only Ezekiel, from his place of exile in Babylonia, envisioned the Temple of Jerusalem as rife with idolatry, but his portrayal may have been based, at least in part, on a retroversion of the excesses of Manasseh's age. Thus, all that can be said with any assurance is that as long as Josiah reigned, his reform enjoyed wide support. With his death and the rapid decline in Judah's political fortunes, many Judeans seem to have adopted the stance quoted by the prophet—“The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land” (Ezek. 8.12 )—as an explanation for their worship of other deities.

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