The King Josiah story near the end of 2 Kings has always struck me as quite odd. It presents a good king just prior to Judah’s exile into Babylonia who does all the right things such as keeping the Passover and ridding the land of idols. But then he goes and gets himself killed in battle and his kingdom is taken off into captivity anyway. So what was the point of all his goodness?
I agree with Philip R. Davies’ reasons for reading the reforms of Josiah and the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Temple as ‘just so’ tale invented to strengthen the claims of a newly introduced Book of Deuteronomy as an authoritative document. (See ‘event 2’ discussed here. See also my reasons for not being persuaded by Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s account of a Josiah-led renaissance.) But this seems only to add to the difficulties of explaining why an author would allow God to let him die prematurely in battle.
Today I’ve begun catching up with James Richard Linville’s Israel in the Book of Kings: the Past as a Project of Social Identity, and one of the first sections to attract my attention was his discussion of the significance of the King Josiah story.
Linville sets both Josiah’s reforms and death in an intelligible literary and theological context.
Firstly, before Josiah appears on the scene the reader of 1-2 Kings knows that Judah is doomed to destruction and exile by Babylon just as the northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed and exiled by Assyria.
So the pious reforms of Josiah on the eve of this calamity do seem to be all in vain. Especially vexatious is his seemingly pointless death in battle after being so good for God.
But let’s think of Kings as being written at the time of the Persian province of Yehud (Judea) with the idea of the Babylonian exile and restoration in the back of the mind of both author and audience. This is Linville’s view, and in this he concurs with other scholars such as Philip R. Davies and Thomas L. Thompson. It is a time-frame and setting which meets both (a) the institutional and economic requirements for the support of a literary class who could write such a history, and (b) the awareness of a certain historical background that could inspire the literary themes of exile and restoration that we find throughout 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. (I’m shortcutting past the details here.)
What Josiah does with his religious reforms (or, as Linville prefers, his religious “purges”) and his pious ceremonies of reading the words of the covenant and the Passover observance is done for the sake of righteousness alone. It is done because it is the right thing to do. He knows, according to the words of the law and the words of the prophetess Huldah that doom is inevitable:
2 Kings 22:11-17
11 And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes.
12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Michaiah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asahiah a servant of the king’s, saying,
13 Go ye, enquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us.
14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asahiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, . . . .
15 And she said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me,
16 Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read:
17 Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched.
Josiah’s obedience to God is obedience for its own sake. He knows doom for past sins is inevitable.
Preparing for exile
But by this act of obedience in turning to follow the law and celebrate the Passover, Josiah is preparing his people for their inevitable exile. His “reforms” become a sign of hope. His people know their fate, but before it falls upon them they submit themselves to God. They are being prepared to be chastened and learn their lessons, to suffer the consequences of their past sins.
This turning to God at this point offers the reader hope and assurance that the people will learn humbly to obey God when they go into captivity. They will be prepared, therefore, to return in God’s time to establish the new “Israel”.
Unlike any other king, but like Moses
Josiah himself is even said to be like no other king in Israel.
2 Kings 23:25 And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.
That would seem to include David. The author appears to be asserting Josiah was even greater than David in righteousness. Indeed, there are indications that Josiah is compared with none other than Moses himself. Like Moses (and unlike any other king) he sent and enquired through a priest of God, as per Deuteronomy 17:8-12. The passage quoted above (23:25) delineates him as observing all the law of Moses. As per Deuteronomy 31:11 he is the only king to have read all of the law publicly.
And like Moses, he celebrates a pre-exilic Passover with his people. 2 Kings 23:21-23
21 And the king commanded all the people, saying, Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in the book of this covenant.
22 Surely there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah;
23 But in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, wherein this passover was holden to the LORD in Jerusalem.
This Passover is the closing bracket to his purging Judah of all the pagan worship. The opening bracket was the ceremony of his public reading the entire law. These bracketing celebrations set the purges in their theological context.
This is what Moses did just prior to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. That initial exodus sent the Israelites out into 40 years of trial and testing in the wilderness before they could enter their Promised Land. The exile to follow Josiah’s Passover is to result in 50 (or 70) years of trial as captives in Babylonia before their promised restoration.
And just as Moses was destined not to see the fulfilment of the positive promise (entry into the new land), so by inversion Josiah is mercifully destined not to see the fulfilment of the calamity to come upon his people with their exile.
2 Kings 22:18-20
18 But to the king of Judah which sent you to enquire of the LORD, thus shall ye say to him, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, As touching the words which thou hast heard;
19 Because thine heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the LORD, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard thee, saith the LORD.
20 Behold therefore, I will gather thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place. And they brought the king word again.
It surely sounds perverse, however, for God to tell Josiah that he would go to his grave in peace when in fact he had him slain by Pharoah at Megiddo.
Linville discusses many aspects to this. Does this refer specifically to his burial rather than to his death? Did Josiah sin in “going to Egypt” (the Hebrew in 2 Kings quite possibly means going peacefully to meet Pharaoh Necho? Is his death in some sense an expiation? Is it in some sense a martyrdom? Does it point to the lesson of his humanity? For all his greatness and obedience to God, God is still in charge and mortals can but humbly accept and submit to his dealings. Is the idea of finding “peace” being transformed by the author for a more spiritual meaning for his readers? That is, Josiah finds inner peace if not external peace for his kingdom and physical life? He has done the right thing and prepared his people for their exile.
I can go into details on this and other questions raised here at a future time (busy now preparing work and holiday matters).
Afterthought: Comparing Jesus’ death
This is not part of Linville’s discussion. It is only a thought that occurred to me subsequent to reading (really skimming — look forward to getting into the details in coming weeks) Linville’s section on Josiah. If Moses’ death prior to entering the Promised Land was a theme to be imitated by another writer, even if imitated by some inversion or transvaluation(?), is it not possible that such a theme (the death of a Moses-like saviour on the eve of salvation or preparatory to eventual salvation) was itself a subject of contemplation within the Jewish religious-literary culture, and possibly influenced the gospel myth of the crucifixion of Jesus? Was not his death seen as a preparatory gateway to entering the kingdom of God — after having prepared to some extent a people for that event?