« Reason and beliefA real campaign sign »

King Josiah's Book

When I walked away from Christianity one year ago, I didn't have all the answers. I continued to read and think and to remain open to evidence that I hadn't seen yet. I first looked at the New Testament and I tried to understand how it came to be and what it is if it's not the word of God. Recently, I've turned my attention to the Old Testament. I'm still not certain of any of this, but I think it's a plausible explanation for how the Old Testament was written and how the Jewish religion began.

I'm reading the Bible Unearthed by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein and they say that many parts of the first half of the Old Testament appear to have been written in the seventh century BCE. They base this on geography, writing style, archaeological finds and themes. I won't present his evidence here, but I think the book makes a convincing case. I would like to look at a few passages from the Bible itself and see if they fit in with this theory.

Let's begin in the seventh century BCE. The kingdom of Israel in the north has been conquered by a Assyria a few hundred years before. The king in Judah in the south is named Josiah. His small kingdom is beset by enemies on all sides. He's trying to bring together Judah and the parts of Israel that are not under tight Assyrian control. He is urgently trying to form a national identity for his people so that he can protect them and himself from his enemies (including Egypt, Moab, Ammon and Assyria). The religious climate at the beginning of Josiah's reign is thoroughly polytheistic. A cult of Yahweh exists, but only as one of many gods that the Judahites worshiped.

Most students of the Bible would agree with everything in that last paragraph. They would add that Judah had not always been polytheistic and there was a time when they worshiped only Yahweh and kept his festivals. But in reality, there's no good evidence for that. It is possible, and I think likely, that Judah had always been polytheistic. With that in mind, read 2 Chronicles 34. Ignore for the moment the fact that Josiah is destroying these religious practices, and try to read this as a description of the religion in Judah in the seventh century.

Asherah, wife of ElJudahites worshiped Asherah (wife of El), Baal, Molech (including human sacrifices), Ashtoreth and Chemosh. They also had mediums, spiritists and household gods. There were altars to these gods and Yahweh scattered around the region. What if this is not describing a temporary falling away, as the Bible claims, but as the normal state of things in Judah up to this point? What if Judah had always practiced polytheism just like the surrounding nations? If that was the case, then what happens next takes on a whole new meaning.

In 2 Kings 22 and in 2 Chronicles 34, a story is related of a priest renovating the Temple in Jerusalem and finding a book. The priest's name is Hilkiah, and he delivers the book to Josiah. Hilkiah and the King's men pay a visit to a prophetess named Huldah. Huldah confirms that the book is the ancient book of the Law of Yahweh and she delivers a prophecy in which Yahweh threatens to destroy Judah if they don't follow this book and cease the worship of all other gods.

The Bible contains two accounts of this story and they are very similar except for the order of events. In 2 Kings 22-23, the book is found first and the reformation is a result of that. In 2 Chronicles 34-35, Josiah begins the reformation toward monotheism and then he conveniently "finds" a lost book describing this religion. Then he produces an ominous prophecy to help convince the people to adopt the new national religion.

The order of events seems to make a big difference. I think that Josiah began the transition to monotheism for political reasons. By elevating Yahweh from the head of a pantheon to the one and only true God, he was able to consolidate religious power in his capital, Jerusalem, which was the one true location where Yahweh could be worshiped according to the new book. The book that his priests found, compiled or composed described a religion which tolerated no rival. If this book, as I suspect, also included at least parts of Genesis and Joshua, then it provided a historical reason for Judah and the remnant of Israel to unite and to fight their enemies with confidence and total devotion. It's not hard to see how "finding" a book like this would be a big help to Josiah.

With this theory in mind, I have revisited several familiar stories from the Old Testament and many of the stories fit in very well with the aims of King Josiah. For example, Ammon and Moab, two nations that Judah had often battled, are given an embarrassing origin myth in Genesis. After Abraham's nephew Lot narrowly escapes the destruction of Sodom, his daughters get him drunk enough to sleep with them. The sons born from these incestuous unions are the founders of the Ammonites and Moabites. Even if Genesis was a counterfeit used to consolidate power, you can't say that its authors didn't have a sense of humor.

But for Josiah's kingdom, the most relevant origin myth was the story of Jacob and his sons. In order to convince the various tribes around him but they were all really one nation with one God and one history, Josiah's book includes a story of a man with 12 sons. Each son has the same name as one of the tribes. And wouldn't you know, when that man dies in the story he tells his sons that Judah's descendants will rule over them. Josiah is from the tribe of Judah.

In the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, three of the brothers are portrayed positively. They are Joseph, Benjamin and Reuben. Look at this map showing the territories of the tribes and see if you can guess why Josiah might have wanted to make these three brothers the heroes. (Joseph was the father of two tribes named after his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.)

The tribes that descended from the heroes of the story are all clumped together on the map in the territories that Josiah would need to acquire first. Once again, the story seems to serve the political needs of King Josiah.

The story of the Exodus would have been useful to Josiah. Egypt was one of the most dangerous enemies of 7th century Judah. A scattered people needed to be convinced that they could defeat this empire. The story of the Exodus is an effort to do just that. It also provided a good backstory for the Yahwist festival known as Passover, which Josiah reinstituted.

The book even included a prophecy that predicted that a great and holy king will be born in Judah named . . . wait for it . . . Josiah! (1 Kings 13:2)

If the accounts in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles are correct, then Josiah went to great lengths to execute his plan. He rounded up the leaders of the newly banned cults, slaughtered them, then desecrated their altars. His clever stories and prophesies apparently didn't convince everyone, so some murder and terrorism let the people know that they should go along with this new religion or else.

Unfortunately for Josiah, his plan didn't work the way he expected. He was killed in a battle against Egypt and his religious reforms were quickly reversed. A few decades after his death, Josiah's version of Yahweh worship took on new meaning when Judah was conquered by Assyria then Babylonia. The Jewish religious leaders who were exiled or returning from exile may have rediscovered the book that Josiah's priests compiled. In their time the need for national identity was just as great, and they may have preserved and expanded the work of Josiah.

I'm not saying I'm certain that this is how it happened. This could just be a fanciful attempt to make the Bible fit into my worldview. But, as science and archaeology continue to point out inaccuracies in the Bible, explanations like this one become much more plausible.

With that disclaimer, I'll venture a little further into crackpot theory territory. Scholars usually think that the book of the law in the story was actually Deuteronomy. Other scholars, including Finkelstein, think that Deuteronomy - 2 Kings is all in the same style. My suspicion is that Josiah went to the temple of Yahweh, the top deity in the pantheon, and consulted with a priest, probably Hilkiah, about making the cult of Yahweh the only game in town. I doubt that one man could produce Genesis - 2 Kings, so Hilkiah probably worked with other priests to adapt existing stories and legends (see the documentary hypothesis) and craft new ones to serve the needs of the cult and the king. If Hilkiah was a literary genius, then it may have run in his family. The prophet Jeremiah, himself the author of two books of the Bible, had a father named Hilkiah and was supposed to have been alive during the reign of Josiah (Jeremiah 1:1, Jeremiah 35:25). Josiah, Hilkiah, Jeremiah, the other priests of Yahweh and the prophetess Huldah may have all worked together in a patriotic effort to bring their nation together and help it survive. Their work wasn't all original, but their retelling of the legends served to form a national identity that endured for centuries and provided a backdrop for several spin-off religions.

5 comments

Danny, if you will be looking at this topic further, I suggest taking a look at Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester L. Grabbe. (Review in PDF Form : http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/6271_6752.pdf )

Might be helpful.


Henry Imler [Visitor] • http://hundiejo.com08/15/08 @ 09:37

this is very interesting but i was looking for more info about king Josias’s allies, trade partners. i wonder if other nations respected this king. like Egypt for example. i am only a freshman in high school, so i cannot put out very literate things.

could help someone. i hope you might have an idea of who these people are.
just a passerbyer


Alex` [Visitor]• 10/23/08 @ 18:39

Interesting article however, you missed the point of what King Josiah had done. Because he tore his robe and wept in the realizaton, that they and their fathers had not obeyed judgement was eminent.
You state that Josiah’s plan didn’t work. It wasn’t Josiah’s plan. It was God’s Law that showed him what he had to do, and he did it with all his heart.
Furthermore, you state that it was a political move. Wrong! It was a heart move, swayed by the power of God! And God heard his cry, and in that he held back the judgement, Josiah would go to his fathers in peace, and he did. Sure enough right after his death the judgements started coming, which ended up being captivity into Babylon thereafter.
Confess Jesus as your Lord and Saviour today and be saved from what is to come. So you will live, truly live.


Greg [Visitor]  10/08/09 @ 08:44

There is nothing at all crackpot about your ideas, in fact I agree with them completely. And of course, if Jesus was really the “son of God” and almighty, then he would have known them all as myth, instead of quoting them as fact. I find that when I bring this subject up with Christians (like most of my family members are), they pretty much respond the way “Gene” did here, with vapid dogma. The historic truth is there for those who have the courage to seek it, and it’s not in Bulfinch’s Bible. It’s horrific to contemplate what Josiah’s lies have wrought over the thousands of years since. If there is any sort of “eternal damnation” for the truly deserving, then Josiah will burn there right next to Hitler. Amen.


Don Alex [Visitor]  http://subcin.com12/21/10 @ 14:32

One quick correction: I see that I misread the name of the dogmatist who posted just before me, his name is Greg, not Gene.


Don Alex [Visitor]  http://subcin.com12/21/10 @ 14:59

Leave a comment


Your email address will not be revealed on this site.
  
(For my next comment on this site)
(Allow users to contact me through a message form -- Your email will not be revealed!)