The prophets Amos and Hosea proclaimed their message of justice and love to the northern kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BCE. Their challenging words went unheeded, and within just a few years of their ministries, Israel lay in rubble, rubbed out of existence by the Assyrian sword.
A contemporary of theirs in the southern kingdom of Judah, the prophet Isaiah, met with more success. King Hezekiah is portrayed as having been responsive to the prophet. The story told in both the book of Isaiah and the book of Kings tells how Hezekiah’s attentiveness to the prophet’s guidance helped Judah to survive the onslaught of the Assyrians. Hezekiah is one of only two kings to receive praise from the author of Kings – “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3).
However, the kings that followed moved further and further from God’s will according to 2 Kings – moving further and further from the directives of Torah. Hezekiah’s son Manasseh might have been the worst of all Judah’s kings: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:3).
Manasseh’s son Amon succeeded him, continuing in his father’s unfaithfulness – but not for long, for assassins ended his life in the second year of his reign. Amon’s son Josiah, the “boy king” took the throne at the age of eight. Josiah received the same praise from the author of Kings as did Hezekiah. “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 22:2) during his 31 years in power. However, his life ended before his reforms were fully implemented. Within a few short years after Josiah’s death, Judah met the same fate as Israel had a century earlier.
This story of King Josiah fascinates – how he acted faithfully to bring about reform in Israel, leading the people back to God. But, while still in his prime, only 39 years old, Josiah is killed. What started out as a happy story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Under Josiah’s leadership, the Israelites rediscover God’s law. They had been disregarding God’s laws for many generations. The Israelites seek to return to God’s ways. Josiah institutes major reforms. Josiah leads a turning of the tide away from injustice and exploitation and idolatry – and toward faithfulness and genuine worship. But this happy story does not have a happy ending. Josiah is killed. He is only 39 years old. His reforms are abandoned. In a few years, the nation is wiped out.
However, even with the failure of Josiah’s reforms, which signal, in actuality, the failure of Israel’s nationhood and loss of the promise land, even with the fall of Israel, God’s healing strategy continues.
Josiah’s grandfather, King Manasseh, probably the worst king Israel ever had, held power for fifty-five years. With his reign, it appeared as if the nation was doomed.
Manasseh’s son Amon also did evil in God’s sight. “He abandoned the Lord, the God of his ancestors and did not walk in the way of the Lord” (21:21). Violence erupts, though, and Amon is assasinated by his servants. These servants, in turn, are also killed. After all this chaos, though, something new emerges.
Eight-year-old Josiah, Amon’s son, is placed on the throne. Within only a few years, he exerts his influence. King Josiah goes a different route altogether from his father and grandfather. Josiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (22:2). The author of the book of Kings considers Josiah, along with Hezekiah, as the greatest of Israel’s kings, except maybe for David.
Josiah makes huge changes for the good. The catalyst for the changes turned out to be the discovery of the book of the law in the temple by the high priest Hilkiah. The priests read the laws to Josiah. “When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded” several leading priests to “go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (2 Kings 22:11-13).
One way of reading the story of the ancient Israelite nation-states, both Israel and Judah, is to see an almost systematic departure from the core values expressed in Torah for the social ordering of Israel as a contrast society to Empire.
Rather than genuine social justice that fosters health and well-being for all members of the community and rejects social stratification and dispossession of the poor and weak, the nation-states increased the division between the rich and poor, the powerful and the marginalized.
Rather than true worship of Yahweh as the one true God, the nation-states increased the worship of the gods of the nations, going back to Solomon’s apostasy in 1 Kings 11:5, “Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonnites.”
Rather than decentralized power dynamics and an avoidance of militarization of the society, the nation-states created standing armies, the collection of horses and chariots (weapons of war), and a military class of generals and war-makers that dominated political life.
So, the rediscovery of the law book in the time of Josiah, after generations of forgetfulness in relation to Torah, triggered a major identity crisis. Are we truly who we say we are, people of Yahweh? If so, why have we so disregarded these words from Yahweh that were meant to shape our community life as people in a covenant relationship with Yahweh? To his enormous credit, Josiah led the people is seeking to take the law book seriously and return to its main teachings.
When the book of the law is rediscovered in the temple, Josiah responds with repentance. He seeks to reshape Israel according to God’s commandments. This “book of the law” was probably a version of the book of Deuteronomy. Perhaps it had been stashed away by King Manasseh, who hoped that it would be forgotten, who hoped that the Lord would be forgotten. But under Josiah, the Lord’s will for the people is remembered.
Josiah leads a great reformation. “The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went…the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant” (23:2-3).
They sought to live out of this renewed covenant. The account of Josiah’s work reaches its climax with the celebration of the Passover. “No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel” (23:22). Josiah was more faithful, in this way at least, than any of Israel’s kings—even David. The story concludes: “Before [Josiah] there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (23:25).
With almost shocking brevity, we go on to read how the hopefulness of ancient Israel was shattered. “In [Josiah’s] days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him; but when Pharaoh Neco met [Josiah] at Megiddo, [Neco] killed [Josiah]. [Josiah’s] servants carried him dead in a chariot from Megiddo, brought him to Jerusalem, and buried him in his own tomb” (23:29-30).
Nothing more is said, not even a eulogy. Probably no other single event in ancient Israel had such devastating results. We go on to read of the final destruction of the Israelite state. The kings who followed Josiah abandoned his reforms. Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, becomes king next. We read: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done” (23:37).
Why didn’t Josiah’s repentance and reformation “work”?
The main reason that is mentioned in 2 Kings, is that the Lord is still angry with Israel over the sins of King Manasseh. In a sense, the evil of Manasseh overwhelmed the obedience of Josiah. That’s a challenging idea. Sometimes repentance isn’t enough. No matter how faithful Josiah was, things didn’t work out.
Josiah’s reformation didn’t turn the tide because the real world does not always lend itself to a simple faithfulness/reward dynamic. The real world is not simply a cause-and-effect place where good deeds are always repaid with good and evil deeds are always repaid with evil.
King Josiah did his utmost to turn the tide in Israel. He sought to serve God and is reported to have been the most faithful, the most obedient king Israel ever had. But things still didn’t work out. The generations of avoiding Torah could not be turned around overnight. The fact that Josiah’s death effectively ended the reform efforts indicates that the soul of Judah had remained averse to Torah obedience.
Josiah’s legacy remains extremely important for the biblical tradition, nonetheless. He shows that people in power always have the potential of perceiving the truthfulness of Yahweh’s call for faithfulness to God’s will above political expediency. In what the story portrays as a social context shaped profoundly by generations of corrupt practices, Josiah’s commitment to returning to Torah nonetheless gained significant traction.
In the long run, the crucial aspect of this story may be seen in the timely recovery of Torah just as the nation-state phase of ancient Israel’s communal life neared its end. Josiah’s reforms could not cut deep enough to stem the momentum toward destruction. However, this effort at reform, based on the recovered law book, gave the community what proved to be an absolutely essential resource for their long-term sustenance.
Josiah’s protégé, Jeremiah, served as a crucial bridge, keeping the Torah vision alive in the generation that followed and faced pure chaos and trauma at the hands of the Babylonian empire. When the Judean nation-state was reduced to rubble, along with Solomon’s temple and the king’s palace, and the Israelites’ leadership class was sent into exile, Jeremiah’s prophetic message and the written law book kept the awareness of Yahweh alive.
As it turned out, Josiah’s model – a powerful king seeking to impose faithfulness from the top down – was the last gasp of the old model. The survival of the promise embodied in the covenant community could no longer depend on kings and nation-states. However, Josiah had identified the resource that would ensure this survival – without a king.
The words of the law book provided the orienting core for the community as it struggled to remain in existence. The interpretation and application of Torah has continued to be a major point of contention down to our present day. One of the tensions has been (and continues to be) two at times contradictory impulses – Torah providing a vision of promise for genuine justice and love for the healing of all the families of the earth and Torah providing resources for the internal stability and continuation of the community. However, what seems clear amidst this on-going tension has the power of Torah to provide a focus of the identity for the continuation of the community first established with Abraham and Sarah.
The story of ancient Israel as a nation-state tells of how close traveling the path of politics-like-the-nations came to the ending of this community. However, with the providential recovering of the community’s founding document in the nick of time, the community found the resources to continue. This story makes clear that it is in spite of horses and chariots, in spite of centralized coercive state power, in spite of religious institutionalization that serves the power elite, that the people of the promise continue.