The story of King Josiah here is basically in agreement with 2 Kgs 22-23, at least as far as the macro structure is concerned. But, as usual, there are quite a few important deviations.

In the last chapter, King Amon was assassinated by his own subjects. If it had been an attempted coup on the dynasty, the conspiracy failed and Amon was avenged. Personally, though, I like to imagine that Amon (like Manasseh before him) was a challenge to the authority of the priests, diluting their control over the nation by allowing (and perhaps even encouraging) other faiths and forms of worship. In my headcanon, the priests orchestrated the assassination of Amon, then scapegoated the individual assassins and installed Amon’s son – an eight year old child they could keep under their direct influence for several years, at least – on the throne.

I’m finding some evidence for my little conspiracy theory in the first big deviation from the Kings account. See, in Kings, Josiah is just going about his business, ruling the country, until the 18th year od his reign when the priest Hilkiah happens to find the Book of the Law somewhere in a Temple cellar. When it is read to Josiah, he has a conversation experience and gets to work trying to purify the nation.

This order of events is just a little too perfect, and hints at revisionism and propaganda. Biblical scholars tend to assume that either Hilkiah or Josiah wrote (or commissioned) the Book the Law, and that the finding of an ancient text was merely to give it a sense of added authority.

Once we allow for this, the conversion narrative no longer makes much sense. Rather, we should see a pattern of reform leading up to the finding of the book (people rarely change their entire outlook through epiphanies, no matter how satisfying that narrative may be in conversion stories).

Here, however, we see Josiah hit the ground running. He is already seeking God in the 8th year of his reign (when he was 16, so perhaps the relevance here is that he began to seek God independently, as an adult – or near enough – with personal agency). A mere four years later, he begins a religious purging of Judah and Jerusalem.

Despite occurring several years earlier, the Chronicler’s account of the purge is similar to Kings. It’s the usual fare of removing high places, cutting down Asherim, and destroying graven and molten images – which he is said to have personally overseen.

In 2 Kgs 23:20, Josiah has the priests serving at these high places slaughtered over their altars, defiling the shrines. The Chronicler doesn’t mention this slaughter, but keeps the detail of turning the shrines and images into dust and sprinkling the dust over the graves of the people who had sacrificed to them – a difficult feat unless those people are dead, though the Chronicler does not credit Josiah with their deaths. In any case, sprinkling the ashes onto graves is another example of religious defilement.

The New Bible Commentary gives us an extra possible reason to believe the Chronicler’s order of events: “The main reason for the gradual introduction of the reformation was that it was political as well as religious. In Josiah’s 8th year (632 BC) Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria had just died. Failure to worship the Assyrian gods, and even more the removal of their symbols and altars from the Temple, would be regarded as a sign of rebellion. Josiah and his advisers evidently decided that they must act slowly to find out the repercussions” (p.393).

In other words, it may be that tearing down the altars that had been set up during vassalage to Assyria was an attempt at establishing independence.

There also seems to have been an expansionist (or revivalist) side to Josiah’s reforms. While not stated outright as an attempted conquest, we read that Josiah went out to the “ruins” (2 Chron. 34:6) of the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon, and even as far as Naphtali, destroying their altars and Asherim as well. While cast in religious terms, this seems like it could indicate a failed conquest attempt to re-establish what might have been seen as Israelites “traditional” borders.

Jeroboam’s shrine, which Josiah destroys in 2 Kgs 23:15, is never mentioned here. Presumably because the Chronicler just doesn’t see it as relevant as anything other than yet another idolatrous shrine, whereas the author of Kings seems to have been very concerned about its existence.

Temple Maintenance

By the 18th year of his reign, Josiah had succeeded in purging the territory under his control. After that, he set his sights on making repairs to the temple.

To accomplish this, he sent Shaphan son of Azaliah (the secretary), Maaseiah (the governor of Jerusalem), and Joah son of Joahaz (the recorder) to oversee the repairs. They approach the high priest, Hilkiah, and give him the money that had been collected for the Temple from Manasseh, Ephraim, all the remnants of Israel, Judah, Benjamin, and Jerusalem.

In 2 Kgs 22:3, only Shaphan is sent to Hilkiah, and the northern territories are not mentioned. Bringing them up here may be more historically accurate, if we assume that Josiah had, in fact, been leading a military/religious campaign in the northern territories. There may have been spoils even if he was unable to hold the lands. Another possibility is that this detail was included by the Chronicler as a sort of invitation to the northern territories, a message that it isn’t too late to cease being “in rebellion” against the true nation of Israel (2 Chron. 10:18).

The funds are delivered to the workmen in charge of repairing the house. In 2 Kings 22:7, Josiah instructs the officials not to do any accounting of the money given to the workmen because they are just so gosh darn honest. The Chronicler omits this detail, but does tell us that the workmen worked “faithfully” (2 Chron. 34:12). Either way, it seems that these contractors had excellent reputation. (I’m sure there’s a “my my, how things have changed” joke to be made, but that seems too easy.)

The workmen were under the oversight of Jahath and Obadiah, who were Levites. Meanwhile, all the musically-inclined Levites were in charge of overseeing the burden bearers. Others acted as scribes, officials, and gatekeepers.

The Book of Law

In Kings, the circumstances of finding the Book aren’t really explained. He just sort of casually brings up that, oh, by the way, he’s found this ancient book written by Moses. Here, however, the narrative is much more fluid – interesting, given that the finding of the Book seems to have been so much more narratively important and pivotal for the author of Kings, and yet…

According to the Chronicler, the Book was found in a storeroom as they were bringing out the money for the Temple repairs.

Of course, we don’t actually know what the Book is. We are told that it was written by Moses, suggesting that it may have been something from the Pentateuch. Given clues from Kings, the Book is often understood to have been a proto form of our book of Deuteronomy (and some commentaries go so far as to narrow it down to an early form of Deut. 12-16).

Conveniently, neither Kings nor Chronicles gives us any more information about it, such as when it was supposed to have been lost. Some commentaries argue that it may have been hidden away by the priests during Manasseh’s purges in 2 Kgs 21:16.

More likely, however, I think that the Book was commissioned or composed by either Josiah or Hilkiah (or both), as both would have had plenty of reason to do so. If the Book really is an early form of Deuteronomy, then the emphasis on the Jerusalem cult and the Temple may have been an attempt to hold on to power in rocky times. Given that Josiah’s predecessor was assassinated, we know that there must have been some amount of instability. And binding the worship of YHWH to the Temple would certainly have served the Temple priesthood (under Hilkiah’s authority) quite well.

But back to the story, both versions have Hilkiah tell Shaphan about the Book, and it is Shaphan who brings it to Josiah while making his report on the Temple’s repairs.

When Shaphan reads the Book out to Josiah, Josiah tears his clothes in grief and fear that God’s commands haven’t been followed. But just in case there’s been a mistake, he sends Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Abdon son of Micah (who is called Achbor son of Micaiah in 2 Kgs 22:12), Shaphan, and Asaiah the king’s servant to consult with God.

Hilkiah & co. go to Huldah the prophetess, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tokhath son of Hasrah (called Shallum son of Tikvah son of Harhas in 2 Kds 22:14), the keeper of the wardrobe.

For reasons that should be obvious, Huldah is an important figure for feminist scholars. Like Deborah and Miriam, she is a woman who was seen to have the authority to speak with God and on his behalf. Unfortunately, her prophecy also happens to be wrong.

Huldah tells Josiah’s servants that yes, God is really angry that Judah hasn’t been following his laws, and yes, he does intended to destroy them all. However, because Josiah has repented (which he has only done because he happened to have found the Book, which hardly seems fair to the rest of the nation), he will go to his grave in peace and won’t have to witness the coming evil.

Which, if we want to be really generous, can technically be considered correct, as he will die at the hands of the Egyptians, not the coming evil of Babylon. Also, since Josiah will be joining a battle between two other nations, neither of whom are at war directly with Judah, we can also argue that he will technically be going to his grave in a time of peace, even if he does so because of a fatal battle wound.

Josiah gathers up the leadership of Judah and assembles the congregation at the Temple. In the list of people gathered, 2 Chron. 34:30 replaces the “prophets” from 2 Kgs 23:2 with “Levites”. It’s an interesting choice. I could see him adding Levites, since he adds Levites all over the place, but why remove the prophets?

Two verses later, in 2 Chron. 34:32, he writes that Josiah makes “all who were present in Jerusalem and in Benjamin stand to [the book].” Why mention Benjamin specifically, but not Judah? It’s an odd detail.

In any case, once the people are assembled, Josiah reads the Book out to them and makes a renewed covenant.

On the importance of the Book of Law, Collins writes:

The long-term effects of the reform were more profound than anyone could have anticipated in 621 B.C.E. Less than a generation later, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed and the leading citizens were taken into exile in Babylon. The exiles in Babylon had to live without their temple, but they had “the book of the law,” which acquired new importance in this setting. Henceforth, Judaism would be to a great degree a religion of the book. Study of the law would take the place of sacrifice. The synagogue would gradually emerge as the place of worship, first for Jews outside the land of Israel, later even within Israel itself. These changes took place gradually, over centuries, but they had their origin in the Deuteronomic reform, which put a book at the center of religious observance for the first time. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.91)

Josiah’s Passover

In Kings, Josiah’s Passover is a really big deal. Here, however, it comes only a few short chapters after an extraordinarily similar Passover hosted under Hezekiah, and the effect is rather diluted.

Iosias sepultus in mausoleum patrum, by Salvador Dali, 1967

Iosias sepultus in mausoleum patrum, by Salvador Dali, 1967

In both accounts, we are told that “no passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet; none of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah” (2 Chron. 35:18, with a very similar passage in 2 Kgs 23:22-23). This is, of course, a problem because of Hezekiah, so why did the Chronicler keep the statement unmodified?

James Bradford Pate allows the possibility that it could have been an error, a careless copying of Kings, but points out the fact that the verse is not copied word-for-word (Kings says that a Passover of this kind had not been seen since the times of the judges, rather than the days of Samuel). It’s had to see what the Chronicler’s point was. 

I’ve seen some commentaries claim that Josiah may have invented the Passover as part of his reforms. Personally, I find that unlikely. It seems more probably that it was a local ceremony that Josiah brought to the national stage.

Tremendous quantities of lambs and bulls are slaughtered for the ceremony. Interestingly, they seem to have been offered as gifts, with Josiah giving the sacrificial animals to the common people, the princes giving them to the people and to the priests and Levites, the head honchoes of the Temple (Hilkiah, Zechariah, and Jehiel) giving them to the priests, and the Levite leadership giving them to the Levites. It’s unclear whether anyone had to bring sacrifices of their own to this “first” Passover, but it seems unlikely given the numbers involved.

Interestingly, though the Passover is so important to Kings, the author skips over it fairly quickly – giving us the whole account in 2 Kgs 23:21-23. Here, however, the Chronicler expands the narrative to describe the celebration itself, perhaps providing a model for the ceremony’s reinstatement in his own time.

The Chronicler describes the mass-splashings of blood, the flaying of carcases, and of course all priests and Levites stand around according to their divisions, as they always seem to be doing in Chronicles.

The Levites cook up the animals and distribute them out to the people. They also cook for themselves and for the priests, who were too busy slaughtering to cook for themselves.

Asking the important questions, Brant Clements wonders whether the Passover lambs were roasted or boiled: “The translations mostly say “roasted” though the Hebrew literally says “boiled with fire.” Exodus 12:8-9 said the lamb should be roasted. Deuteronomy 16:7 said boil it.” He recommends grilled and served with mint jelly, and I can’t help but agree.

When the Passover was over, they celebrated the feast of the unleaven bread for seven days.

During this time, Josiah told the Levites who were teaching around Israel and who had remained holy to God to return to the Temple (an offer they refuse in 2 Kgs 23:9). He also instructs them to return the ark to the Temple – a detail omitted by Kings. Josiah tells them that they needed carry the ark on their shoulders any more, so they can make themselves useful around the Temple.

And if you’re wondering why the ark wasn’t already in the Temple in the first place, so am I! Was it taken into hiding during Manasseh’s religious purge? The New Bible Commentary likes the idea that it might have been removed from the Temple temporarily for repairs (p.393), though I don’t see how that can be taken from the text. It also proposes that the text should read: “From the time that they placed the holy ark in the house which Solomon… [sic] built, you have had nothing to carry on your shoulders, so now serve the Lord your God and his people Israel” – which would no longer indicate that the ark was not in the Temple, but merely allude to how useless the Levites have been since they had charge of it.

My thinking is that the reference to the ark here may be an error, confusing it with the tabernacle that was left with Zadok at Gibeon in 1 Chron. 16:39-40. It could also be something entirely separate, another tribal ark that was in use in a local cult that Josiah was trying to consolidate with the national religion.

Fighting Egyptians

King Neco of Egypt – who is likely Neco II and for some reason not referred to as Pharaoh as he is in 2 Kgs 23 – went to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates. According to Wikipedia, the Egyptians were fighting against the Babylonians, in aid of their allies, the Assyrians. This may be significant if the New Bible Commentary‘s assertion that Josiah’s religious reforms may have been an opportunistic expression of independence from Assyrian control. It would certainly give us Josiah’s motive for getting involved.

According to my study Bible, Assyria had mostly fallen to Medes and Chaldea, and everyone in the area seemed to be taking advantage of its weakness. Certainly, the Assyria Wikipedia page describes something that might properly be called a ‘pile on’.

In 2 Kgs 23, he merely rushes in and his killed. The Chronicler, however, has Neco send Josiah an envoy, asking him why he is coming to fight when the conflict is none of his business. The Chronicler goes even further, having Neco say: “God has commanded me to make haste. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you” (2 Chron. 35:21).

So that’s a pretty big bomb to drop – why is God with the Egyptians? Why is God sending the Egyptians out to fight Babylonians? Why does Josiah go anyway, disguising himself to do so? Why did he “not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God” (2 Chron. 35:22)?

One possibility requires us to look ahead a bit, as the Babylonians will be the ones who destroy the Temple and take the Israelites into exile. Are we to infer, then, that God was sending Egypt up to hold the Babylonian’s back, to weaken them and prevent them from becoming the superpower they would soon become, in an attempt to spare Jerusalem? But then Josiah interfered and ruined the plan?

Or could it be as simple as the Chronicler trying to bend history into his ideology? The Chronicler has been clear throughout that obedience earns reward and disobedience earns punishment. This is never more clear than when it comes to battles, where Judah’s enemies are beaten by supernatural means, despite overwhelming numbers, again and again. To have Josiah simply fall in battle is too problematic, it doesn’t fit, therefore he must have done something for God not to be on his side. He had to disobey God in the end.

And for that, he was struck by archers and fatally wounded. His servants took him from his chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. The implication of 2 Chron. 35:23-24 is that he then died in Jerusalem, though 2 Kgs 23:29-30 seems to imply that it was his corpse that was brought home. That’s a fairly trivial detail, though, and both passages are rather open to interpretation.

When he died, Josiah was buried in the tomb of his fathers (as good kings are), and he was mourned by all of Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah uttered a lament for him (though the prophet isn’t mentioned in Kings), and singers have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day.

In all, Josiah ruled for 31 years. For the rest of his acts, the Chronicler sends us to the Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah. As with the rest of our recent kings, the Chronicler has failed to mention his mother’s name, though 2 Kgs 22:1 gives it as Jedidah, daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath.