2 Chronicles 36: So This Is The End…

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In our final chapter, the Chronicler condenses material from the end of 2 Kgs 23 all the way through 2 Kgs 25. It almost feels like he’s tripping over himself to get to the end. To me, that suggests that the Chronicler’s focus lies earlier. But we can talk about that in my next post.

We open after Josiah’s death, when the people crown his 23-year-old son, Jehoahaz. Within three months, however, the Egyptians had deposed him and taken him back to Egypt as a captive. In his place, they set up Jehoahaz’s brother, Eliakim, whom they renamed Jehoiakim – perhaps choosing such a similar name in the hopes that no one would notice.

James Bradford Pate offers a discussion of these name changes. In particular, he notes that the names forced onto Israelites by foreign powers often seem to be honouring the Israelite God. In this case, he explains that Eliakim means “My God Raises”, while Jehoiakim means “The Lord Raises”. “The two names essentially mean the same thing, only the latter identifies God by his personal covenant name. The king of Egypt changed Eliakim’s name to a name that was devoutly Yahwist, Israelite, and similar in meaning to Eliakim.” Strange indeed, and you can see more of that discussion over in his blog post.

Jehoiakim was 25 years old when he was installed by the Egyptians, making him Josiah’s older son. So why had the people of the land installed a younger son in 2 Chron. 36:1? We may be getting a glimpse of at least two factions in the Israelite political landscape – perhaps one that favoured vassalage to Egypt and another that favoured independence. Perhaps it was the People’s Front of Judea that installed a younger, but more amenable, son as king.

The problem with this theory is that both kings are deemed to have done evil in both Chronicles and Kings. It seems that both authors would have liked a pro-independence king, so perhaps something else was going on.

In any case, Jehoiakim lasted a whole 11 years. During this time, Egypt’s power was waning while Babylon’s strength was rising again. This spelled trouble for the Egypt-installed Jehoiakim.

The Chronicler skips over the episode in 2 Kgs 24:1-2, where Nebuchadnezzar took control of Judah, keeping Jehoiakim has his puppet. After three years, Jehoiakim tried to rebel, leaving Judah open to attack from its neighbours (Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites are named).

Instead, we skip right to when Judah was attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, and Jehoiakim was taken to Babylon in fetters (along with many vessels taken from the Temple).

After Jehoiakim came his son, Jehoiachin (called Jehoiakin in Kings), who was only 8 years old (2 Chron. 36:9). Or maybe he was 18 (2 Kgs 24:8). If the Chronicler is correct, I wonder what people who believe in an “age of responsibility” make of it when the Chronicler judges him a bad king. More likely, though, the Chronicler typo’d.

In any case, Jehoiachin only lasted for 3 months and a handful of days before Nebuchadnezzar came after him, too. He, like his father, was taken to Babylon along with more loot from the Temple.

Incidentally, Jehoiachin’s career continued beyond his stint as king of Judah. In Lawrence Mykytiuk’s 50 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaelogically, we learn that Jehoiachin is mentioned:

in four Babylonian administrative tablets regarding oil rations or deliveries, during his exile in Babylonia (Raging Torrent, p. 209; ANEHST, pp. 386–387). Discovered at Babylon, they are dated from the tenth to the thirty-fifth year of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylonia and conqueror of Jerusalem. One tablet calls Jehoiachin “king” (Text Babylon 28122, obverse, line 29; ANET, p. 308). A second, fragmentary text mentions him as king in an immediate context that refers to “[. . . so]ns of the king of Judah” and “Judahites” (Text Babylon 28178, obverse, col. 2, lines 38–40; ANET, p. 308). The third tablet calls him “the son of the king of Judah” and refers to “the five sons of the king of Judah” (Text Babylon 28186, reverse, col. 2, lines 17–18; ANET, p. 308). The fourth text, the most fragmentary of all, confirms “Judah” and part of Jehoiachin’s name, but contributes no data that is not found in the other texts.

This seems to indicate that Jehoiachin lived to be at least 45 years old, with much of his life in Babylonian captivity.

The Final King

After tucking Jehoiachin safely away, Nebuchadnezzar appointed his brother (2 Chron. 36:10), or perhaps his uncle (2 Kgs 24:17) as king in his place.

He was only 21 years old and, like his father or brother, he lasted 11 years. Unfortunately, he failed to humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah, and we all know what that means.

Though the Chronicler doesn’t bother to mention it, it seems that the new king, Zedekiah, was also named by the foreign ruler who installed him (2 Kgs 24:17 gives his original name as Mattaniah). James Bradford Pate gives the meaning of Zedekiah as “Yah is righteous”. He will later be punished for rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar, so Pate wonders if perhaps the Babylonian king had given him that name in the “hope that the LORD would righteously punish Zedekiah if Zedekiah rebels.” Or, at the very least, that Zedekiah would believe that. Nebuchadnezzar needn’t believe it himself.

What’s really interesting about this is that the Chronicler also charged Zedekiah with rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar – which he deems bad because Nebuchadnezzar had made him swear fealty by God. So even though the Chronicler seems very much against dealings with foreign powers, that seems to be trumped by his feelings against breaking an oath made by invoking God. And suddenly, his name becomes very salient.

From about this point on, the author of Kings provides precise date references – down to the very day – for every event. The Chronicler has kept none of these.

The Exile of Babylon, by Marie Odile de Laforcade

The Exile of Babylon, by Marie Odile de Laforcade

Zedekiah’s sins are many, and under his leadership the people were all exceedingly awful. The “leading priests” (2 Chron. 36:14) are included in this group, which I found rather interesting. Why only the leading priests, while the rest of the people are dismissed en masse? My best guess is that this is another example of the Chronicler’s favouritism – notice that only the leading priests are mentioned, not the Levites and not the musicians?

God kept sending prophets to warn the Israelites, because he had so much compassion and hoped that they would turn back from their terrible doings. But they mocked the prophets, and they polluted the Temple, and God just got angrier and angrier.

In the end, he sent the “king of the Chaldeans” (2 Chron. 36:17) after them.

By this point in Kings, the author had been using the term Babylonian and Chaldean interchangeably. The Chaldeans, you see, had taken control of babylon during the Neo-Babylonian era, founding the dynasty that had produced Nebuchadnezzar. So, technically, both terms might apply.

When the Chaldeans/Babylonians come, they slay the young men with swords – even in the Temple! The Chronicler tells us that they had no compassion whatsoever for the Israelites – not even the young or the old, man or woman. This sounds just awful, but lacks the gruesome details of 2 Kgs 25, in which Zedekiah is blinded after being forced to watch his sons killed, so that their deaths are the last thing he ever sees.

Nebuchadnezzar then takes vessels from the Temple (again??), as well as all the other treasures from both Temple and palace. He took the princes of Israel captive to Babylon and had Jerusalem’s walls, palaces, and Temple torn down and burned.

Anyone who survived the assault was taken in servitude to Babylon, where they remained captive until the rise of Persia. All of this, we are told, was in fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, and so the land kept its Sabbath (apparently referring to sabbatical years, as per Deut. 15 and Lev. 25:1-7, where the land is left fallow) for 70 years.

This is called the “Myth of an Empty Land” – the idea that Israel just sat there, empty, waiting for the return of its people. Claude Mariottini discusses the myth in some more detail in a blog post, and Victor Matthews writes, in Manners & Customs of the Bible, that the myth is “reflected in the later disputes between the returning exiles and the Samaritans, and other “peoples of the land”” (p.138).

The impression is also in direct conflict with the account in Kings, in which we are specifically told that the poorest were left behind to tend the land (2 Kgs 25:12).

To Be Continued

The Chronicler doesn’t bother mentioning the ill-fated Babylonian governor, Gedaliah.

Instead, we end on a high note, skipping right to King Cyrus of Persia, whose spirit was stirred by God in his first year to allow the Israelites to return and to commission the building of a second Temple.

According to my study Bible, these last few verses are almost identical to the first few of the book of Ezra. It may be that they were once a single book, and the repetition was a way of indicating that the story doesn’t end here. My study Bible also proposes that, since 2 Chronicles is the final book of the Hebrew Old Testament, the words were added here by a later editor “so that the Old Testament would not end on a note of doom.”

Kings tried something similar by ending with Jehoiachin – in Babylon but freed from captivity, as if to hint at a hope for a renewed Davidic dynasty.

2 Chronicles 34-35: Josiah the Reformer

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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.

2 Kings 23: To Little, Too Late

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This chapter mostly focuses on Josiah’s rather violent religious reforms. But first, he gathers all the people together at the temple to read out his new Book of Law, and to reconsecrate Judah under the covenant.

The reforms themselves are everything we’ve come to expect. Altars to other gods (and astral bodies) are destroyed, Asherah are burned, priests are murdered.

One thing that stands out is the length to which Josiah goes, not just to destroy non-approved shrines, but to totally desecrate them. He murders priests over their altars, burning their bones there in mock sacrifice. He cuts down the Asherim and fills the holes with human bones. He burns religious objects and spreads the ashes “upon the graves of the common people” (2 Kings 23:6).

Amidst all of that, there is a mention of priests that I believe refers to priests of YHWH serving at local shrines. These, Josiah seems to invite to serve in Jerusalem, but they refuse to come. Even so, however, they “ate unleavened bread among their brethren” (2 Kings 23:9). In trying to make sense of this, my New Bible Commentary suggests that we may interpret this to mean that “these priests were admitted to the sacred meal but were not allowed to sacrifice” (p.366). However, the impression I got was that it was the priests who refused Josiah’s reforms, rather than that they were barred from participating. It is, without a doubt, a difficult passage to make sense of.

A final act worth mentioning is Josiah’s destruction of Jeroboam’s shrine at Bethel, which has been causing so much hand-wringing through our narrative. Just to be an extra jerk about it, he digs up corpses from nearby tombs and burns them on Jeroboam’s altar to defile it.

As he’s looking for more bodies to defile altars, Josiah comes upon a particular monument and asks the locals about it. They tell him that it’s the tomb of a Judahite prophet who had predicted what Josiah is currently doing to the Bethel shrine. This sounds an awful lot like the unnamed prophet from 1 Kings 13.

I had pointed out at the time that the chapter had a very “folk myth” feel to it. In it, the unnamed prophet tells Jeroboam that his altar will someday be destroyed by a Davidic king named Josiah. Jeroboam, furious, raises his hand to command that the prophet be arrested. This hand withers, until the prophet takes pity on Jeroboam and restores it.

I noted that the story was very out of place among the histories. In particular, the fact that such a specific prophecy was made, yet had no impact on any of the named characters (despite the fact that Jeroboam witnessed a very specific and very powerful miracle) strongly suggests that it was added to the record of Jeroboam’s reign, probably after the fact. Given the explicit mention of Josiah, it seems likely that one of Josiah’s supporters either wrote the story from whole cloth, or adapted some local folk tradition for propagandic purposes. As Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic puts it, the prophecy is “suspiciously specific.”

Finding some measure of respect for the dead – or, at least, this dead – Josiah commands that this tomb remain unmolested, along with the bones of another prophet, this one from Samaria. Again, this second prophet is not identified. My study Bible suggests that the mention of Samaria “is probably an error for Bethel,” perhaps suggesting that there is some special grave for local prophets. However, I saw it as a reference to the Israelite prophet mentioned later on in 1 Kings 13 (though I’m not sure why Josiah should preserve that grave).

While our narrative talks about destroying, burning, and grinding up ashes, Victor Matthews suggests that perhaps Josiah wasn’t quite as thorough as he’d like us to think:

Archaeological findings from this period include fragments of a horned altar found incorporated into a wall at Arad. That the altar was dismantled and used in the construction of a non-sacred structure suggests an attempt to eliminate sacrificial activity at Arad. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.98)

Back in Jerusalem, Josiah enacts one final reform: the “restitution” of the Passover celebration. I use scare quotes because it’s not really clear what the history of the celebration is. I’ve seen some commenters suggest that Josiah invented the practice, which I personally find unlikely. The narrative itself claims that it was done up until the days of the judges, and then not again until now (in Josiah’s 18th year). Personally, I find it likely that it was a local festival that perhaps had been celebrated for quite a while, and that Josiah simply made part of the centralized/orthodox version of the YHWH cult that he was trying to create.

But not all was well

Josiah was a wonderful king, and close to God’s heart. In fact, there had never been and never will be a king who gave himself so entirely over to God. But, unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. God had already decided to erase Judah, and to cast away the city and temple he had chosen for himself, mostly because of that big baddie Manasseh. It’s hard not to read this account as personal.

Despite the prophecy in 2 Kings 22:20, there is war. Although Josiah seems to have brought his fate on himself.

The narrative tells us that Neco, pharaoh of Egypt, went to the king of Assyria. At this time, Josiah decided to meet the pharaoh at Megiddo, where their armies clash and Josiah is killed.

A small kneeling bronze statuette, likely Necho II, now residing in the Brooklyn Museum

A small kneeling bronze statuette, likely Necho II, now residing in the Brooklyn Museum

My study Bible helps to fill in the details, explaining that Assyria had mostly fallen to Medes and Chaldea (though it seems that nearly everyone in the area was taking advantage of Assyria’s weakness – the Wikipedia page describes something of a pile-on), but was still fighting to survive. Egypt, Assyria’s ally at that time, may have been moving to help fight some other enemy. Since Judah had so recently been a vassal state (or perhaps still was), it would have made sense for them to join the fray in the hopes of further weakening Assyria, and perhaps scooping up some of its lands.

In any case, it appears to have been the wrong choice, and Josiah’s corpse was brought back to Jerusalem in a chariot for burial.

With Josiah dead, the people raise his son, Jehoahaz, to succeed him. Jehoahaz, son of Hamutal, was 23 years old at the time, and lasted a mere 3 months. He was deposed by Pharaoh Neco, imprisoned, then died in Egypt.

Neco installed a successor of his own choosing: Josiah’s other son, Eliakim (whom the Pharaoh renames Jehoiakim). The condition of Jehoiakim’s rule appears to have been vassalage, and the new king of Judah pays a tribute to Egypt.

Jehoiakim was 25 years old and the son of Zebidah. He lasted 11 years. Both sons are described as evil, though it’s difficult to imagine how Jehoahaz had the time to prove himself such.

There are a few tantalizing hints here as to Judah’s political landscape. Perhaps the biggest is that Jehoahaz, who was appointed by the people, was the younger of Josiah’s two sons. For whatever reason, the Judahites decided to forego the tradition of primogeniture to give him the crown.

Perhaps the fact that Egypt crowned Jehoiakim can give us a clue. It may be reasonable to assume that Jehoiakim had expressed a desire to give in to Egypt, whereas Jehoahaz was in favour of resistance. We may be seeing a glimpse, then, of competing factions within Judah. The fact that the narrative condemns both as evil complicates matters, and I’m really not sure what to make of that.

In any case, we are clearly approaching the fall of Judah.