This chapter is fairly short, but important. After Amon’s rather abrupt deposition, his son Josiah became the king of Judah. Josiah was eight years old at the time, and would reign for a total of thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Jadidah, and he was just wonderful.

It seems to have taken eighteen years before Josiah did anything worthy of note. This intrigued me because it seems that Josiah mirrors Jehoash in several ways. In both cases, they were installed as king while still children (Jehoash was seven, according to 2 Kings 11:21) after their predecessors were murdered. It feels like, unhappy with the current administration, the conspirators placed children on the throne in the hopes that they would be easier to control.

In both cases, years go by before we get any information about their deeds, and the first deed involves trying to make arrangements for temple repairs (23 years pass for Jehoash – 2 Kings 12:6 – and 18 for Josiah – 2 Kings 22:3). The wording of the two passages is nearly identical: In both cases, the kings request that money collected by the temple should be given to the workmen who are in charge of making repairs. In both cases, it is specified that the workmen need not present an accounting of their expenses, for they deal honestly (2 Kings 12:15; 2 Kings 22:7).

After this, however, the accounts diverge. In speaking with Hilkiah, the high priest, regarding these repairs, Josiah sent Shaphan, the secretary, as his go-between.

The Book of Law

The transition into the story of the book’s discovery is rather odd. It is implied that during Shaphan’s conversation with Hilkiah, Hilkiah mentions that he has found an old book of law in the temple. There’s no reason given for why it was found now, or why Hilkiah chooses this moment to bring it up (though I’ve seen suggestions that the book was found in the collections box).

La bible dévoilée, by Franck Dion, 2004

La bible dévoilée, by Franck Dion, 2004

Hilkiah gives this new/old book to Shaphan who, after reading it, rushes to present it to his king along with the report regarding the temple funds. He reads the new book to Josiah, at which point Josiah rends his clothes.

He sends Hilkiah (the high priest), Shaphan (the secretary), Ahikam (Shaphan’s son), Achbor, and Asaiah out to inquire of God about the contents of the book, because it is clear that Judah has definitely not be following them!

It is believed (largely based on the descriptions of the reforms as we get them in future chapters) that the “book of law” is some early form of Deuteronomy (my New Bible Commentary narrows it down to Deut. 12-16).

This, of course, raises a great many questions that the text so far does not help us resolve. If the book of law truly was old at the time of its “discovery,” what had happened to it? When had it been lost? (In trying to construct a possible narrative, I imagined that Manasseh might have forbidden writings of the YHWH cult during his apparent persecution of that group, possibly referenced in 2 Kings 21:16, and that perhaps a priest had hidden the book away where it could later be found by Hilkiah.)

Another possibility is that the book was written by Hilkiah himself (or at his command), then presented to the king as a foundling. Considering Deuteronomy’s emphasis on centralized worship (and the amount of power this would grant the high priest in Jerusalem), I don’t find this an unreasonable explanation.

Generally, though, it seems that Josiah himself is credited with writing (or commanding to be written) the book of law that would later become the basis of Deuteronomy.

Another detail in this story that fascinated me was that when Josiah’s representatives were sent out to consult with God, they appealed to a prophetess – Huldah, wife of Shallum, the keeper of the wardrobe.

Predictably, God is terribly furious that the Judahites have not been following the rules laid out in a book that they didn’t know about. However, because Josiah showed such remorse, he would go to his grave before seeing the terrible evil of God’s punishment come to pass. Not to spoil too much, but this is an odd prediction given that Josiah will die in battle in the next chapter (2 Kings 23:29). I’m seeing some argue that this portion, at least, of Huldah’s prophecy must be original, since it is false (sometimes presented along with the argument that the rest may be original too – though it talks predictively about a great evil falling upon Judah, given the political climate in the region at that time, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a contemporary giving such a warning). But would that, according to Deut. 18:21-22, make Huldah a false prophet? Or is her statement ambiguous enough that we can let her slip through?

I’d like to turn the final word over to Collins for a little historical context:

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)