The Death of King Josiah by Antonio Zanchi c. 1660. Wikimedia.
A sufficiently imaginative historian might conjure up a mischievous collector who, holding under the earth all the artifacts of the past, every now and then selects one to toss up into the dirt and confound some eager archaeologist. For who could imagine that, out of a religious revolution 2,700 years ago that changed Israelite history, we would find nothing of the king behind it and yet suddenly retrieve from the dirt the seal of one of his officials, mentioned but once in the Bible?
That remarkable find, discovered in Jerusalem last March, reads: l’Natan-melekh eved ha-melekh, or “to Natan-Melekh, the king’s servant.” The “king” with whom this man is mentioned is arguably the most admirable monarch in Jewish history—the ruler who, among other feats, “took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the Lord, by the chamber of Natan-Melekh the officer, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire” (2Kings 23:11).
That the mention of Natan-Melekh occurs in a verse about destroying idols is no coincidence. He served a king who both changed Israel and restored it. This royal figure, despite being raised in conditions of turmoil and impiety, displayed a reforming zeal that would leave a permanent stamp on Judaism and whose contribution to our ideas about Israelite kingship, the messiah, and the place of Torah put him on a par with no lesser figures than Ezra and even David.
His name was Josiah, and his story is told in the book of Kings and repeated with some variations in the book of Chronicles. He reigned from roughly 640 to 609 BCE.
To understand Josiah, one must first know something about both his immediate and his distant forebears.
After the death of David’s son Solomon, the Israelite commonwealth split into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. The latter, known simply as Judah, continued to be ruled by David’s descendants, who in general were wicked and idolatrous but—according to the author of Kings—not usually so wicked as their northern counterparts.
No such redeeming quality, however, is applied to Menasseh, Josiah’s grandfather, who built altars to pagan gods, even placing some in the Temple itself, and who “shed innocent blood in great abundance.” And yet, much as we might expect the Bible to assure us that wicked kings would be cut down before their prime, Menasseh reigned for an impressive 55 years. What’s more, his idolatrous zeal might be what accounted for that extraordinary longevity.
To see why, it’s necessary to grasp the pivotal place of Israel in the ancient world as a small land bridge between giant empires. One of those empires, Assyria, had destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 BCE and scattered its ten tribes. For about 150 years, Judah held out, but in 586 BCE, Babylonia—the empire that replaced Assyria—conquered Judah and destroyed the Temple. Meanwhile, on the other, southern side of the land bridge lay Egypt, always threatening to extend its control into the Levant.
A skillful Israelite king would have to play a political and religious game, worshiping the gods of the larger nations surrounding him. Religious syncretism was the Realpolitik of the ancient world. Menasseh may not have been pious, but he certainly seems to have been canny.
If anything, according to Kings, Menasseh’s son Amon exceeded his father in wickedness and idolatry. But after a mere two years his reign was terminated by a cabal of assassins, who were then summarily executed by the “people of the land.” According to Rabbi Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), who, having served in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, presumably knew a thing or two about palace intrigue, these “people of the land” were horrified by regicide but shared their king’s idolatrous leanings.
(For readers surprised by Israelites willing to kill for the sake of idolatry, just remember how often the Bible condemns idol worship. You do not repeatedly condemn that which no one is practicing. The struggle against idol worship was ongoing.)
And yet, no sooner was Amon buried than things began to change in Israel. There was a new king, Amon’s eight-year-old son Josiah, whose story, though most Jews today are unfamiliar with it, resounds through the centuries.
Josiah was a king after a prophet’s own dreams. Already as a child he became known for his piety. For this trait, given the sorry record of both his father and grandfather, we may credit instead the influence of his mother; note the family figure who is named in this otherwise formulaic paragraph introducing him:
Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was pleasing to the Lord and followed all the ways of his ancestor David; he did not deviate to the right or to the left. (2Kings 22:1)
As several commentators point out, Scripture never says even of David that “he did not deviate” (a claim, after all, that one could hardly make in light of that great king’s affair with Bathsheba). Indeed, the Bible will later go so far as to say of Josiah that “there was no king like him, who turned to God with all his heart and all his soul and all his might, nor did any like him arise after him” (2Kings 23:25). By echoing the words of the sh’ma, the Bible places him in a category all by himself.
Nonetheless, Josiah might have been a minor figure were it not for an astonishing discovery made during his reign whose exact nature and significance are the subject of scholarly discussion (and dispute) to this day.
In the process of overseeing the king’s restoration of the Temple, the high priest Hilkiah tells his scribe Shaphan, “I have found a scroll of the teaching in the House of the Lord.” Josiah’s own reaction to this discovery tells us instantly that something monumental is at hand:
When the king heard the words of the scroll of the teaching, he rent his clothes, . . . and gave orders, saying, “Go inquire of the Lord on my behalf, . . . for great indeed must be the wrath of the Lord that has been kindled against us, because our fathers did not obey the words of this scroll to do all that has been prescribed for us.” (2Kings 22:13)
What sort of writing, with its implicit demand for a radical turnabout in religious consciousness, could have evoked this reaction? Traditionally, it has often been assumed that the scroll was simply a Torah. Yet a Torah would presumably be a known quantity, whereas there is a strong hint here of newness, or at least unfamiliarity: Josiah’s words suggest that he himself has heard the contents for the first time. Another traditional speculation is that unlike a damaged or imperfect or censored copy of the Torah—according to some rabbinic sources, previous kings had excised parts of the text—this one was complete.
Academic scholars, basing themselves on the story’s implication that the scroll was previously unknown, as well as on the substance of Josiah’s consequent reforms and on various other clues, are in general agreement that the book in question was Deuteronomy: a book whose origins they date to around this same time. But whatever the scroll was, its discovery led to a campaign against idolatry and a centralization of worship around the Temple. Josiah read the scroll aloud to the people, symbolically renewing the covenant at Sinai, and a joyous nationwide celebration of Passover followed.
If Josiah’s story had stopped with that wondrous Passover, it would have had a happy ending. Alas, it did not and does not.
In 612 BCE, a world-shattering event took place: Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, had fallen to the Babylonians in alliance with the Medes. The greatest empire of the ancient Near East was crumbling; its army retreated to Harran, near what is now the Turkish-Syrian border. Three years later, according to a Babylonian chronicle, a large Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Neco II crossed into Asia and proceeded to march through Judah and Israel in an effort to shore up the Assyrians and restore the balance of power.
Josiah, religious reformer and zealot for the God of Israel, was advised to stay home and let the Egyptians pass through his territory. Instead, he led his army to stop them, meeting Neco’s troops at Megiddo.
Josiah’s motivation remains unclear: was it the prospect of vengeance on the Assyrians who had destroyed the northern kingdom and threatened Judah for a century? An assertion of sovereignty against the trespassing Egyptians? Or did Josiah calculate (correctly) that the Babylonians would emerge victorious and that Judah would be best served by having backed the winning side?
More certain is that there was resistance to the king’s intervention. In general, prophets counseled kings against indulging in political machinations. Although Jeremiah, the greatest prophet of the day, is not said explicitly to have opposed Josiah’s move, an intriguing later allusion in 1Esdras, an early apocryphal book, suggests otherwise: “Josiah would not turn back his chariot from [Neco], for he had resolved to fight him; he would not listen to the words of Jeremiah the prophet in God’s name.” The Talmud reinforces this message: “Why was Josiah punished? Because he should have consulted with Jeremiah, but he did not” (Ta’anit 22b).
Tragedy followed swiftly. The account in Kings is brutal in its brevity:
In his days, Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, marched to the king of Assyria to the River Euphrates; King Josiah marched toward him, but when he confronted him at Megiddo, [Pharaoh Neco] slew him.
The king, revered and assumed to be under the protection of God, was struck down before the age of forty. More than 700 years later, Josephus would record that Jeremiah composed a song of lament for Josiah’s funeral; mentioned in Chronicles, “it remains [extant] to this day.”
The story of Josiah’s end is also foreshadowed in the Bible itself. After the scroll was discovered in the Temple, the high priest and his entourage consulted Hulda the prophetess, one of the Bible’s very few female prophets. (Rabbinic literature names seven, the others being Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther.) The premonitory message delivered to Josiah by Hulda in God’s name was sobering:
Because they have forsaken Me and have made offerings to other gods and vexed Me with their deeds My wrath is kindled. . . . Assuredly I will gather you to your fathers and you will be laid in your tomb in peace. Your eyes shall not see all the disaster which I will bring upon this place. (2Kings 22:16, 20)
And indeed, some two decades later, the Babylonians would destroy the First Temple and exile the Jews. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) declares that Hulda rather than Jeremiah delivered the prophecy because “a woman would be more merciful.” The mercy was that Josiah did not live to witness the Babylonian destruction of his kingdom.
Josiah’s death is thus due in part to an act of divine mercy; but that does not erase his strategic miscalculation. Absent a miracle, as the prophets knew, tiny Judah had no hope of stopping the Egyptians. And there was something else: a moral failure could also be laid at his feet. Each of his two sons, Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, reigned after him in succession, and both of them, the Bible tells us, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Josiah had neglected to train his sons to follow his path. A spiritual revolutionary, he was without disciples in his own home.
In an essay titled “The Eulogy in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) faults Josiah for a lack of tactical wisdom. Unwilling to compromise, intent in his spiritual fervor on isolating Israel diplomatically, he turned a deaf ear to Jeremiah’s call to allow the idolatrous Egyptians to pass peacefully through the land. But Israel, Kook concludes, cannot exist on its own as a political entity; it must seek relations and alliances among the other nations of the world.
Josiah, in this reading, was betrayed by his own zeal, his otherwise praiseworthy strength and singleness of purpose. Sometimes the same inflexibility that allows one to overcome obstacles can cause one to plow into them.
Nonetheless, and all of this notwithstanding, Josiah’s battle against idolatry resonates throughout the millennia. The nature of the idols may differ; what endures is the powerful human drive to worship that which is not ultimate.
The willingness of a ruler to confront that drive, to think of himself as a servant of something higher, was as rare in the ancient world as it is in the modern. This remarkable king, who stood almost solitary in his opposition to idolatry, his belief in the centrality of Torah, and his devotion to God, deserves to be remembered and honored by the people for whom he gave his life some 2,700 years ago.