The Law Giver

The Boy King

Josiah was the King of Judah from 640 to 609 BCE. At the time he began his rule, Judah was a small vassal state of the Assyrian Empire. He assumed the throne when he was only eight years old after his father, King Amon, was murdered by his servants. Josiah was a direct descendant of the famous Hebrew King David and ruled Judah from his capitol of Jerusalem.

Now Judah may have been a third rate kingdom but Josiah ruled it during an interesting period. Three hundred years earlier King David's kingdom had split in two. The resulting southern kingdom of Judah was the smaller and poorer of the two parts but it retained the highest of the holy places of the Hebrew faith, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. To counteract this, the larger and wealthier kingdom of Israel had erected two holy places of their own in Bethel and Dan. This was important because the Hebrew kingdoms were as much ruled by the priest classes as they were by their kings. The issue of political power in these kingdoms was heavily influenced by the faith of the Hebrew people.

The faith of the Hebrews in those times was very different from what it is today. Most of the population was polytheistic and they worshipped different gods depending upon what they needed a god to do. When rain or fertility was desired, the chief god of interest was Baal. Where warfare was concerned they tended to turn to Yahweh, the personal war god of their legendary progenitor, Abraham. There were many other deities like Molech, Ashtoreth, Milcom and Anot all with altars and rituals and plenty of priests. The priests of each of these sects tended to compete for the attention of the people, claiming that their deity was more powerful at least in their chosen role. It is unlikely that any of these sects, even the Yahweh sect, claimed that the other gods didn't exist.

Nearly three hundred years before Josiah, King Solomon, the son of David had raised the Hebrew kingdom to the wealthiest and most powerful position it would ever know. At the height of his power he had built a fabulous temple to Yahweh in the heart of Jerusalem. He also built several hundred temples to other gods during his reign but the Temple of Solomon put Yahweh in the heart of Jerusalem and Jerusalem was the capitol of the country.

When the northern tribes split off after Solomon's death, they counteracted the power of the priests of Solomon's Temple by building temples to Baal and calling their country Israel. People in both countries still worshipped many gods but politically they had neutralized the priests. The many priest classes kept claiming superiority but nothing much changed for two hundred years.

Then in 722 BCE, eighty seven years before Josiah became King of Judah, everything changed. The Assyrians marched down from the north and captured the capitol city of Sumaria and the northern kingdom fell. Judah almost suffered the same fate but the besieging army fell prey to a plague while encamped around the city of Jerusalem. The army withdrew when the Judeans agreed to pay tribute to the Assyrian throne. Having barely survived themselves, the Judeans could only watch in horror as the Assyrians marched their kinsmen off to some foreign land (the Lake Van area of what is now Turkey) and resettled that country with a bunch of strangers.

This was particularly hard to take for the priests of Yahweh. Baal was a Canaanite god worshipped throughout the area by many cultures. Yahweh was a particularly Hebrew god, and suddenly, there weren't many Hebrews left. To try and mitigate the damage done to their faith, they began collecting the stories and tales that defined their heritage. Some had been written down as far back as David's time but now they set about compiling them into a comprehensive narrative for the first time. They even went so far as to preserve the stories of the northern kingdom alongside their own.

In a way, they were not acting in their own best interests. Until this time, the chief power of the priesthood came from recalling and interpreting these ancient tales for their followers. However, with about half the priesthood suddenly gone, they were worried about losing some parts of the faith all together. Besides, it gave the Judean priests a chance to put a completely Judean slant on the history of both kingdoms. They didn't know how well they did their job because even today we can find the majority of their work within the books we call Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.

Over the next few years, even the Kings of Judah often found it necessary to play the Yahweh sect against the other sects to prevent an erosion of their political power. Sometimes a king would favor one sect over another for a time, then the next would come along and tip the whole balance of power the other way.  Because the only account we have to read was written by the priests of Yahweh, we see this period through their eyes only.  According to the priests of Yahweh, Josiah's father was a heavy Baal worshipper and therefore a bad king who deserved his untimely end.

One might speculate about Josiah's early years as king. A child of eight would not be allowed to rule unassisted. Perhaps his mother, Queen Jedidah, acted as his regent or possibly Hilkiah, a priest in the Temple of Solomon was one of his chief advisors. Hilkiah is certainly an interesting character and plays a major role in the story that is to come. He eventually rose to the rank of Chief Priest of the Temple and is also most probably the father of the Prophet Jeremiah. Raising two children to be fanatic Yahweh worshippers couldn't be much harder than raising just one.

All we are told about Josiah's early life is that he became king at eight, turned to Yahweh worship at sixteen and was already confident enough in his kingly powers to begin purging other religious faiths by the time he was twenty. The balance of power had shifted once again from the Baal sect to the Yahweh sect but it is unclear whether the king or the priests were running the show.

The Discovery

It was about this time that the political landscape began to change noticeably. The Assyrian Empire was spending more and more energy defending itself against the Babylonians. Their grip had appreciably loosened by the time Josiah was in his prime. In fact in little more than a decade the Assyrian Empire would fall for the last time. With all this in place then one can begin to appreciate the fact that in the 18th year of Josiah's reign a rather amazing thing happened.

One day Josiah sent his secretary, Shaphan, down to the Temple of Solomon to collect money from a special collection box that was kept beside the altar. The money was to be used to pay the craftsmen who where working to repair the temple which, apparently, had lost some of its luster over the past three hundred years. This was a constant task for the secretary and he would meet with the chief priest so that both sides could watch the counting. The King's Secretary and the Chief Priest had been doing this since the time of King Jehoash more than a hundred years before because the priests had been caught stealing the money. By now it was completely routine.

This time, however, Hilkiah who was by now Chief Priest, handed Shaphan a scroll and said, " I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord." Now this was a funny thing for Hilkiah to say because the only "book of the law" was the collected works of Moses that the priests had assembled some years before. Moses was the principle prophet of the Yahweh faith and it was to him and him only that Yahweh had supposedly given the rules of the faith over six hundred years before. That was why it was so important for the priests to try and rescue these tales and keep them from being lost when the northern kingdom fell. Now Hilkiah was basically telling Shaphan that he had found a new, previously unknown work of Moses, someplace in the Temple of Solomon.

Without even blinking at this rather obvious lie, Shaphan read the scroll and then took it to the King and read it to him. Josiah made a big deal about the book and brought out more of his trusted servants and read it to them. Finally he charged Hilkiah, of all people, and several of his courtiers with the task of authenticating the book. This was done using the time honored tradition of asking Yahweh indirectly through an acknowledged prophet. At least they didn't choose Jeremiah, Hilkiah's own son but they did almost as much. To authenticate this new rule book from Yahweh they chose the grand daughter-in-law of another courtier, Harhas, keeper of the royal wardrobe. Her name was Huldah and lo and behold she gave the book full marks and even predicted awful things would happen to the people of Judah because they had not been following the rules in this book that no one had ever seen before that day.

The Reform

King Josiah pounced on the book like a cheetah on a trampoline and used it as the justification for a complete reform of religious practices in and around Jerusalem. He cleared out other faiths that were using the Temple of Solomon at the time and destroyed all their altars and holy places. He even invaded Sumaria and destroyed the altar at Bethel which wasn't too far from Jerusalem. He apparently didn't have the muscle to get as far as Dan.

Unsurprisingly the new rules discovered in the book benefited both Josiah and Hilkiah immensely. As a result of the reforms, Hilkiah was Chief Priest of the only game in town. Moreover, the new rules said that only people from his particular tribe (the Levis) could be priests from now on. The Temple of Solomon became the only place in the whole kingdom where religious rituals could be practiced making Josiah's capitol the center of the world for Yahweh worshippers everywhere.

Josiah was now backed by the only priesthood left in the game as he tried to retake the land of the northern kingdom. He apparently had some success because by 609 BCE he fought a battle at Meggido half way into the territory of the northern kingdom and 40 miles north of his original border. Unfortunately the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco had made an alliance with what was left of the Assyrians and they killed Josiah in the battle and sent Judah's fortunes tumbling downward for the last time. Judah remained a vassal state of Egypt for the next 22 years, finally falling to a Babylonian army in 587 BCE.

The people of the southern kingdom suffered the same fate as their northern brothers and were exiled in several waves to Babylon about 900 miles to the east. They were eventually allowed to return when the Persian King Cyrus captured Babylon but they had been changed by the experience. The post-exilic Hebrews could no longer claim that Yahweh was a great war god, or that he would protect them no matter what. They had also been taught the lesson of monotheism by Zoroaster. When they arrived back home they took their example from Josiah and Hilkiah and completely rewrote "the book of the law" adding large sections into Exodus and Numbers as well as the entire book of Leviticus. By the time they were finished, the Torah was in a form that would be recognizable to any Jewish rabbi today.

Why should we care about this story?

This tale is all about an attempted power grab, in a tiny no account kingdom, that failed almost 2600 years ago. So many such places have come and gone in the flow of human history that you would think the events in this story would have no more effect on us today than the palace intrigues of the forgotten people that built Stonehenge. But through a fluke of history, the book that Hilkiah and Josiah created has come down to us as part of the canon of four of the leading organized religions of our time.

I'm sure Hilkiah would be pleased to know that this has happened. Especially since it was a solution that was forced on him by the odd circumstances of his time. Only a generation before, if the Chief Priest wanted to produce a little wrinkle in the official church dogma, all he had to do was amend the oral tradition a little bit. There would be a little furor over the new version, but with enough gentle persuasion it could be pushed through with no evidence left behind.

But when the priests began writing down the holy stories, things started to get harder to edit. At first only the fragments of stories where written down. The main narrative in the Book of Samuel is probably the oldest more or less continuous narrative in the current version of the Old Testament. Then someone starting linking up the old stories that existed in Judah into one continuous tale. Finally, when the Northern Kingdom fell, the priests got nervous about loosing texts and combined the Judean narrative with the fragments from the north, in order to preserve the law of the faithful.

When it came time for Hilkiah and Josiah to make their reformation they were forced to invent another contradictory narrative in order to justify their actions. The problem was that this process left evidence behind in the form of older unedited texts that didn't quite jibe with the newer version. We can only guess that the priests simply would not tolerate a wholesale rewrite of the sacred works and this kind of compromise was the only thing that would fly.

The bottom line? I hate to be the one to point out the obvious but this kind of analysis indicates very strongly that there is nothing whatever truly sacred about these works, and by association, any of the other holy books based on them. The only thing timeless about these writings, is their picture of men fighting each other for power and position in a very earthly kingdom. To the men and women involved in these petty intrigues nothing was sacred, not even the word of god.

This is hardly unique in human history.  There have been many such forgeries produced in order to control people's behavior through their belief system.  The only thing that makes the Hebrew books of the Old Testament unusual is that they survived the epoch for which they were designed.  They come down to us today as the foundation stones of the canon of the belief systems of nearly half the people on earth.  It should be a joke, but nobody's laughing.

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This page was created by Paul Kahle 17-January-1999

This page was last updated on 13-Jan-2001