Josiah or Yoshiyahu was king of Judah, and son of Amon and Jedidah, the daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. His grandfather was King Manasseh, whom Josianic sources blame for turning away from the Israelite religion, even adapting the Temple for idolatrous worship. Josiah is credited by some historians with having established Jewish scripture in written form as a part of the Deuteronomic reform that occurred during his rule.

William F. Albright has dated his reign to 640 BC-609 BC, while E. R. Thiele offers the dates 641 BC-609 BC. The chief sources of his reign are and , and considerable archaeological evidence documents conditions in Judah during his reign. (1 Esdras 1 also discusses Josiah, but is clearly based entirely on the relevant portion of 2 Chronicles.) Archaeologists have recovered a number of "scroll-style" stamps dating to his reign.

Josiah had four sons: Johanan, Eliakim by Zebidah the daughter of Pedaiah of Rumah, Mattanyahu and Shallum both by Hamutal, the daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah. Shallum succeeded Josiah as king of Judah, under the name Jehoahaz, to be followed by Eliakim, as Jehoiakim, and then, after Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah succeeded to the throne, by Mattanyahu, as Zedekiah and who was the last king of Judah before being taken into Babylonian captivity.

Judah's condition at his accession

Josiah was placed on the throne of Judah by the "People of the Land". The international situation was in flux: to the east, the Assyrian Empire was in the beginning stages of its eventual disintegration, the Babylonian Empire had not yet risen to replace it, and Egypt to the west was still recovering from Assyrian rule. In this power vacuum, Jerusalem was able to govern itself without foreign intervention. In the 18th year of Josiah's rule he began to encourage the exclusive worship of Yahweh, and he outlawed all other forms of worship. Josiah repressed sodomitic activity (2 Kings 23:7) and had the foreign cultic objects of Baal, Ashterah (or Asherah), "and all the hosts of the heavens" in Solomon's Temple destroyed. The living pagan priests were killed and the bones of priests exhumed from their graves and burned on their altars -- which was viewed as an extreme act of desecration against these pagan deities by their adherents. (2 Kings 23:4, et seq.) The authors of Kings and Chronicles add to these acts in Jerusalem Josiah's similar destruction of altars and images belonging to pagan deities in the cities of the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, "and Simeon, as far as Naphtali" (2 Kings 23:8f); (2 Chr. 34:6f). He also had the High Priest Hilkiah take the tax monies that had been collected over the years and use them to repair the neglect and damage the Temple had suffered during the reigns of Amon and Manasseh.

Deuteronomic reform

While Hilkiah was clearing the treasure room of the Temple (2 Chr. 34:14), he reportedly found a scroll described as "a book of the Torah"/"ספר התורה" (Second Kings 22:8) or as "the book of the Torah of YHVH by the hand of Moses" (2 Chr. 34:14). Following De Wette's suggestion in 1805, many scholars believe this was either a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy, or a text that became a part of Deuteronomy as we have it. Hilkiah brought this scroll to Josiah's attention, and the king had it read to a crowd in Jerusalem. He was praised for this piety by the prophetess Huldah, who made the prophecy that all involved would die without having to see God's judgement on Judah for the sins they had committed in prior generations(2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chr. 34:22-28).

Assertion of control over Israel

At some point between this year and his death, Josiah reasserted Judean control in the former territories of the kingdom of Israel, which is recorded in 2 Kings as systematically destroying the cultic objects in various cities, as well as executing the priests of the pagan gods. The only exception he made (2 Kings 23:15-19) was for the grave of an unnamed prophet he found in Bethel, who had foretold that these religious sites Jeroboam erected would one day be destroyed (see 1 Kings 13).

War against Egypt

In the spring of 609 BC, Pharaoh Necho II personally led a sizable force to help the Assyrians. At the head of a large army, consisting mainly of his mercenaries, Necho took the coast route Via Maris into Syria, supported by his Mediterranean fleet along the shore, and proceeding through the low tracts of Philistia and Sharon. He prepared to cross the ridge of hills which shuts in on the south the great Jezreel Valley, but here he found his passage blocked by the Judean army led by Josiah. Josiah sided with the Babylonians and attempted to block the advance at Megiddo, where a fierce battle was fought and Josiah was killed (2 Kings 23:29, 2 Chronicles 35:20-24).

Necho then joined forces with Ashur-uballit and together they crossed the Euphrates and laid siege to Harran, which he failed to capture, and retreated back to northern Syria, and the Assyrian Empire collapsed.

Leaving a sizable force behind, Necho returned to Egypt. On his return march, he found that the Judeans had selected Jehoahaz to succeed his father Josiah, whom Necho deposed and replaced with Jehoiakim. He brought Jehoahaz back to Egypt as his prisoner, where Jehoahaz ended his days (2 Kings 23:31; 2 Chronicles 36:1-4).

Josiah's death

There are two versions of Josiah's death. The Book of Kings tersely remarks that Necho II met Josiah at Megiddo, and killed him the moment the Egyptian king laid eyes on him (2 Kings 23:29)- see Battle of Megiddo (609 BC). In 2 Chronicles 35:20-27 King Josiah is killed after he attacks King Necho which is in opposition to the will of God. His death is in this way validated. Proponents of DtrH ("Deuteronomistic History") ascribe this portion of the book to a post-Josiahwic redaction. The author of Chronicles describes Josiah meeting Necho in battle at Megiddo, where Josiah was fatally wounded by Egyptian archers, and was brought back to Jerusalem to die. Some scholars favor the account in Chronicles, because it better fits with what is known of international events. Necho had left Egypt around 609 BC for two reasons: one was to relieve the Babylonian siege of Harran, and the other was to help the king of Assyria, who was defeated by the Babylonians at the Battle of Carchemish. Josiah's actions suggest that he was aiding the Babylonians by engaging the Egyptian army.

In either case, the death of this king was a serious blow to core Judaic beliefs that include the God of Israel as being the only true God. Subsequent kings undid Josiah's reforms and reinstituted polytheistic religion. 2 Chronicles 35:25 implies that Jeremiah wrote a lament for Josiah's passing. A Jewish tradition claims that this lament is preserved in Lamentations chapter 4.

Critical Scholarship on the Reform of King Josiah

While the Biblical text relates that the scroll was "found", this has been met with skepticism among some modern critics: the view of the English deists of the 16th century (Hertz 1936), that the book was a forgery created to help centralize power under Josiah, is held today among some Biblical scholars. (However, scholars such as W.R. Smith, Rudolf Kittel, Dillman and Driver disagree, pointing out that priestly forgery of the Deuteronomic text was unlikely, as the text placed restrictions on the privileges of the priestly class, who were a thorn in the side of King Josiah.)

In the ancient Near East it was commonplace for religious scrolls to be deposited in temple walls when they were constructed (Hertz 1936), and according to the Swiss Egyptologist Édouard Naville, this was the custom amongst the Jews at the time of Solomon. It would have been more unusual if such scrolls were not found during the renovation of a temple building, and Naville recounts a similar find recounted in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It is interesting to note in this respect that the specific text cited by Naville is one of many which are attributed to famous figures of the past, typically sons of a Pharaoh, and which are all known to have been written at a much later date.

On the assumption that Deuteronomy was forged by Josiah's priests, these scholars go on to propose that the core narrative from Genesis to 2 Kings up to Josiah's reign comprise a "Deuteronomistic History" (DtrH) written during that reign. This history compiled the hypothesised "J", "E", and "D" narratives, all already textual at this point, of which the J narrative at this time would have extended into the history of David's court; the DtrH further attempted to historicise narratives of the times of Joshua and the Judges. The hypothetical DtrH is distinguished from the surviving Biblical books in that it omits the priestly "P" narrative. The DtrH portrayed King Josiah as the ideal ruler as Deuteronomy had defined it, and thus as the rightful ruler of Judah. (This interpretation is often confused with the position of "Biblical Minimalism", which denies that David and Solomon ruled a united kingdom; but Baruch Halpern has noted that however tendentious, DtrH must still be treated as a history, and as largely accurate at least for the reign of Josiah.) See Dating the Bible and The Bible and history. Such claims are detailed in Who Were the Early Israelites? by William G. Dever (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2003). Another such book is The Bible Unearthed by Neil A. Silberman and Israel Finkelstein (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001).


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