The Reforms of King Josiah, or the Deuteronomic Reforms
So what did King Josiah reform? To begin this discussion I would like to quote from a talk given at BYU in 2003 by Margaret Barker succinctly entitled, “What did King Josiah Reform?” This talk can be found posted here on Kevin Christensen’s site (revision: it is actually Howard Hopkins’ site, with some of Kevin’s material posted), www.thinlyveiled.com. She begins by relating what the Bible informs us that Josiah did:
King Josiah changed the religion of Israel in 623 BC. According to the Old Testament account in 2 Kings 23 he removed all manner of idolatrous items from the temple and purified his kingdom of Canaanite practices. Temple vessels made for Baal, Asherah and the host of heaven were removed, idolatrous priests were deposed, the Asherah itself was taken from the temple and burned, and much more besides. An old law book had been discovered in the temple, and this had prompted the king to bring the religion of his kingdom into line with the requirements of that book. There could be only one temple, it stated, and so all other places of sacrificial worship had to be destroyed. The law book is easily recognizable as Deuteronomy, and so King Josiah’s purge is usually known as the Deuteronomic reform of the temple.
Many scholars believe that this Book of the Law, identified as the Book of Deuteronomy, was either heavily revised, or even written at the time of King Josiah. Thus, Josiah was not taking Judah back to a more ancient tradition, but was essentially creating a new religious belief system.
King Josiah’s reform largely involved the temple and items that were in the temple. Also, it involved a consolidation of Israelite worship to Jerusalem and its temple–other Israelite temples/sanctuaries were torn down. The historical narrative we read in the Old Testament presents this as a good and necessary reform. It was aimed at “idolatrous” practices. What it did, however (and this will become more apparent here), was banish many of Israel’s most ancient practices. Josiah changed the Israelite religion, and many were not happy about it. Barker explains:
Twenty five years after the work of Josiah, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar, and eleven years after the first attack, they returned to destroy the city and the temple. Refugees fled south to Egypt, and we read in the book of Jeremiah how they would not accept the prophet’s interpretation of the disaster. He insisted that Jerusalem had fallen because of the sins of her people, but the refugees said it had fallen because of Josiah. The king is not mentioned by name, but there can be no doubt what the refugees had in mind. Until very recently, they said, they and their ancestors in Judah and Jerusalem had worshipped differently and had prospered, but when they changed their manner of worship, disaster had followed.
The refugees who fled to Egypt were not the only ones who thought that Josiah’s purge had been a disaster. By surveying the texts that still survive, we can begin to piece together what Josiah destroyed. Many of those texts imply that Josiah’s purge was a disaster.
Some of the things that Barker believes were removed include:
- The Asherah, a stylized tree, that had been placed beside the temple altar (cf. Rev 22:1-3), had represented the Queen of Heaven, the Mother Goddess, and also the Tree of Life and Wisdom–Barker believes that the Asherah was the true Menorah, and it was removed by Josiah
- Many of the holiest items of the Temple, especially the Holy of Holies–The Babylonian Talmud records that Josiah had hidden away the ark, the holy anointing oil, the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod (b.Horayoth 12a).
- The vision of God–while earlier traditions present Yahweh as appearing to mortals, the Deuteronomic account denies that any vision of God was seen when the Law was given: ‘You saw no form; only a voice was heard’ (Deut 4:12)
- The Hosts of Heaven–Deuteronomy condemns regard for the host of heaven (Deut 4:19), the angels, even though an ancient title for the Lord was the Lord of Hosts. The heavenly host of angels must have been part of the older faith.
- The Spirit Creation–Barker notes that alternative accounts of the Creation (such as the one found in the Book of Jubilees) remember that the angels/sons of God were created before anything material was made–the Deuteronomic account never mentions angels
- The sacred knowledge of the Holy of Holies–The Deuteronomists didn’t deny that such knowledge existed, but warn against mortals having access to them: ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God’ (Deut 29:29). They emphasized that all that was necessary for mortals was to obey the Law and keep the revealed commandments.
There were many other beliefs that Josiah supposedly purged that pertained the older religion of Israel. For Barker, these were the traditions of the First Temple. These traditions are so ancient that it is hard to know what exactly they entailed and what happened to them. We must go by scarce evidence and much inference. Barker explains:
We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval which was not forgotten. A thousand years after the events themselves, even mainstream Jewish texts remembered that the temple had been drastically changed, that large numbers of people had left the land, and that the true temple would be only be restored in the time of the Messiah.
Because of the lack of pertinent texts from the period, we must be cautious in our conclusions. To back up Barker’s conclusions, let us look at the work of a few other scholars. Please forgive the briefness of the following quick notes.
Moshe Weinfeld. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
In the seventh century B.C. we can see a turning-point in the history of Israelite literary composition. In the latter half of this century a new and unique literary style emerged which was to dominate most of the Israelite literature composed during a period of approximately 150 years (650-500 B.C.). This new way of thinking is apparent in our Bible in the books of Deuteronomy (composed latter half of seventh century B.C.), the deuteronomic history of Joshua-Kings (received fixed form in sixth century), and the deuteronomic prose sermons in Jeremiah (second half of sixth century) (Intro, pp. 1, 7).
Deuteronomic writers had a much different view of the nature of God than did more ancient writers. Earlier writings represented God in anthropomorphic terms (p. 191). God had a human form and had need of a House or Tabernacle. God sat on a physical throne between two cherubim with the Ark of the Covenant as his footstool. The Deity was enveloped by a screen of fire. Those who approached unauthorized/unworthily were consumed by fire. The idea of God sitting enthroned on cherubim is very ancient.
In the earlier theology, God actually dwells in the Temple. It is his abode on Earth. In Deuteronomic theology, God resides in Heaven only. The Temple becomes not a house for God but for his Name (p. 198).
The Deuteronomic school initiated a polemic against anthropomorphic and corporeal conceptions of Deity. In pre-deuteronomic sources, God is seen by elders, prophets, etc. Man is created in God’s image. In deuteronomic materials, God is not seen–only heard from Heaven. In older sources, the heavenly hosts serve as God’s council. The Deuteronomic writings do not mention the heavenly hosts (p. 200).
Tryggve N.D. Mettinger. The Dethronement of Sabaoth: Studies in the Shem and Kabod Theologies (trans. Frederick H. Cryer, Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1982)
The Deuteronomistic theology is programmatically abstract. It presents God with an auditive, non-visual theme. God is in Heaven and does not appear to man–He does not dwell in Temple on Earth (p. 46). Instead of descending from Heaven, Yahweh speaks from Heaven only (p. 48). Only God’s Name dwells in Temple. God’s actual presence in Temple becomes obsolete in Name theology.
Deuteronomy does not speak of the cherubim throne (p. 46). Cherubim throne was not acceptable in the Deuteronomistic work (p. 51). Deut 10:1–5 does not mention cherubim in construction of Temple. There seems to be a conscious suppression of God sitting on his throne. This theology is not seen again until Ezekiel. Ezekiel sees anthropomorphic figure seated on throne (p. 97).
Josiah’s Reform–Reform culminates in celebration of Passover ceremony. Passover promoted to most important of three yearly festivals. Passover achieved status previously held by Autumn Festival. Main subject of the Autumn Festival was the kingship of the Lord. During monarchical period, Autumn Festival was most important. 1 Sam 1:3 is probably referring to Autumn Festival. Temple dedicated at time of Autumn Festival (see Psalms 24,29,47,93-99; Zech. 14:16–19). Autumn Festival celebrated God’s victory over Chaos (see Ps 29:10). Autumn/New Year Festival associated with creation of the world. During week of festival, they read part of Creation account each day. The Festival celebrated Kingship of YHWH, victory over chaos, and subsequent creation. Josiah favored Passover over New Year festival because it was more uniquely Israelite (p. 73). Cultic rites no longer centered on “sacramental experience” of the theophanic coming and victory of the LORD-rites became acts of “remembrance.”
This is just a very minimal and sketchy look at some of the research that has been done on this topic. Those interested should also look at the formative works of Martin Noth on the subject, and also authors such as William Doorly, Richard Elliott Friedman, and R.D. Nelson, to name a few.
For a great overview of Margaret Barker’s research on the Deuteronomists’ suppression of more ancient truths and the effects of King Josiah’s reform from and LDS perspective, see Kevin Christensen’s Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its significance for Mormon Studies published as one of FARMS Occasional Papers. It is a wonderful read, and among other things, shows how Josiah’s Reform affected Lehi and the Book of Mormon (as Lehi was contemporary to these reforms). Have a look at his site www.thinlyveiled.com, and also his articles posted here by www.meridianmagazine.com. On the topic of Josiah’s reform, Christensen gives this summary:
[Josiah's] reform has been closely identified with an editorial school that scholarship calls the Deuteronomists.  This group apparently produced an edition of the books of Deuteronomy, Judges, 1& 2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings during the reign of King Josiah. The Deuteronomists are known as innovators and are known to have edited scriptures in their care. This is important. They worked with texts and traditions that had an established status, including Deuteronomy, but they imposed their own perspectives on those texts.
Their edition of Deuteronomy is notable for claiming that God had not been seen (Deut. 4:12) and for the claim that possession of their Torah meant that there was no need for anyone to go to heaven to bring the word of God (Deut. 30:11–12). This is despite accounts of visions elsewhere in scripture, notably in Exodus 24:9–10, Isaiah 6:1–5, Jeremiah 23:18, 22; 33:3, and Ezekiel 1. These declarations in Deuteromony challenge the claims of the anointed temple priests such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jacob to provide visions. The passages in Deuteronomy deny the possibility of vision, which becomes very suggestive in considering the claims 1st Enoch and elsewhere that just before the destruction of the first Temple, that Israel became blinded. (Plain and Precious Things Restored: Margaret Barker and Josiah’s Reform).
Much more could be said on this topic. What I’ve hoped to present is an example and brief outline of a major reform to the religion of Israel, a suppression of older truths, and an attempt to obscure what was formerly believed. Our current Bible text reflects the views of these reformers. “Plain and precious truths” of more ancient origin, especially those that concern the nature of God and the Temple, have been purposefully altered, removed, or otherwise suppressed. Although this likely happened over time in a number of stages, the Deuteronomistic reforms took place prior to the Babylonian exile. There were yet further reforms made during the exile and afterwards. Those who were taken into exile were the higher officials, royalty, and priests–many of whom likely shared the views of the earlier reforms. These are the people who again took power after the exile, imposing their views on the population who had remained behind in Judah. In my next post, I will look at the further reforms that were made after the exile, in the period of the Second Temple, and how many of those upon whom these reforms were imposed rejected them, favoring the beliefs of the old religion. My goal is to show how, once again, the religion of ancient Israel was modified, suppressing the ancient beliefs.