Ancient Israelite Religious Reformation (OT Lesson 30)

2 Chronicles 29-30; 32; 34 (2 Kgs 18-19; 22-23)

The Sunday School curriculum calls this lesson “Come to the House of the Lord.” This is an appropriate title for this block of scripture, as the narrative here relates how kings Hezekiah and Josiah of Judah cleansed the Temple of Jerusalem of all the alleged idolatrous paraphernalia and doctrines that were introduced to it during the reigns of previous kings.  As a result, these are celebrated (while most kings are routinely condemned) in the biblical histories as two of the great and “godly” kings, being compared to King David in righteousness (2 Kgs. 22:2; 2 Chr. 29:2; note that 2 Chr. 28:1 has a more negative opinion of David, comparing him to the wicked King Ahaz).

As these stories are presented, there is much of value that can be gleaned from them. These are tales of rulers who had the strength, courage, and faith to reject the errors of their fathers and foreign influences in order to return to the correct worship of the God of Israel. Most importantly, they recognized the importance of temple worship and the Law and turned the tide against generations of idolatry and false indoctrination.  It is no wonder, in light of how they are presented, that these kings are held up as heroes of the history of pre-exilic Judaism.

We are told that Hezekiah and his great-grandson Josiah carried out reforms that changed the religious practices of the people of Judah, especially in regards to the temple(s). The sweeping “cleansing” done by Hezekiah was repeated and apparently greatly magnified by Josiah.  Hezekiah left his mark when he “removed the high places, and brake the images (Heb. “pillars”), and cut down the groves (Heb. “asherah”), and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made” (2 Kings 18:4).  The religion of Judah was centralized — apparently all places of worship were destroyed, or at least condemned, outside of the Temple of Jerusalem.

If we take a look at what Hezekiah allegedly destroyed, we see that it was some important stuff!  The “high places” (bamot) were sanctuaries, or places of worship, where altars could be found for sacrifice.  They were generally set in high places, such as hilltops or were artificial mounds meant to represent the same idea.  There were many traditional “high places” that apparently were originally very legitimate places of worship (e.g. Bethel, Dan, Gilgal, etc.) but were, with the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, condemned as idolatrous, pagan centers.  It is likely that each village had its own high place where the residents conducted their routine worship.  However, the reformers attempted to enforce the idea that the only place worthy of the performance of holy rites was Jerusalem.  In this centralization of worship to Jerusalem, Hezekiah and Josiah are understood to be following the instructions given in Deut. 12 which prohibits the offering of sacrifice anywhere but in the holy city of Jerusalem.  We should question the reliability of this scripture, however, as we read that sacrifices were legitimately offered outside of Jerusalem both before and after the time of Moses.  We read in the Book of Mormon in several places that Lehi and his family, who lived in Jerusalem during and just after the reign of Josiah, have no qualms about offering sacrifice at many points along their great journey (obviously outside of Jerusalem).

Ruins of the "High Place" of Dan

Apparently, Hezekiah was not terribly thorough in his enforcement of this ideal, as a number of sanctuaries outside of Jerusalem, including at Lachish, Arad, and Beersheva, were built or continued to function during his reign. In fact, some scholars argue that there is no archaeological evidence of any mass destruction of high places in the area in the 7th and 8th centuries BC (see here for a related article). William Dever, renowned biblical archaelogist, for example, believes that all of this talk of destroying the high places was made up by the authors/editors of these histories to fit their own theological/political agendas.  Whether or not Hezekiah did try to implement this facet of the reformation, we know that the high places are back up and running by the time of Josiah!

Besides the high places, we are told that Hezekiah destroyed the “idols” (in the KJV), which were actually “standing stones” or “pillars” (massebot).  Earlier in Israel’s history, there had been no problems with setting up massebot, and they were frequently set up by the Patriarchs and others as monuments to memorialize important sacred events, especially appearances of Deity (e.g. when Jacob sets up a pillar to mark the place where he had encountered God, Gen. 28:18; Gen. 32:20; etc.).  Moses himself sets up pillars (Ex. 24:4). They were associated with altars of sacrifice and delineated holy space.  We can probably compare these with the obelisks of Egypt and the stone circles of places like Stonehenge.  Hezekiah, however, decides that they are representative of idol worship and allegedly broke them all down.

The other items that the text claims that Hezekiah ordered destroyed were the “groves” or the “sacred poles” — the asherot. These objects were wooden poles of some sort that were meant to represent sacred trees. Asherah is known to have been a mother goddess venerated throughout the region.  In some way, these stylized “trees” were meant to represent her.  In the biblical narrative, these asherot are associated with the pagan worship of Baal.  They were placed standing near the altars of sacrifice in the high places.  More will be said shortly regarding these objects, but it is claimed that these too were condemned and cut down by Hezekiah. Also, we are told that Hezekiah destroyed the Nehushtan, the bronze serpent that Moses made!  This act is justified by the explanation that the people had been offering sacrifices to it for some time.  I can’t help but see this as tragic!  How do you go and destroy the bronze serpent which was made by Moses to be a savior to the people of Israel, healing them during their travels in the desert? We often take the bronze serpent to be a symbol of Jesus Christ  —  and it apparently had been given some role in the temple — until Hezekiah smashed it to smithereens.

After Hezekiah’s death, we are told that his reforms were reversed by the wickedness of kings Manasseh and Amon. It is not until the young Josiah comes to power that the standard is once against raised against the encroachment of idol worship back into Judah. Josiah reportedly conducts a much more thorough reform, but with roughly the same ideals as the earlier one.  In 2 Chronicles 34 we get the account of the massive campaign carried out to purge the kingdom of idol worship, which including destroying the same basic elements that Hezekiah had previously condemned.  Furthermore, it appears that he killed all the priests that served in these locations, burning their bones upon their various altars (2 Chron. 34:5).  In 2 Kings 23, there is an even more detailed account of the specific items he destroyed, which includes:

  • burned the vessels/instruments in the temple that were made for Baal, Asherah, and the host of heaven (sons of God/angels)
  • removed the priests that burned incense in the high places to Baal, the sun, moon, planets, and host of heaven (sons of God/angels)
  • took the asherah pole/tree out of its place in the temple and burned it, stamped it into powder, and scattered it on the graves near Jerusalem
  • broke down the houses of the “sodomites” (Heb. q’deshim, probably “male temple prostitutes”) that were near the temple, where the women wove hangings (perhaps tents/veils/garments) for Asherah
  • stopped the sacrifice of children by fire to Molech
  • burned the sun chariot and horses that apparently stood at the entrance to the temple (compare to the chariot and horses that took Elijah to heaven from my last post)
  • apparently desecrated a number of graves, removing the bones therefrom and burning them on the altar (I am really not sure what the significance of this was, but the text says that it had been prophesied earlier)
  • did all the other things mentioned above and more…

This is a very detailed list — there were specific things going on that Josiah, or perhaps his advisors, were very much against.  Although Chronicles seems to put this event as following the great purge, 2 Kings 22-23 indicates that the massive reform movement was at least partly a result of Josiah’s high priest, Hilkiah, finding “the book of the law” in the temple while they were cleansing it (2 Kgs. 22:8).  Scholars generally agree that this book was the Book of Deuteronomy.  Margaret Barker gave a great summary of Josiah’s reform and its association with the finding of this book.

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.1

As Barker notes, Josiah’s reforms are often referred to in modern scholarship as the “Deuteronomic” reforms.  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. I don’t think we need to dismiss the tradition that it was originally written by Moses, but I do agree that it was at least heavily edited by later parties, beginning before or during the reign of Josiah that had a strong religious agenda. The book may have been further revised subsequently during and/or after the Babylonian exile.  Thus, it appears that Josiah, in his reforms, was likely not taking Judah back to a more ancient tradition, the religion of Moses, but was essentially creating a new religious belief system, following the ideals of this “Deuteronomist” movement. It is this Deuteronomist theology that influences not only the book of Deuteronomy itself, but the whole so-called Deuteronomist history, from the book of Deuteronomy to the book of 2 Kings. Their theology influenced later writers such as the priestly author(s) of the Chronicles.

It is here that I would like to explain that I do not mean to throw out entirely the history we are given in the books of Kings and Chronicles. As the Sunday School curriculum rightly delineates, there are many great and important lessons to be learned from these histories. Whether or not they were written with a certain religious or political agenda in mind, they provide us with precious principles regarding obedience, purity, and standing up for what is right and holy. They teach about the supreme value of the temple and correct worship and doctrine. Taken as such and applied to our own lives, these are very valuable lessons indeed.  On the other hand, we can also learn, if we follow the theories of some biblical scholars, that there was likely more to ancient Israelite history and religion than what is provided to us through the filter of the Deuteronomistic and later redactors.  Through a study of the themes of this reform we can begin to understand why the Old Testament seems to contain such a different theology than the New Testament, and why it appears to differ, as well, from the picture of ancient religious beliefs as understood by the prophet Joseph Smith.

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. However, as I have alluded to, many of the features/items condemned were considered perfectly legitimate in earlier times, especially from what we know of the Patriarchal period. While the picture painted is of Josiah bringing Judah back to the most ancient and correct beliefs, what it seemed to accomplish, in reality, was banish many of Israel’s most ancient practices.  Josiah changed the Israelite religion and the practices of the First Temple.  Some Jews would later claim that it was Josiah’s reform that, instead of delaying disaster, brought the wrath of God upon them. As Barker notes:

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.

Expounding on the above scriptural list, 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.

I could go on and on about this topic and not do it justice.  There is much more that could be said about this, and I have treated it in many previous posts. Again, my desire is not to dismiss these biblical histories out of hand, nor diminish your trust in the Scriptures as a whole, but to indicate that there is likely more to these stories than we can get from a superficial reading of the received text. If Hezekiah and Josiah did change the religion of Judah, I believe it is important for us to know what the religion was like previously, what it was changed to, and what that means for our understanding of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and religious beliefs today.

If you want to know more about the reforms of the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, kings of Judah, check out some of the following resources.

Some of my previous posts on the topic:

Articles by Margaret Barker (who, FYI, is not LDS) on the topic (a very small sample of a topic that she treats in most of her writings):

  • What Did King Josiah Reform? – forum address given at BYU on 6 May 2003
  • Joseph Smith and Pre-exilic Israelite Religion – speech given at The Worlds of Joseph Smith conference held at the Library of Congress, 6 May 2005 — besides treating the topic of the Deuteronomic reforms, she relates what these meant for the religion of Jerusalem at the time of Lehi and for Joseph Smith’s contributions

A few additional helpful articles:

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  1. Margaret Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?”, forum address given at Brigham Young University on 6 May 2003, accessed online at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=2&chapid=36 []
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3 Comments

  1. Kevin Christensen
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Nice work David. I’ll have to see what I can do about getting my Meridian essays back up somewhere. Maybe I’ll send the originals to Howard Hopkins at Thinly Veiled. With a few edits, of course. Whereas when I wrote Paradigms Regained, I was still thinking that Josiah’s Reform was a generally positive thing, Margaret’s 2003 BYU talk on Josiah changed my views, and got me to re-examine Jeremiah and the Book of Mormon. The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing essay in FR 16:2 has some of that, but more is in the Meridian essays. While most scholars tend to link Jeremiah with Josiah and the reform on linguistic and political grounds (e.e.g, Friedman and Sweeny), I was struck that Jeremiah is called the year after the reform begins and against the very people and institutions that were implimenting the reform. I think it interesting to compare the list in Jeremiah 1:17 with Ezek. 22, which offers more comments on the very groups Jeremiah was called against. Plus Jeremiah contradicts Deuteronomy on the very points that Margaret sees as key to the reform. And there are the various scriptures that talk about the “blindness” at the time, in contrast to “vision.”

    I saw that you will be presenting at SBL in Atlanta, along with a Margaret Barker herself and several other up and coming, and established LDS scholars. My congratulations. It looks like it will be a memorable event.

    Kevin Christensen.
    Pittsburgh, PA

    • David Larsen
      Posted August 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the great comment, Kevin! (sorry for the delayed response)
      If you do put up your Meridian articles on Howard Hopkins’ site or anywhere else, please let me know so that I can link to them properly.
      You make some great points about Jeremiah and I think this is an important topic. Why, if we see the Deuteronomists as being on the wrong side of history, does Jeremiah seem to be on their team? I would like to see your ideas on this published some day. I read the material you sent me a while back and it is coming together very nicely. I think you are on to some important breakthroughs on a topic that really does need to be addressed.
      Yeah, I’m looking forward to presenting at SBL. We’ll see if Margaret is able to travel (she has been having some health-related challenges), but if she isn’t there in person, I believe her paper will at least be read there.
      Take care,
      David

  2. Kevin Christensen
    Posted August 27, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Howard Hopkins has updated his Thinly Veiled links, and included a helpful note on the state of things at the Meridian since their format change. I provided him with pdfs of my essays, with a few edits from their original publication.

    Best,

    Kevin C.

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