For my weekly quiet time today, I studied II Kings 23. King Josiah of Judah is inaugurating reforms in response to the Book of the Law that was discovered in the temple. He cleanses Judah and even Northern Israel of paganism, centralizes worship in Jerusalem, and institutes a national celebration of the Passover. He’s righteous, by Deuteronomistic standards. And yet, something tragic happens to him: Josiah is killed by Pharaoh Neco. The prophetess Huldah had predicted that Josiah would die in peace, but Josiah is killed.
I read many claims that Huldah’s prophecy was not contradicted by the manner of Josiah’s death. Some said that Josiah experienced the blessed, peaceful afterlife of the righteous, so he had peace that way. E.W. Bullinger affirmed that Josiah died in a state of inner peace. Many said that Josiah died in peace in the sense that he did not live to see the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., when his son, Zedekiah, was ruling. The fourth century Christian thinker Ambrose, an influence on Augustine, remarked that God took Josiah specifically so he wouldn’t have to experience that event.
I read an interesting article about this topic, Stanley Frost’s “Death of Josiah: A Conspiracy of Silence”, which appeared in a 1968 edition of The Journal of Biblical Literature. Frost’s point is that the death of Josiah was a shocking event. Not only did it contradict the religious view that the righteous were rewarded, whereas the wicked were punished, but it also shattered Judah’s political hopes under Josiah. According to Frost (and many others), Josiah was trying to revive the Davidic kingdom, which was why he was extending his influence into Northern Israel. Now that the Babylonians were beating up on the Assyrians, Judah had a chance to be free from Assyria’s oppressive thumb. But Pharaoh Neco was going up to help his ally, the Assyrians, in an attempt to maintain Assyrian and Egyptian power. Josiah tried to stop him and got killed in Megiddo in the process, and people in Judah were disappointed.
For Frost, II Kings 23 tried to explain this tragedy by saying that Manasseh was wicked, and so Josiah died on account of Manasseh’s sins. (The text actually says that Jerusalem was destroyed for Manasseh’s sins, notwithstanding the righteousness of Josiah.) But Frost doesn’t think this explanation flies with Jeremiah, who foresees a day when people will die for their own sins, not the sins of their ancestors (Jeremiah 31:29-30). Several years later, the Chronicler offers an explanation, in II Chronicles 35: God was trying to tell Josiah through Pharaoh Neco not to fight the king of Egypt, for it wasn’t Josiah’s battle. But Josiah in his pride did not listen.
But even this explanation was inadequate, as far as Frost is concerned, for the Chronicler presents Neco saying the same thing that Sennacherib said to Hezekiah: that God is on the side of a foreign aggressor, and so resistance is futile (II Kings 18:25). Yet, God wasn’t on the side of Assyria, for God slaughtered the Assyrian army when it was encamped to attack Jerusalem. So how would a righteous Israelite king know when to trust a foreign king who claims to have heard from God, and when not to do so? That could be why a later text, I Esdras 1:28, added that Jeremiah told Josiah not to fight Neco: Josiah couldn’t trust a Gentile king’s “God told me”, but the words of Jeremiah carried some weight!
Was the death of Josiah like the 9/11 of ancient Judah (only not as severe as our 9/11), a time when life didn’t make sense? Some have said that Josiah was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the righteous king who dies for the sins of Israel. As I said yesterday in my post, Trickling Out (to Other Countries); “Least” Idea?; Post-Exilic Second Isaiah?, P. Kyle McCarter states that a layer of the David and Goliath story emerged in the times of Josiah to encourage Judah that God could give her victory, even though she was the least. Did the death of Josiah make Israel feel weak, maybe even hopeless?
Today, I listened to a debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe. The problem of evil was a big topic in that debate. David Wolpe said that he doesn’t see God as his doctor, but trusts God to be with him in his experience of disease. He also remarked that God doesn’t punish thieves with illness because then people would avoid theft for the wrong reasons—to keep from getting a disease—rather than out of an ethical motivation that stealing is wrong. Hitchen glibly stated that he’s not as concerned about why bad things happen to good people, as he is about why good things so often happen to bad people. I agree with both.
Perhaps Josiah shouldn’t have tried to pick a fight with Neco. Maybe God would have worked things out some other way. You know, one thing that has astounded me this past week has been how conservative Christians I have dismissed as “narrow-minded” actually criticized the Florida pastor who planned to burn the Koran. These Christians have stereotyped all Muslims as evil, as liars, as people who want to take down the United States, and yet they believe that Jesus calls them to love their enemies, and so burning the Koran is inappropriate. One lady remarked that God is working things out, for the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” is about to be moved. (Actually, it turns out that this may not happen!) But here are people who believe that Muslims are dangerous, and yet they feel compelled to love them. I’m not saying that they do so enough. I’m just glad that there is a part of their Christian belief-system that motivates them to love their enemies and to trust God with the outcome.
Very strong post! (And it’s partly about my namesake!) Thanks so much.
Thanks Josiah! Glad you’re still reading me. 🙂