The Reforms of King Josiah of Judah: Worship of YHWH Alone, and in Jerusalem Alone

In 622BCE, King Josiah of Judah revolutionized the cultic system that had hitherto prevailed in the Judahite monarchy. He implements the notion that only one God should be worshiped by all Judahites and Israelites, and that Jerusalem should be the only legitimate place where sacrifices to YHWH should be slaughtered. The basis of these striking reforms is a "Book of Law" found at the temple in Jerusalem during repairs ordered by the young king. According to the wording of the narrative and content of the reforms described in 2 Kings 22-23, scholars believe that Josiah was referring to something very much like the central chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy (see esp. ch. 12) which therefore constituted the first parts of the Torah ever to be implemented as cultic law. The word "Deuteronomy" is Greek for "repetition of the Law," a title based on its position in the Pentateuch which scholars assume to have been edited in the post-exilic period. The Hebrew name of the Book of Deuteronomy is Sefer Devarim, after the first words of the book, Eleh haDevarim ("These are the words ...").

Deuteronomy or Devarim, as we have it now, contains the basic confession of the Jewish faith:

Shema' Yisrael YHWH Eloheynu YHWH Ehad

which can be translated in a number of ways, for example,

Hear, o Israel,YHWH is Our god, YHWH alone (i.e., no other god), or

Hear, o Israel, YHWH, our God, YHWH is One (i.e., not many, or: unique, singular, one of a kind).

Because of its relation to the reforms of Josiah, the Book of Deuteronomy (albeit not necessarily in exactly the version before us) is the only major part of the Pentateuch whose date post quem (i.e., the date by which it had been composed) can be dated with some degree of certainty (late 7th century BCE).

The narrative framework of the Book of DEUTERONOMY consists in a review of the covenantal laws received at the mountain of God. Moses gives this speech as the Israelites are on the verge of entering the promised land to dispossess its current inhabitants. The audience is assumed to consist of a new generation, born in the desert during forty years of wandering during which the generation of the Exodus (that was used to Egyptian ways and gave Moses and Aaron so much trouble) passed away. This framework suggests an awareness of the historical distance from the events described in the speech of Moses.

Moses addresses Israelites who have no personal memories either of a period of slavery in Egypt or of a revelation at the mountain of God. In this way, the audience represents the present generation that considers itself directly addressed ("Hear o Israel") by the sacred admonition to worship the LORD alone. Like the Israelites thought to be present in the narrative (positioned outside the land but about to take it; i.e., looking at the land and its ownership as if from the outside), the comtemporaries of the first public reading of this text in 622BCE hear of primordial events of historic salvation and revelation that they themselves did not experience but that call upon them to hearken diligently and observe carefully the covenantal legislation put before them.

At the core of Deuteronomy are its laws. More obviously than in the Book of Exodus, narrative takes second place to law in these covenantal exhortations. The superficial impression is that Deuteronomy is a mere repetetition of history and laws well known from Exodus. Yet this impression is deceiving. In the following, I focus on a few significant differences. First I examine the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Ex 20 and Dtn 5, along with the question how they were received and transmitted. Then I proceed to examine the demand, in Deuteronomy, to purge the cult from "foreign" elements, as well as its emphasis on a centralization of the cult. This will lead us to consider the historical circumstances in which the "scroll of teaching/instruction" (sefer torah) found in the Solomonic temple made its first appearance.

The Ten Commandments Ex 20 and Dtn 5 both have as a preamble to the majority of laws and ordinances that follow a set of almost identical commandments, commonly called the Ten Commandments. The apodictic phrase "You shall" or "You shall not" is used more than ten times in both sources and the exact numbering of the commandments is not universally agreed upon. Nor is this series of commandments the only decalogue or dodecalogue (list of 12 Commandments) that can be found in the Pentateuch. While in Exodus this most famous decalogue appears in the context of what Moses wrote down in a "Book of the Covenant" (see Ex 24:4), another and better known tradition associates it with the two tablets onto which God himself wrote "the law and the commandment" (Ex 24:12) that Moses received on the Mountain of God and that he smashed in anger at the foot of the mountain upon seeing the Golden Calf and the Israelites dancing around it (Ex 32:15-19). Deuteronomy 22 reconciles these two divergent traditions explicitly in Dtn 5:22. (Similarly, in Ex 34:28, the second set of tablets is associated with the "words of the covenant, the Ten Words/Commandments.")

A further difference concerns the engraving of the second set of tablets. While according to Ex 34:28 it is innocuously assumed that Moses himself engraved the Ten Commandments onto the second set of tablets, Deuteronomy leaves no doubt that God himself inscribed them also the second time around (see Dtn 9:9-17 and 10:1-5).

Not only the making and transmission of the Ten Commandments are reported differently in Exodus and Deuteronomy but their wording is not entirely identical either. (Cf. Ex 20:8 with Dtn 5:12, and Ex 20:11 with Dtn 15.) It is noteworthy that Exodus associates the unprecedented institution of complete rest on the seventh day with the divine rest after six days of creation whereas Deuteronomy associates this observance with the liberation from slavery. If, as is generally assumed, the priestly hymn of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a was composed during the Babylonian exile in critical response to Mesopotamian myths of creation, Exodus 20 (with its reference to the tradition mentioned in Gen 2:1-3) may represent a modified version of the Ten Commandments updated to meet the needs, and express the theological concerns, of the Judahite community in exile. Deuteronomy may have preserved the older formulation of the reason why the Sabbath was to be hallowed.

YHWH alone "You shall have no other gods before/besides me" (Ex 20:3/Dtn 5:7): According to most Christian traditions this is the first of the Ten Commandments whereas in the Jewish tradition it is already the second one, the first being: "I am the LORD, your God, ...". The commandment demands the exclusive worship of YHWH. The community that owes its existence to the act of liberation from slave/corvée labor narrated in Ex 1-15, is obliged, according to the covenantal document (Ex 19-24) to worship YHWH alone, not to engage in worship of other deities, as well as to worship YHWH in a way that does not involve representation of the deity (Ex 20:4-5a). The latter issue, the prohibition of any representation of YHWH and the right way of approaching the deity are the fundamental themes of the second part of Exodus (the incident of the Golden Calf and its aftermath, Ex 32-34, and the elaborate descriptions of tabernacle and priesthood in Ex 25-31 and 35-40).

The commandment "not to have any gods before or besides me" implies neither that non-Israelites may not serve other gods nor that YHWH is the only god there is. Rather, the issue is the obligation, demanded by YHWH and accepted by Israel in the covenantal scene, to worship YHWH exclusively. Hence: "Hear o Israel YHWH is our God, YHWH alone (and no other)" (Dtn 6:4).

While in Ex 19-24, YHWH's exclusive right to Israel's allegiance and obedience is formulated without any respect to the conduct of others such as neighboring tribes or minorities among the Israelites, Chapter 12 of the Book of Deuteronomy expands the clause of exclusive obligation to a command of iconoclasm that is also characterized by a radically xenophobic attitude.

These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth.
You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles (Hebr: Asherim) with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways. (Dtn 12:1-4)

The last sentence is perhaps the most revealing if, as most scholars assume, the text reflects not advice before entering the promised land but a statement of what should have happened in the distant past, yet was never realized and which is seen as the root evil causing the decline of the kingdom. Read in this light, "You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways" really indicates: You are worshipping the LORD exactly as others worship their gods, and this practice is to stop immediately or else the wrath of God will be upon us!

What seems as a mere warning and a repetition of the second (third) commandment ("You shall not make for yourself an idol") is in reality a call to abolish the idols existing among the Israelites themselves. The iconoclasm commanded in Dtn 12, the abolishion of all images (cf. Akhen-Aten in the pre-Mosaic period, iconoclasm in the later Byzantian era, and the Calvinists in the 16th century) is thus not primarily directed against others (e.g. Canaanites) worshipping in ways that are upsetting to the Israelites but against the worship of YHWH, along with other deities, in a manner that was common practice and common sense not only to pre-Israelite Canaanites but to most Israelites and Judahites during most of the First Temple Period.

How do we know this?

The Reforms of Josiah (622) We know of an iconoclastic reform which was instituted not early or in temporal proximity to the Israelites' alleged conquest of Canaan but shortly before the destruction of the state of Judah by the neo-Babylonians. The source is 2. Kings, a work composed shortly after the destruction (the book ends with events taking place during the exile but before the rise of Persia that ended the Babylonian captivity).

In hindsight, the authors of this historical review rate the Judahite and Israelite kings in accordance with their criteria of what a good and pious king should have done. They share the common Judahite view that all of Israel should have stayed under the rule of a Davidic king (cf. 1. Kings 12-13). They also share the view prominently expressed in Deuteronomy 12:5-7, that the worship of YHWH should have been practiced only in a single place which the Books of Samuel and Kings believe to have been the city of David, Jerusalem. (This view was -- and is still! -- contested by the Samaritans who lived in the regions of the erstwhile Northern kingdom of Israel and who believed that Mt. Gerizim, the mountain of blessing mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy 27:12, was where YHWH had chosen to let his name reside.)

In 2. Kings 22 and 23, we read about the reforms instituted by King Josiah in the year 622. Josiah purges the royal shrine in Jerusalem, erected by his ancestor Solomon, of a vast array of practices which Deuteronomy ascribes to the foreign nations that the Israelites were to dispossess, rites that evidently continued to be practiced not merely by ordinary Judeans but supported by their very kings (cf. 2 Kings 23:5). The list of rites Josiah is said to have abolished (echoing the deeds of a pious predecessor, the righteous King Hezekiah, cf. 2 Kings 18:1-6, as well as the list of "foreign" practices abhorred by Deuteronomy 12) provides us with a window into the common religiosity of Israelites and other inhabitants of Canaan during the First Temple period.

The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens. He brought out the (image of) Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. He broke down the houses of the male temple prostitutes that were in the house of the LORD, where the women did weaving for Asherah. etc. (2 Kings 23: 4-7. For more on Asherah, see here.)

Josiah is concerned with three issues:

a) the worship of YHWH alone;

b) the elimination of symbolic representations of divine power that are common to Canaanite and Israelite practitioners; and

c) the limitation of legitimate sacrifices to one shrine alone: the royal temple established by his ancestor, King Solomon.

What gives rise to this radical revision of what were, until then, the expressions of common religion adhered to by most in Israel no less than by their neighbors? In 2. Kings 22:3-10 we learn that Josiah was prompted to his reforms by a book that was "found" during repairs of the royal temple. The book is such that, upon hearing its words, the king rends his garments. After a prophetess authenticates the book, Josiah reads it before the people of Judah at the house of the LORD and makes a covenant:

The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant. (2. Kings 23:3)

Based on the similarities between the wording and content of 2 Kings 22-23 and Deuteronomy 6:4-5, 12-13, and, in fact, most of the Book of Deuteronomy, scholars have concluded that the "found" book of 2. Kings 22 is none other than some version of our Book of Deuteronomy.

It is noteworthy, that 2. Kings claims nowhere that the found book had been known to anyone before its appearance at the time of Josiah. The authors of Kings (which forms part of what referred to by scholars as the "Deuteronomistic Work of History" that includes the Books of Samuel as well) are not aware of a Torah of Moses. Rather, they have before them a sacred text which was elevated to the level of the divine instruction to a pious king of Judah not earlier than the age of Josiah.