24. Hekekiah and Josiah

Hezekiah and Josiah are presented in the biblical sources as the major royal reformers of ancient Israel. Discuss the problems in writing a history that would cover their two reigns and reforms, taking into account the relevant extra-biblical sources.

*Prior to discussing the problems one encounters with reconstructing a history of Hezekiah and Josiah's reigns and reforms, let's consider what DH and Chronicles say about the reforms of these two kings.

I. Hezekiah's Reforms in DH and in Chronicles (ruled c. 727-699 BCE)

A. Hezekiah’s Reform in DH (2Kgs 18:4)

*In the description of Hezekiah's reign (2Kgs 18-20), several times the text states that Hezekiah did what was righteous:

"He did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done" (2Kgs 18:3).

"He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses. The LORD was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him" (2Kgs 18:5-7).

*However, there is really only one verse that mentions his reforms:

"He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan" (2 Kings 18:4).

*One may also mention the words of Rabshakeh when the Assyrian official reminds the people of Hezekiah’s past actions: 

“But if you say to me, ‘We rely on the LORD our God,’ is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem’?” (2Kgs. 18:22 (= Isa. 36:7, 2Chron. 32:12). This doesn’t mean they’re historical, but it shows that the reforms are integrated into the broader narrative in at least three books (2Kgs. Isa., and 2Chron.).

*In sum, DH does not say much about Hezekiah's reforms. The reference to him breaking down Nehustan is indeed unique to DH and it is important! But, the description of his reforms is meager!

B. Hezekiah’s Reform in Chronicles (2Chron. 29-31)

*When Chronicles speaks of Hezekiah's reign (2Chron. 29-32), the majority of this (2Chr 29-31) is a description of Hezekiah's reforms!

*According to the Chronicles, Hezekiah's reforms included the following:

Repaired the temple and cleansed altar and utensils

"In the first year of his reign, in the first month, he opened the doors of the house of the LORD and repaired them (2Chr 29:3). Then they went inside to King Hezekiah and said, 'We have cleansed all the house of the LORD, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the table for the rows of bread and all its utensils (2Chr 29:18) All the utensils that King Ahaz repudiated during his reign when he was faithless, we have made ready and sanctified; see, they are in front of the altar of the LORD' (2Chron 29:19). And every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered (2Chr 31:21)."

Kept the Passover with all Israel

"Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, to keep the passover to the LORD the God of Israel (2Chr 30:1). There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem (2Chr 30:26)."

Destroyed high places, altars, and asherim

"Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all. Then all the people of Israel returned to their cities, all to their individual properties (2Chr. 31:1)." 

Appointed priests and Levites to do service

"Hezekiah appointed the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, division by division, everyone according to his service, the priests and the Levites, for burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, to minister in the gates of the camp of the LORD and to give thanks and praise (2Chr. 31:2)." 

Ordered people to tithe to priests and Levites

"As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the LORD their God, and laid them in heaps (2Chr. 31:5-6)."

II. Josiah's Reforms in DH and in Chronicles (reigned 641-610 BCE) (2Kgs. 22:1-23:25; 2Chron. 34-35)

*The account of Josiah’s reform is much longer than that of Hezekiah, taking up nearly two full chapters; basically, it involved a) finding the Book of the Law (23:8), b) publically reading the Book of the Law (23:2), and then c) acting on the Book of the Law, i.e., removing all elements of foreign worship and so on (23:4-24). Interestingly, 2Chron. 34-5 does not really expand on the account in 2Kgs., though 2Chron. 34 does place more emphasis on the repairs to the Temple

Found the book of the law, read it aloud to all of Judah, made a covenant to keep it.

2Kings 22:8: The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it.

2Kings 23:1-3: Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. 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.

Removed cultic objects from Temple, destroyed altars, deposed and executed cultic priests, prohibited going to witches

2Kings 23:4-20, 24: The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all 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. He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city. The priests of the high places, however, did not come up to the altar of the LORD in Jerusalem, but ate unleavened bread among their kindred. He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech. He removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the LORD, by the chamber of the eunuch Nathan-melech, which was in the precincts; then he burned the chariots of the sun with fire. The altars on the roof of the upper chamber of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars that Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, he pulled down from there and broke in pieces, and threw the rubble into the Wadi Kidron. The king defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the Mount of Destruction, which King Solomon of Israel had built for Astarte the abomination of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. He broke the pillars in pieces, cut down the sacred poles, and covered the sites with human bones. Moreover, the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin—he pulled down that altar along with the high place. He burned the high place, crushing it to dust; he also burned the sacred pole. As Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount; and he sent and took the bones out of the tombs, and burned them on the altar, and defiled it, according to the word of the LORD that the man of God proclaimed, when Jeroboam stood by the altar at the festival. Moreover, Josiah removed all the shrines of the high places that were in the towns of Samaria, which kings of Israel had made, provoking the LORD to anger; he did to them just as he had done at Bethel. He slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. v.24–Moreover, Josiah put away those who consulted mediums, and spiritists, the household gods and idols...

Kept the Passover

2Kings 23:21-25: Moreover, Josiah removed all the shrines of the high places that were in the towns of Samaria, which kings of Israel had made, provoking the LORD to anger; he did to them just as he had done at Bethel. He slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem. The king commanded all the people, “Keep the passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.” No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah; but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the LORD.

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

Renovates the Temple

According to 2Chron 34, money was gather to "repair and restore the House" (v.10). The money was used to buy "hewn stone and timber for beams" (v.11). 

III. Problems involved in writing a history of Hezekiah's and Josiah's reigns and reforms.

*In writing a history of the Hezekiah's and Josiah's reigns and reforms, one encounters 2 issues:

A) Issues Involving Ideology & Textual Criticism


*It's clear that the summary of Hezekiah's reign and reforms is much longer in Chronicles than in DH. The Chronicler added about two chapters of material to the few references of Hezekiah's reforms in DH. One may suspect that these details were crafted more by the Chronicler's ideology, rather than by a honest attempt at recording historical events. 

*Obviously, there is quite a bit of theological shaping here which is in accordance with the Chronicler's ideology (i.e. that David was a great king); Hezekiah is compared to David, and his deeds are extolled above basically all other kings. It would be reasonable to conclude that such accounts are probably to be derived from the reign of Hezekiah himself, and the Chronicler clearly expands on what we find in Kings in typical ways, e.g., emphasizing the goodness of the king and also placing an emphasis on repairing the Temple. And yet, one may ask: did any of this really happen?

*Thus, it's difficult to evaluate the historical value of Chronicles in its depiction of the reforms of Hezekiah. The ideological slant of Chronicles is to present David as the glorious king; and Hezekiah and Josiah are great kings specifically because they supposedly acted like David. The text attempts to point them as Davidic kings. So, the goal of Chronicles is biased from the start. It's difficult to trust the details that it claims for these reforms.

*It's possible that Hezekiah did destroy the Nehustan, as is recorded DH (2Kgs 18:4). Additionally, it seems that was some degradation of temples outside of Jerusalem. Scholars suggests, however, that these "reforms" were not religious in nature but rather political. Borowski and Handy suggests that Hezekiah's goal in ending animal sacrifice outside of Jerusalem was to bring more provisions to Jerusalem in time of war and to keep these goods out of Assyrian hands. Todd has suggested that removal of these cultic sites and images (some of which were Assyrian) was Hezekiah's way of rebelling against Assyrian hegemony which imposed its gods and religion upon its captured peoples. From a Text Criticism perspective, it's possible that DtrH retrojected these reforms upon Hezekiah using Dtr terminology (Na'aman; Borowski; Todd).


*Josiah's reforms were as much political as they were religious. The goal was to centralize the cult at Jerusalem and thereby set Jerusalem at the center. With this in mind, it's difficult to reconstruct the exact history and motivation of these reforms since both DH and Chronicles have a slant towards Jerusalem.

*Already in 1915, Olmstead (567) recognized that something beyond “purely religious motives” was at play in Josiah’s reform: “Centralization of the cult in Jerusalem was only one phase a political centralization which had long been in process of development.” Moreover, Olmstead (568) contends, “in certain respects...the reform represents the victory of the Jerusalem aristocracy over the country elements...It was the king’s order to use priestly funds for temple repair, neglected by the religious authorities, which led to the ‘discovery’ of the Law. It was the king who carried out such demands of the Law as he saw fit. If Yahweh was now supreme in the land, so was his viceregnet the king; if Jerusalem was now the unique centre of Yahweh worship, no less was it the sole capital of the Hebrews

B) The Issue of Archaeology

*The archeological data provides conflicting evidence for the supposed reforms of these two reformers. At times, archeological data contradicts the claims of the Bible.

Hezekiah's Reforms

1. At Beersheba, a four-horned altar was found dismantled and re-used in a storehouse in stratum II, the destruction of which possibly dates to 701 BCE; if so, it is speculated that this altar was destroyed as part of Hezekiah’s reforms. The re-use of the altar stones for a storehouse suggests that the dismantling of the altar and the building of the storehouse occurred at the same time; this has an interesting comparison with 2Chron. 31:1-11, where the dismantling of cultic places and the building of storehouses for temple tithes is also connected (Borowski, 150).

2. At Arad, an Iron II citadel was rebuilt by Hezekiah, apparently to prepare for his revolt; the temple there at Arad was modified somewhat, apparently, so that the incense altar was put out of use during the late 8th cen. BCE, but the temple itself continued to be used into the 7th cen., possibly put out of commission during the time of Josiah (Borowski, 151). I would call this mixed evidence—something was taken out of use, but the temple itself remained.4. At Tell Ḥalif, archaeologists uncovered a room with several cultic objects, suggesting illicity worship activities there continued unabated through Hezekiah’s reforms. Borowski, 152.

3. The Lachish reliefs of Sennacherib in Nineveh depict Assyrian soldiers carrying away incense altars, suggesting they had not been destroyed. The large and intricate nature of these altars in the reliefs may suggest that they were used for public worship in Lachish, thus nullifying the idea that Hezekiah’s reform had far-reaching impact there (Borowski, 152).

Josiah's Reforms

*According to Fried (450-1), “according to 2 Kings 17:29, peoples brought in by the Assyrians made cult statues to their gods in all their cities: ‘Each nation continued to make its gods and to set them up in each bet habbamot which the Samarians had made, each nation in the cities where they lived.’ If so, cultic material, including statues of foreign gods, should be evident from Assyrian-period strata in the provinces of Samaria and Megiddo. 2 Kings 23:19 states that Josiah removed the batte habbamot of Samaria. This implies that a destruction of bitte habbamot should be visible in the cities which Josiah controlled, in strata assigned to the last half of the seventh century, Iron Age IIC.

*In her conclusion, however, Fried (457) does not contend that we have no evidence of Josiah’s sweeping destructions—rather, she contends that there was nothing to destroy in the first place: “This survey reveals no functioning cult site in any city, town, or hamlet of the Assyrian period provinces of Samaria and Megiddo. In Megiddo, the great Bronze Age temples were destroyed in a major conflagration, and were not rebuilt. The site's two Iron Age cult sanctuaries were deliberately buried at the end of the tenth century. They were not rebuilt. The cult site at Kedesh was destroyed, probably by Tiglath-pileser III. It was not rebuilt. The one at Ta‘anach was destroyed most likely by Pharaoh Sheshonq I. It too was not rebuilt. The cult sites at Tel ‘Amal were destroyed probably at the end of the tenth century and probably by Pharaoh Sheshonq. They were not rebuilt. The great Bronze Age Migdal or Fortress Temple at Shechem, a second large temple, and another small sanctuary, were all destroyed in a twelfth- century conflagration. They were not rebuilt, their remains being deliberately buried by Israelites at the beginning of the ninth century. This is our entire evidence for cult in Iron Age Samaria and Megiddo. Thus, every known cult site dated to the Divided Monarchy was destroyed in an enemy attack; none was rebuilt.

*Thus, Fried’s conclusion (460) is as follows: “There is no archaeological evidence consistent with the assumption that Josiah removed cult sites from the Iron Age II cities of Judah, Samaria, Megiddo, or the Negev. Except for sites under the control of Edom and beyond Josiah's reach, there were none to be removed. All had either been destroyed by Egyptian or Assyrian kings, or purposely buried in anticipation of such destruction. None was rebuilt. Neither the reforms of Josiah nor those of Hezekiah against the bamot should be considered historical.”

IV. Conclusion

In summary, the value of archaeology for informing us on whether these reforms were “real” or not is negligible; if we find a ruined 8th or 7th cen. sanctuary outside of Jerusalem, do we say, “Oh, that was Hezekiah’s reform!”? We simply don’t know the reasons why something was dismantled, and this is the fatal problem in using archaeology to confirm or deny the reality of the reforms. As it stands, it appears there are some dismantled altars and shrines, and there are some objects and sites still in tact; it would be completely unreasonable to expect that these reforms would have effectively eliminated all illegal cultic installations, and indeed no religious hierarchy can enforce total compliance. The evidence from Beersheba is tantalizing regarding Hezekiah’s food-storage/tithing program and cultic reforms, but it can only remain tantalizing. Regarding Josiah’s reforms, however, Fried’s evidence seems to be quite damaging to the historicity of the account, and I am not aware of any subsequent studies that have refuted what Fried has said.

In the end, according to the biblical texts themselves, neither reform was effective beyond the life of the king: Hezekiah’s reform was apparently undone by Manasseh, and thus Josiah needed to re-do the whole thing, and Josiah’s reform was so ineffective that just after his death, Jeremiah begins prophesying about how badly everyone is behaving, and in fact the nation is destroyed (because of the peoples’ sin) less than 30 years after Josiah’s reign ended. Thus, one must come away with the suspicious that these “reforms” were as much political and economic in nature—not that the political and economic could ever be separated from the “religious” in the ancient world as anything else. The literary accounts of these reforms, however, are more powerful than their reality, as these accounts enshrined the memory of the righteous whom God will bless when correct actions are taken in difficult times.

Bibliography: O. Borowski, “Hezekiah’s Reforms and the Revolt against Assyria,” BA 58.3 (1995): 148-55; L.S. Fried, “The High Places (Bāmôt) and the Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah: An Archaeological Investigation,” JAOS 122.3 (2002): 437-65; J.M. Miller and J.H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006); A.T. Olmstead, “The Reform of Josiah and its Secular Aspects,” The American Historical Review 20.3 (1915): 566-70; K.A. Swanson, “A Reassessment of Hezekiah’s Reform in Light of Jar Handles and Iconographic Evidence,” CBQ 64 (2002): 460-9.


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