Monday, April 4, 2016

Moses, Deuteronomy and Josiah: Part 3 of 3

          Hilkiah, a priest, made a critical discovery relatively early in the reign of Josiah of Judah. The discovery of a scroll during repairs to the temple suggests that it might have been a foundation document (2 Kg. 22:3-8//2 Chr. 34:8-16). Foundation texts were well-known in the ancient Near East, documents including royal inscriptions and information to any king who might undertake a restoration of the building in future days. The Book of the Law might have been enshrined in such a foundation box or concealed in the temple walls. Alternatively, it could have been found in the temple archives. In the Kings record, it was simply called the “book of the Torah,” a title that is somewhat ambiguous, since presumably all the books of Moses were single scrolls (2 Kg. 22:8-10; cf. 2 Chr. 34:14ff.). However, when the scroll was read to Josiah and later read and interpreted by the prophetess Huldah, the king’s reaction was immediate and visceral. It was apparent from what was rehearsed that the national life of Judah was in serious violation of the statutes contained in this scroll, and the contents of the scroll became a powerful incentive for Josiah’s reforms, including a heart-felt renewal of the ancient covenant (2 Kg. 23:1-3). In accord with what was written in this scroll, Josiah directed a nation-wide purge of pagan elements. He burned all the implements dedicated to Ba’al and Asherah and did away with their priests. He dismantled all vestiges of the astral cult. He destroyed the shrines and altars of paganism, smashing them to bits, and he even carried his reforms beyond his national borders to the ancient high places of northern Israel. Finally, he instituted a Passover celebration that was unlike anything the citizens of Judah had seen since the period of the judges. All this sweeping reform was prompted by “the requirements of the Torah written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of Yahweh” (2 Kg. 23:4-24). The assessment of Josiah’s work was that “neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to Yahweh as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the law of Moses” (2 Kg. 23:25).

          While no title to the newly discovered book of the law was given in either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles, virtually all interpreters conclude that it must have been some form of Deuteronomy. None of the scrolls of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers seemed likely to have caused such distress. The king’s anguished reaction to its contents, especially the threat of severe divine reprisals for disobedience, seem consonant with the curses of Deuteronomy 28. Further, the language “book of the Torah” is used in Deuteronomy about itself (Dt. 28:58, 61; 31:26; cf. Jos. 1:8). The law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 made the king liable for maintaining moral leadership for the nation. Combined, all these factors makes Deuteronomy the most likely candidate for what was discovered by Hilkiah. The fact that the assessment of Josiah’s reforms was framed in words directly taken from the language of Deuteronomy 6:5 (cf. 2 Kg. 23:25) only strengthens this conclusion.

          How came this book to be deposited in the temple and effectively lost? Here, there are several theories. Some suggest that technically it was not lost at all but was a fresh composition. Collins and others bluntly conclude that “the finding of the book [was] a fiction, designed to ensure its ready acceptance by the people.” While he concedes that some earlier material may have been edited and incorporated into the book, the larger composition was the product of Josiah’s own scribes. Both Deuteronomy and the traditions in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were either composed or edited from a Deuteronomic perspective at this time, and the process went on for some years even after Josiah’s reign ended at his death. Such a reconstruction not only would provide a rationale for Josiah’s reforms, it would explain the similarities between the Book of Deuteronomy and the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, which are from about the same period.

          Other scholars, however, are reluctant to sever Deuteronomy so completely from the older traditions. Some suggest that the larger corpus of Deuteronomy was composed earlier in the northern kingdom before its Assyrian exile. Here, Deuteronomy’s origin was believed to be among priestly Levites or northern prophets who, in light of what was happening in the north, set down traditions in opposition to the prevailing Ba’al cult in order to stem the tide of apostasy. Fleeing southward after the fall of the northern kingdom, they brought with them their text, which was hidden in the temple, possibly during the dark days of Manasseh’s kingship in Judah, when Manasseh’s so thoroughly reversed the reforms of his father Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kg. 21:1-9). Indeed, during Manasseh’s reign, Jerusalem was filled “from end to end” with the innocent blood of all who opposed him (2 Kg. 21:16), which certainly would have been an understandable context for hiding a Torah scroll whose very existence might have meant life or death. The scroll presumably was hidden in the temple for preservation and only rediscovered during the safer period of Josiah’s reign when workers were refurbishing the central sanctuary.

          An even more conservative alternative to the above scenarios is the suggestion that Deuteronomy was composed in the time of Solomon as a direct rebuke to Solomon’s self-exaltation and apostasy (cf. Dt. 17:14-20; 1 Kg. 11:1-13). Deuteronomy is clear: the king of Israel must not elevate himself (he must be a “brother” Israelite), he must not amass a large chariot corps, and he must not surround himself with a large harem. All these things Solomon did! Deuteronomy, by contrast, shows that power in Israel would not be concentrated in any single individual, but spread through other officials, such as, judges (Dt. 16:18), priests (Dt. 18:5) and prophets (Dt. 18:15) as well as a king (Dt. 17:14ff.). Those who held offices as judges or kings were to be appointed by the people themselves, not some central figure (Dt. 16:18; 17:15), and the real authority for the nation lay not in any single person, but in the Torah itself (Dt. 31:10-13). Hence, the nation of Israelites was to be a true brotherhood living under the covenant of Torah. This primacy of the Torah explains the central role of Moses, who mediates God’s will by his speeches (cf. Dt. 4:14), and it is to be carried out by the people within their families (Dt. 6:7-9). Such a setting for Deuteronomy would be earlier and different in orientation than the context of the Josianic reforms. That Deuteronomy fulfilled an important role in Josiah’s reform need not be discounted, but the ideas in Deuteronomy are older and more primitive than a 7th century BC context.

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