King Josiah of Judah: The Lost Messiah of Israel. (Reviews of Books)

By Seters, John Van | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview

King Josiah of Judah: The Lost Messiah of Israel. (Reviews of Books)


Seters, John Van, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


King Josiah of Judah: The Lost Messiah of Israel. By MARVIN A. SWEENEY. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2001. Pp. xvi + 350. $60.

Sweeney's study of King Josiah and the so-called Deuteronomic reform addresses the recent archaeological assessment of the role of Judah in the Assyrian empire of the late seventh century, the ferment in radactional criticism of the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) and Deuteronomy, and reconstructions of the religious and political history of the late Judean monarchy. To this he adds his own special interest in the prophetic literature contemporary to the late monarchy and the redactional interpretation of earlier prophecies as they might relate to the Josianic reform. He states this thesis thus (p. 19):

1. That biblical literature (as outlined above) indeed points to the historical reality of Josiah's reform as a program that was designed to unify Israel and Judah around the Jerusalem Temple under Davidic rule.

2. That the DtrH presents an ideologically charged history directed particularly to the northern tribes of Israel. The DtrH maintains that, from the time of Joshua on, the northern tribes were never able to rule themselves according to the ideal Mosaic model of leadership and only King Josiah represented the proper Mosaic model of ideal centralized leadership over a united people of Israel.

3. That the book of Deuteronomy represents Josiah's attempt to revise the system of Israelite law in order to enhance the religious, economic, and political power of the centralized state and thereby to unite the people around the Jerusalem Temple and the house of David.

4. That prophetic literature was employed to carry Out various aspects of the reform.

From this study Josiah emerges as one who saw himself as a king or "messiah" of a united Davidic state which, however, was short-lived, ending with his early death at the hands of Necho and political pressures from Egypt and Babylon. Nevertheless he created an ideal of a restored Josianic/Davidic kingdom of Israel centered around the Jerusalem Temple that survived the Babylonian exile.

Following his understanding of the redaction-critical method of working back from the final form to earlier layers and from the latest historical periods to earlier times, Sweeney begins his analysis (part 1) at the end of 2 Kings and the final redactional layer of DtrH, and then moves to an earlier Josianic version and a still earlier Hezekiah edition. With these in mind, he identifies such layers in earlier parts of DtrH and Deuteronomy. This tripartite division of redactional layers is, however, only detailed for 2 Kings 18-25 and is left vague and confusing for the rest of DtrH. Part 2 then takes up the prophetic literature that is viewed as relevant to Josiah's reign. While the book covers a wide swath of biblical literature, it is nevertheless surprising that some important issues get rather slim or perfunctory treatment. There are two such issues that are basic to the thesis as a whole (see points 1 and 2 above) and we will turn our attention to these.

The first issue is whether Josiah attempted in any way to "reunite" the north with the south and whether DtrH represents him as doing so. Everything depends upon the description of a foray by Josiah into the north to destroy the altar at Bethel and some other high places in the "cities of Samaria" and to kill a number of priests (2 Kgs 23:15-20). This all-important but very problematic text gets no detailed discussion or analysis. …

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