Josiah and Exile

I’ve been reading through some large chunks of the Old Testament recently. I get seized by the impulse to do so every two or three years. What caught my attention this time around was how close together the high point and the low point of the southern kingdom are. I’ve read these stories before, several times, but I can’t remember this fact striking me so powerfully in previous visits.

Josiah is one of the best, perhaps the very best, of the kings in the history of the southern kingdom, from the standpoint of the biblical author. During his reign the book of the law is discovered or rediscovered, which had been unknown to previous generations. The Passover is celebrated for the first time in centuries, from the sound of it.

And then a decade after Josiah’s reign, the Babylonian invasion has begun. Within a couple decades of his rule, it’s all over. Many people in Judah lived to witness both the discovery of the Law and the renewal of the Passover and the destruction of the pagan shrines that had been there since Solomon, on the one hand, and also the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the palace and of the temple and the deportation of the Jewish people, on the other.

Considering how important the Law and the Passover and strict monotheism were for the rest of Jewish history, the timing is pretty remarkable. A few years later with the discovery, or a few years earlier for the invasion, and the people going into exile would not have been anything like the Jewish people who have been so consequential to the history of humanity and the world.

Even as it was, it is surprising that these changes that were so recent managed to become so deeply a part of Jewish self-understanding before the exile. There was not a chance for the beliefs and rituals to become habituated or traditional. How did it happen?

On the other hand, perhaps a few more decades between Josiah and the exile would have also led to a Jewish people in exile very different than the one that history has given us. The kings after Josiah were closer to the model of Manasseh than Josiah, we are told. Perhaps another few decades would have folded the monotheism of Josiah’s reign (or stricter henotheism, as some would prefer) back into the polytheistic patchwork that prevailed before.

The prophets of our canon were surrounded by other prophetic schools who contradicted the biblical prophets and what they stood for. What a delicate set of circumstances it was that made them the ones whose voices have shaped our past and our thinking so profoundly.

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