Josiah – The King who placed Jerusalem in the center

By Gideon

From the bible, from writings by non-Jews who lived in the ancient world, and from archeological digs, we know that prior to King Josiah’s rule , the Israelites (ancient Jews) worshiped other gods in addition to the Jewish G-d Yahweh (יַהְוֶה‬ in Hebrew).  Before his rule, Jerusalem was only one city out of many places where Jews sacrificed animals to G-d.  By the time King Josiah was killed in Megiddo in a battle against Egypt, Jerusalem was the holiest city for the Jewish people. It became the only place where Israelites sacrificed animals to G-d, and Jews warshipped only the Jewish G-d Yahweh (יַהְוֶה‬ in Hebrew).

The impact of King Josiah’s reforms on Judaism, and on Jerusalem, was so profound that it is still being felt today, 2600 years later. Jews today still warship only the Jewish G-d Yahweh, and animal sacrifice is still permitted only in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. (For that reason, Jews stopped practicing animal sacrifice when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans almost 2000 years ago in 66 CE.)

In early biblical times there were other religious centers where Israelites (Jews) sacrificed animals and worshipped G-d:

Hebron is mentioned 87 times in the bible, and is the world’s oldest Jewish community. The city’s history has been inseparably linked with the Cave of Machpelah,which the Patriarch Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite for 400 silver shekels (Genesis 23), as a family tomb. As recorded in Genesis, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, are buried there, and — according to a Jewish tradition — Adam and Eve are also buried there. Following the death of King Saul, God instructed David to go to Hebron, where he was anointed King of Judah (II Samuel 2:1-4). A little more than 7.5 years later, David was anointed King over all Israel, in Hebron (II Samuel 5:1-3).

Bethel is mentioned several times in Genesis. It is first mentioned in Genesis 12 and 13, as a place near where Abram stayed and built an altar on his way to Egypt and on his return. More famously it is mentioned again in Genesis 28, when Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, falls asleep on a stone and dreams of a ladder stretching between Heaven and Earth and thronged with angels; God stands at the top of the ladder, and promises Jacob the land of Canaan; when Jacob awakes he anoints the stone with oil and names the place Bethel. Another account, from Genesis 35 repeats the covenant with God and the naming of the place (as El-Bethel), and makes this the site of Jacob’s own change of name to Israel.  After the kingdom of Israel was split into two kingdoms on the death of King Solomon (c.931 BC), Jeroboam, the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, made two calves of gold (1 Kings 12:28 ff) and set one up in Bethel, and the other in Dan in the far north of his kingdom. This was apparently to make it unnecessary for the people of Israel to have to go to Jerusalem to worship in the temple there.

Jerusalem began to be considered a city of significant regional importance only after it was conquered by the Israelite King David. While, during the assignment of the Promised Land to the twelve Israelite tribes, Jerusalem became part of the area of the tribe of Benjamin, it was never actually conquered by the Israelites (see Judges19). Only when King David conquered it, did Jerusalem begin to develop as an important political center and a significant religious center.

According to the bible, the Israelite history of the Jerusalem began in c. 1000 BCE, with King David’s sack of Jerusalem. It became the City of David and capital of the United Kingdom of Israel. According to the Books of Samuel, the Jebusites managed to resist attempts by the Israelites to capture the city.  The Books of Samuel states that David managed to capture the city by stealth, sending his forces through a “water shaft” and attacking the city from the inside. According to the biblical narrative, King Solomon built the Temple of Solomon at a location which the Book of Chronicles equates with David’s altar. The Temple became a major religious centre in the region.

King Josiah (Yoshiyahu in Hebrew) was a seventh-century BCE king of Judah (c. 649–609) who, according to the bible, instituted major religious reforms. Josiah is credited by most biblical scholars with having established or compiled important Hebrew Scriptures during the “Deuteronomic reform” which probably occurred during his rule.

Josiah became king of Judah at the age of eight, after the assassination of his father, King Amon, and reigned for thirty-one years, from 641/640 to 610/609 BCE. When Josiah became king of Judah, the international situation was in flux. The Assyrian Empire was beginning to disintegrate, the Neo-Babylonian Empire had not yet risen to replace it, and Egypt to the west was still recovering from Assyrian rule. In this power vacuum, Jerusalem was able to govern itself for the time being without foreign intervention.

Josiah is known only from biblical texts; no reference to him exists in surviving texts of the period from Egypt or Babylon, and no clear archaeological evidence, such as inscriptions bearing his name, has ever been found. Nevertheless, most scholars believe he existed and that the absence of documents is due to few documents of any sort surviving from this very early period, and to Jerusalem having been occupied, conquered, and rebuilt for thousands of years.

In the eighteenth year of his rule, Josiah ordered the High Priest Hilkiah to use the tax money which had been collected over the years to renovate the temple. It was during this time that Hilkiah discovered the Book of the Law. While Hilkiah was clearing the treasure room of the Temple he discovered a scroll described as “the book of the Law” or as “the book of the law of Yahweh by the hand of Moses”.  Many scholars believe this was either a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy or a text that became a part of Deuteronomy.

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was agreed among biblical scholars that this “Book of the Law” was an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy, but recent biblical scholarship  generally believe that the “Book of the Law”—an early predecessor of the Torah—was invented by Josiah’s priests, who were driven by ideological interests to centralize power under Josiah in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Until his reform, Israelites worshipped in several places. Israelite (Jewish) priests  conducted religious services and animal sacrifices to throughout the country. The finding of (or writing) the discovered book gave Josiah’s the legitimacy to centralize power in Jerusalem. Josiah’s army destroyed all other religious animal sacrifice places throughout the country and implemented a law that stated  that the temple in Jerusalem is the only place where priests could perform animal sacrifices to G-d. Josiah permitted only the worshiping of Yahweh.

Jerusalem, Josiah’s capital, became the most important city in Judaism. Christianity and Islam that came later, accepted Jerusalem as a special holy city, thus making it a unique place; a city that all three major monotheistic religions consider  as a “must have” and have been fighting over it for more than a thousand years. During its long history, Jerusalem had been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.

In the spring of 609 BCE, Pharaoh Necho II led a sizable army up to the Euphrates River to aid the Assyrians against the Babylonians. Taking the coast route Via Maris into Syria at the head of a large army, consisting mainly of mercenaries, and supported by his Mediterranean fleet along the shore, Necho passed the low tracts of Philistia and Sharon. However, the passage over the ridge of hills which shuts in on the south of the great Jezreel Valley was blocked by the Judean army led by Josiah who attempted to block the advance at Megiddo, where a fierce battle was fought and Josiah was killed.