Hezekiah’s religious reforms are described in detail in 2 Chronicles 29-31. At the time Hezekiah began his reforms, both the political and religious climate in Judah were favorable to a return to Yahweh. The prophets Amos and Hosea had been preaching reform in the Northern Kingdom before its demise in 722 B.C., while Isaiah and Micah had been preaching a similar message in the Southern Kingdom, warning the leadership of Judah that they could not survive if they continued oppressing the people and promoting the religious practices that were offensive to the religion of Yahweh.
With the fall of Samaria a few years before Hezekiah became king of Judah, the call to reform was taken more seriously in Judah. It was for this reason that the political and religious actions taken by Hezekiah were enthusiastically supported by many reform-minded people in Jerusalem.
Hezekiah’s reforms came at a crucial time in Judah’s history. The fall of Samaria provided the tangible evidence that the oracles of doom proclaimed by the prophets against Israel for over a century were indeed warnings from Yahweh. Israel had been severely judged. Now, Judah had to reform or face the same fate as the Northern Kingdom.
According to the elders of Judah who lived in the days of Jeremiah, Micah’s prophecy made a profound impact on Hezekiah, leading him to initiate his religious reforms. Micah proclaimed the destruction of the temple and the devastation of Jerusalem:
“Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us.’ Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (Micah 3:9 -12).
According to the elders of Judah, Hezekiah feared the Lord and entreated his favor. Because of Hezekiah’s repentance, the Lord relented of the evil which he had pronounced against the city and against the people (Jeremiah 26:19).
According to the Chronicler, the first action Hezekiah took at the beginning of his reform was to open the doors of the house of the Lord and begin repairing the temple. This happened on the first month of the first year of his reign (2 Chronicles 29:3).
As long as Sargon was alive, Hezekiah could not openly revolt against Assyria. He could not renounce the Assyrian gods immediately after his accession to the throne because this would be considered an act of open rebellion against Assyrian control. Hezekiah began his reform by purifying Judah’s religious practices. Hezekiah was able to take these steps toward independence because, according to Assyrian records, Sargon was preoccupied with rebellions in the northern part of his empire. For this reason, Sargon was not able to make another campaign in Palestine until 712 B.C.
It is possible that Hezekiah began his religious reforms in the first year of his reign as the Chronicler suggests. Hezekiah began his reforms with minor changes in the Temple. Thus, as long as Hezekiah paid his annual tribute to Assyria, Sargon would not see the need to investigate closely the religious activities or other religious events taking place in Judah. It is impossible to know whether Hezekiah removed the Assyrian gods at the beginning of the reform, however, the repair, cleansing, and purification of the temple were the initial steps taken at the beginning of the reform.
It seems that the reforms of Hezekiah began with the centralization of the worship in Jerusalem. The words of the Assyrian ambassador imply that Hezekiah made an attempt at closing the places of worship outside Jerusalem. The Assyrian ambassador accused Hezekiah of eliminating the high places and the foreign altars and forcing the people of Judah and Jerusalem to worship only at the altar of God in Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:22).
The act of purging the cult of pagan altars and high places and the centralization of the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem carried both religious and political overtones. By making the people worship in Jerusalem, the priests in the temple would be able to supervise the religious activities of the people and eliminate the syncretistic practices that took place in the local shrines. In addition, the religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem also would promote the people’s allegiance to the Davidic covenant and to the Davidic king. Hezekiah sought to revive the old Davidic rule by seeking to bring the Northern tribes under the control of the king in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 30:1-12).
It is possible that the repairs of the temple included overlaying the doors and doorposts with gold. According to 2 Kings18:16, during the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C., Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts in order to pay his tribute to Sennacherib, king of Assyria.
Hezekiah’s reforms included the destruction of the local pagan shrines as well as the images that were in these shrines. According to 2 Kings 18:4, Hezekiah “removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He also 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.” The destruction of the bronze snake that Moses had made for the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert (Numbers 21:4-9) indicates that by the time of Hezekiah, the bronze serpent had become an object of worship.
At the beginning of his reforms, after the repair and purification of the temple, the people of Judah prepared for the celebration of the Passover. Hezekiah invited those Israelites from the Northern Kingdom who were living in the Assyrian province of Samaria (Samarina) to join the Judeans in the celebration of the Passover. Hezekiah’s effort at bringing the remnant of the Northern Kingdom may have been an attempt at reuniting the two nations and restoring the Davidic dynasty, thus making Jerusalem and the temple the focus of the religious life of a revitalized Israel.
While some people may have come from Galilee, the effort to bring the people from the tribes of the North was unsuccessful. There are several reasons why Hezekiah’s attempt at including the Northern tribes was unsuccessful. First, it is possible that the ancient problem of tribal rivalry and jealousy may have prevented some of the Israelites who lived in the former Northern Kingdom from coming to Jerusalem.
Second, the fear of Assyrian reprisal may have played an important role in preventing the people from the north from coming to Jerusalem. The Assyrians had restored and reorganized the Bethel sanctuary in order to provide a place of worship for the remnant of the Northern tribes.
Third, the people now living in the province of Samaria were Assyrian citizens, thus, a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem could be construed as an attempt at rebellion against Assyrian control, an act which could bring severe punishment upon the people.
Following the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, the people went throughout the cities of Judah and tore down the pillars, the Asherah poles, the altars, and the high places associated with pagan worship.
Hezekiah’s reform also included the reorganization of the work of the priests and the Levites. Hezekiah made a personal contribution for the sacrifices of the burnt offerings, but he asked the people who lived in Jerusalem to bring their tithes and offerings to provide for the needs of the religious personnel in the temple so they could devote themselves to the service of the Lord. The people responded with enthusiasm and gave generously and liberally. The king and religious leaders prepared storage rooms and delegated some of the Levites to collect and distribute the gifts.
Hezekiah was successful in repairing and cleansing the temple and in centralizing the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. His reforms included the celebration of the Passover, the destruction of the high places of worship, and the removal of pagan cult objects, but in the long run, his reforms were not permanent. His son Manasseh became a loyal vassal of Assyria and in the process of declaring his fealty to his Assyrian overlord, Manasseh reintroduced several of the pagan practices Hezekiah had eliminated. During the long reign of Manasseh, the people of Judah returned to their idolatrous ways. This situation continued until the days of Josiah, king of Judah, who made another attempt at religious reforms in Judah.
To be continued.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary