The Religious Reforms of Josiah, Part 2

Josiah Hearing the Reading of the Scroll

Read Part 1: Josiah, King of Judah

Two factors contributed to create a situation in which Josiah, king of Judah, was able to bring the nation to independence from Assyria and to religious reforms. The first factor was the rise of nationalism in Judah. In the seventh century nationalism was enjoying a great revival all over the ancient Near East. The second factor was the collapse of the Assyrian empire. The rise of Babylon and its dominance of Mesopotamia became an external threat to Assyria which brought about the collapse of the mighty Assyrian empire.

The religious reform of Josiah was an attempt to renew the worship of God according to the teachings of Moses as it was understood in the seventh century B.C. These reforms included the centralization of the worship in Jerusalem. The worship of Yahweh outside of Jerusalem was abolished and the Solomonic temple in Jerusalem became the only approved house of worship in Israel (2 Kings 23:8). This reform of Israel’s worship was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 12:1-7.

The reform reestablished the celebration of the Passover (2 Kings 23:21-22). The celebration of the Passover in the days of Josiah followed the norms established in the book of Deuteronomy 16:1-8. The reform also included the rehabilitation of the rural priests. The local priests who served in the local shrines were invited to serve and minister in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:5, 8-9). This action was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 18:6-8.

The reform made an attempt to eliminate Baal worship from the religious life of Israel. The reform decreed the elimination of the religious vessels and images dedicated to Baal and Asherah (23:4, 6). This effort was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 7:15. The reform of Josiah also made an attempt to eliminate astral worship. The worship of the astral deities, the sun, moon, and stars was abolished (2 Kings 23:4-5, 11-12). This proscription was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 12:3; 16:21-22; 17:3.

The reform also made an attempt at abolishing the hideous practice of child sacrifice. The practice of child sacrifice, a ritual that was common in the cult of Molech, the god of the Ammonites, was forbidden and the Topheth, the place in the Kidron Valley where these sacrifices were offered, was defiled (2 Kings 23:10). This prohibition was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10.

Josiah also made an attempt to eliminate the practice of magic and divination. Josiah eliminated the consultation of mediums, wizards, and teraphim (2 Kings 23:24). This proscription was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 18:11. Finally, Josiah defiled the high places where sacrifices to pagans gods were made. The high places, the sanctuaries of the rival deities, were defiled (2 Kings 23:13). This defilement was done in accordance with the legislation of Deuteronomy 7:5.

The reform of Josiah made an attempt to eliminate one of the most popular aspects of the religion of the Canaanites: the practice of sacred prostitution. Josiah destroyed the houses dedicated to sacred prostitution in the temples of the Lord in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:7). The prohibition against sacred prostitution was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 23:18.

Josiah also eliminated the use of pillars and sacred poles. The pillars or sacred stones and the sacred poles which represented the procreative aspects of Canaanite fertility religion were destroyed (2 Kings 23:14). This act was reinforced by the legislation of Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3.

The reform of Josiah was a revival of Mosaic faith and teaching as it was understood in the seventh century B.C. The reforms were based on the teachings of the book of Deuteronomy. The characteristic theme of Deuteronomy was love. Yahweh’s gracious love had been manifested in the mighty acts of God on behalf of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:20-23). For this reason, Israel should respond to this divine love by loving God and by loving the fellow members of the covenant community.

Israel must follow God in fear and in obedience. Because Yahweh is a jealous God, he will not tolerate the worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 6:10-15). Israel had seen separated (elected) from all other nations for special service to Yahweh. As a separate people, Israel had a mission to the nations. As God’s people, Israel must express God’s concern for people. Yahweh’s activities on behalf of the oppressed should motivate Israel to act in the same way. Yahweh is the defender of the weak, the orphan, the widow, and the resident alien, so also should Israel be. Thus, the book of Deuteronomy calls Israel to renew the covenant with Yahweh and to decide to live by the demands of this covenant

The reforms of Josiah had both religious and political implications. The purification of the cult was a declaration of Judah’s religious independence from Assyria. Josiah desired to reestablish a united monarchy with a central sanctuary at Jerusalem. When Assyria was defeated in 612 and 609, Josiah realized that its fall would assure the success of his reforms and would keep Judah be free from Assyrian subjugation.

So, when Neco, king of Egypt, came to help Assyria in its struggle against Babylon, Josiah went to Megiddo to intercept Neco. In the battle between Josiah and Neco, Josiah was mortally wounded by an arrow and probably died on his way back to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 35:23-25). Josiah died in 609 B. C. and was buried in the royal tomb. After the death of Josiah, Judah slowly returned to the worship of pagan gods. This overt rebellion against God would eventually lead to the exile of God’s people to Babylon.

When the reform of Josiah is examined in the light of the religious impact it had on the religion of Israel, Josiah’s legacy as a faithful and pious king has no equal. The Bible says that “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). There was no greater king in Israel until another son of David appeared whom the multitude acclaimed as the “King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38).

Studies on the Religious Reforms of Josiah


Josiah, King of Judah – Part 1

The Religious Reforms of Josiah, Part 2

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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6 Responses to The Religious Reforms of Josiah, Part 2

  1. Nate says:

    My favorite passages in Kings & Chronicles is when the righteous Kings return worship to Israel's God—Hezekiah and Josiah being to excellent examples. Professor, do you think the Deuteronomy legislation pre-dates Josiah's reign (whether written by Moses or not), or is the consequence of his reign?


  2. Nate,

    Good question. I believe that the Deuteronomic legislation has a Northern background and that its beginning originated in the Northern Kingdom. With some scholars, I believe that an early form of the Deuteronomic legislation was already used in the reforms of Hezekiah.Thank you for your question.

    Claude Mariottini


    • Ilia says:

      Well, according to the Book of Deuteronomy itself, the legal and prophetic material contained in the book, was written by (or under the supervision of) Moses himself. Are we going to take that seriously or not?


  3. Ilia Panayotov says:

    Oh ok. I’ve missed some things in the article and I thought that you claim Deuteronomy originates entirely from the 7th century BC. My bad.


    • Ilia,

      The Book of Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century but it is a reformulation of the laws of Moses to address the religious and social needs of the community in the times of Josiah.

      Claude Mariottini


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