An amazing example of religious deception that ultimately served God’s will involves Josiah the boy-king of Judah, whose name was allegedly given in prophecy around three centuries before he did the things the prophecy said he would do. For another example with some interesting parallels to this episode, see this [forthcoming] article on the prophecies about the Persian King Cyrus the Great by Second Isaiah.
Background on King Josiah
Josiah was king of Judah from about 640-609 BCE, about a century after the fall of Israel to Assyria, an event that led to an influx of refugees from Israel in the North into Judah in the South, including religious leaders. He was made king when he was just 8 years old, after the death of his father, King Amon, who had reigned two years before being assassinated by some of his own servants (or officials), who were in turn killed themselves by “the people of the land”, who then made his son Josiah king.
Amon was the son of King Manasseh; the Bible says both were wicked kings who followed gods other than Yahweh, neglecting the Temple and the Law, with Manasseh the wickedest king of all the Davidic kings of Judah. The Bible repeatedly says Manasseh was such a wicked king that his bad acts alone were the reason that Yahweh could not forgive the Jewish people, ultimately using Babylon to destroy Judah, and sending the survivors into captivity in Babylon for 70 years before restoring them to Jerusalem, an amazing, documented historical event that was predicted in prophecy.
Josiah’s kingdom was managed by a regent and advisors until he was of the right age and maturity. From his childhood he was surrounded by religious and political figures who influenced him as best they could in support of their own agendas, which they may have believed were godly. Of course they manipulated him – at the least, it would have seemed ‘irresponsible’ not to, and it may have seemed like a God-ordained opportunity.
At age 18, after King Josiah had assumed official royal duties, the Bible says he instructed that the High Priest Hilkiah take silver from the Temple and give it to the supervisors of restoration work on the Temple to pay the workers. Josiah’s blind trust in these people is evidenced by his instruction that, “… they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.” Following this, ‘the scroll of the Law’ was ‘found’ in the Temple by the High Priest Hilkiah. This may have been the Book of Deuteronomy, purportedly written by Moses, but may have only been the ‘Deuteronomic Code‘ that forms a core part of that book.
Note that Deuteronomy is written in the classical, standard, pre-exilic Biblical Hebrew that was in use at the time of Josiah. It was not written in post-exilic Hebrew, or in the archaic Hebrew used for the Song of Deborah and Song of Miriam, dated to the 12 Century BCE – let alone the more ancient proto-Hebrew that developed out of the Canaanite language, that Moses might have used, if he did in fact exist.
The ‘discovery’ of the Scroll of the Law was reported to King Josiah and the scroll was read aloud in his presence. The Deuteronomic Code admonishes kings to be humble; to seek, listen to and follow the advice of the religious authorities; to not acquire lots of horses and wives (unlike Solomon); and to read Deuteronomy regularly for himself – advice that also served the interests of the religious authorities who had been influencing Josiah since he was young.
King Josiah tears his robes and begins a campaign of religious reform, destroying pagan idols and altars and enforcing exclusive worship of Yahweh, including by slaughtering the pagan prophets and priests, and defiling their altars by burning their bones on them.
True prophecy about King Josiah
King Josiah’s story is told in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35, but he was first named in 1 Kings 13, allegedly by a unnamed prophet described only as a ‘man of God’, an unusual thing in prophecy. The names of prophets were known to their contemporaries and given in texts recording their prophecies, but prophets, in foretelling future events, often did not name the people or nations whose future actions they were describing, which they sometimes described in detail uncannily close to the actual events.
The prophecy recorded in 1 Kings 13 was reportedly given in the presence of King Jeroboam, the first King of Israel of the Divided Kingdom, whose reign was during the late 10th Century BCE. The prophecy about Josiah says he would enact the reforms that he subsequently did.
1 By the word of the Lord a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. 2 By the word of Yahweh he cried out against the altar: “Altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: ‘A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.’” 3 That same day the man of God gave a sign: “This is the sign the Lord has declared: The altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out.”
4 When King Jeroboam heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, he stretched out his hand from the altar and said, “Seize him!” But the hand he stretched out toward the man shriveled up, so that he could not pull it back. 5 Also, the altar was split apart and its ashes poured out according to the sign given by the man of God by the word of Yahweh.
6 Then the king said to the man of God, “Intercede with Yahweh your God and pray for me that my hand may be restored.” So the man of God interceded with Yahweh, and the king’s hand was restored and became as it was before.
7 The king said to the man of God, “Come home with me for a meal, and I will give you a gift.”
8 But the man of God answered the king, “Even if you were to give me half your possessions, I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water here.9 For I was commanded by the word of Yahweh: ‘You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came.’” 1 Kings 13:1-8
As he was on his way, the unnamed ‘man of God’ was deceived by a ‘certain old prophet living in Bethel’ (also unnamed) into eating and drinking with him. The Bible says he lied to him, telling him that Yahweh had sent an angel to him to bring the ‘man of God’ to his house for a meal. After they break bread, the Word of Yahweh came to the deceiving prophet, who tells the ‘man of God’ that he had defied Yahweh by eating and drinking, and would not be buried in the tomb of his fathers.
That same day, shortly after the meal, as the ‘man of God’ was on his way home, he was killed by a lion, which didn’t eat him or the donkey he was on. The ‘certain old prophet’ learned of this and went and got his body. He instructed his sons to bury the ‘man of God’ in his own tomb, and for himself to be buried there with him when his own time came, “For the message he declared by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the shrines on the high places in the towns of Samaria will certainly come true.” 1 Kings 13:32. Again, this allegedly took place around 300 years before Josiah assumed control of the kingdom of Judah.
Analysis of the Josiah prophecy and its fulfillment
If this prophecy, allegedly told to King Jeroboam of Israel regarding a future Judahite King named Josiah, was read to Josiah as he was maturing, it may have had a profound effect on him. If you were raised in a society and culture that accepted prophecy and miracles as fact; and were presented when you were young with a piece of ancient-looking paper; by people you had trusted and who had guided you since you were a child; a paper that had your name on it, and which said you would do great things that were within your power to do; and which you believed were good and right things to do, and which would make you look good and give you an honorable legacy in your eyes and those of people you trusted and respected – would you believe them and do these things? Do you think some people might, even if you wouldn’t?
The Bible does not say that Josiah was informed of this prophecy before he did things. However, when he carried out the reforms – which included digging up the bones of pagan prophets, and burning them on an altar that was supposedly “split apart” in an amazing act of God about 300 years earlier, at the time the ‘man of God’ allegedly gave the prophecy – it says that the Israelite witnesses present at that event recalled the prophecy given around three centuries earlier:
15 Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also. 16 Then Josiah looked around, and when he saw the tombs that were there on the hillside, he had the bones removed from them and burned on the altar to defile it, in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by the man of God who foretold these things.
17 The king asked, “What is that tombstone I see?”
The people of the city said, “It marks the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and pronounced against the altar of Bethel the very things you have done to it.”
18 “Leave it alone,” he said. “Don’t let anyone disturb his bones.” So they spared his bones and those of the prophet who had come from Samaria. 2 Kings 23:15-18
Do you believe this is the first time Josiah heard about this prophecy?
The witnesses to Josiah’s acts may have been the descendants of those who witnessed the prophecy being given; the altar being miraculously split; King Jeroboam’s hand spontaneously shriveling and being healed by the ‘man of God’; and the king’s subsequent humilty and gratitude. Do you believe they would have defied an obviously Living God and rebuilt the altar, when the event and prophecy made such an impression on them that their descendants were familiar with it three centuries later? Possibly – human beings have done many things as or more stupid than that, and the Bible records a lot of them. Possibly, but, imo, incredibly unlikely.
And if you were a sincere and devoted religious believer, your conscience shocked at the idolatry and wickedness in your society, and in its religious and political establishments, would you take action to correct these things – especially if you believed doing so was ordained by your God? What if it meant deceiving and killing people? What if taking corrective action thru deceit involved what you deemed to be low-level risk-taking with potentially great material reward, in the form of increased power and influence? These are questions and imperatives that would have faced those who found themselves in the position of being able to influence the boy-king Josiah.
Even if you wouldn’t, many have done things like these in the history of the human race. And the Bible itself recounts many times God used human deception and weakness to serve his will [article summarizing these events to be published later], and that he had regularly ordered punishments including death for those who disobeyed him. This would have been especially well-known to those who controlled the religious texts and customs, the priestly class and the prophets.
Did Josiah knowingly participate in the ‘pioius fraud’?
Some scholars suggest that Josiah may have wittingly participated in the ‘pious fraud’ of Deuteronomy, in order to give himself prophetic and religious license to enact his reforms. This is theoretically possible, but I find it unlikely. Josiah was king of Judah, and he could have done these things on his own authority. JE, and possibly P, existed in his day, and authority for some of his reforms exists in these works as well, though less directly and specifically. Also, centralization of worship at the temple in Jerusalem had begun with the reforms of Josiah’s great-grandfather, King Hezekiah, so Josiah would have seen himself as continuing that good work.
Also, it’s more difficult for human beings to act in service to what they know to be false, than for what they believe to be true and right, especially when you’re committing serial mass murder of human beings. Rather it seems likely Josiah’s zeal was real, but based on priestly disinformation. Again, from boyhood he was surrounded and raised by adults who were seeking the reforms he enacted. And, as noted above, those who tricked him into doing those things may have believed deceiving him was God’s will.
The accounts of his reign in 2 Kings paint him in glowing terms. There is nothing bad said about him; rather, the Bible says there was none like him before him, which would include King David, founder of the United Monarchy and one of the largest characters in the history of Israel. Certainly, a vain king might authorize such accounts. But someone seeking to influence him might also do so by appealing to his ego, in addition to his naiveity and trust. Lastly, as pointed out above, Deuteronomy places humbling burdens on the king – why would a lying king write something that makes him inferior to the religious leaders?
Lie or not, it’s true prophecy
Finally, note that, even if the ‘man of God’ and the ‘certain old prophet’ never existed and the whole episode was invented to manipulate Josiah, this is an example of true prophecy, because Josiah actually enacted the prophesied reforms.