We are studying 2 Kings 22:14-20 for Sunday, March 21. This is the story of Huldah, the woman prophet, who authenticates the “book of the law” found in the Temple during the reign of [good] king Josiah of Judah. [Some questions on the texts are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Last week we were near the beginning of the Deuteronomistic History. This week we are almost at its end. In between is the story of the people of Israel in the land, as told by someone with a clear theological point of view. That point of view calls our attention to the way abandoning covenant faithfulness to YHWH leads to things going disastrously wrong in every other area of the life of the nation. Because God is faithful and loyal, and slow to anger, and merciful and forgiving. But God is also faithful to punish unfaithfulness, and to put an end to unrighteousness and injustice.
The disaster is fully complete in 587 BCE, with the defeat of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. The Babylonians burn the Temple in Jerusalem to the ground, pull down the city walls, execute the last king in a particularly cruel way, and drag most of the rest of the people back to Babylon, as spoils of the Babylonian empire.
Worse, people had seen this coming. Prophets had been sounding the alarm for generations. But many people, and in particular the leaders of the people, had largely ignored those alarms. Possibly for some of the same reasons we ourselves ignore many of the alarms people raise around us.
The narrative in 1-2 Kings lays out the succession of Israelite kings who follow David. Once the nation splits up into two states, after Solomon, this means the kings of Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom). To simplify, there are good kings – the ones who walk in the ways of YHWH, like David did – and bad kings – the ones who do not. Especially, the ones who sponsor the worship of idols and foreign gods. And who steal from the poor to give to the rich – that is, to themselves. [Some more on Kings is here.]
The Bible Project has a concise and animated overview of the book of Kings that makes things very clear. My only word of caution: Solomon actually starts using conscripted labor earlier than the video might imply. He conscripts labor explicitly for the Temple construction project (see 1 Kings 5:13-18).
Josiah, the king in our text, is one of the good kings. But he follows a couple of bad kings: Manasseh, his grandfather, the worst of the bad kings, who reigns for 55 years; and Amon, his father, who is assassinated after only two. 2 Kings 22 takes us from the beginning of Josiah’s reign, as an eight-year-old, through his inauguration of repairs to the Temple in Jerusalem in “the eighteenth year” of his reign (so, by now he’s 26), the discovery of “the book of the law” in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8), and the crisis this discovery provokes. Josiah “tore his clothes” – a sign of grief, or anguished repentance, or supplication, or all of the above – when he “heard the words” of this book.
According to Rashi, this sefer torah had been hidden under a layer of stones to keep it safe from [bad] king Ahaz when he “burned the Torah.” Burning the Torah is rabbinical midrash; I trust the rabbis on this one. The Biblical text, after all, has Ahaz stripping the Temple of some of its contents and installing an altar modeled on one being used by his [idolatrous] Assyrian allies. (See 2 Kings 16) We can see a king like this burning the Torah.
Commentators tell us the rediscovered “book of the law” was probably all or part of what we know as “the book of Deuteronomy.” One commentator suggests at least chapters 12-26. Robert Alter notes that Josiah’s reaction to it suggests the book includes the punishments listed in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. [If we skim through this part of the Deuteronomy, we’ll see right away what could have caused Josiah such horror.]
The text, literally “the writing of the instruction,” was most likely not a physical book. It was more likely a scroll.
Josiah’s first step is to ask his advisors to “inquire of YHWH” for him about the text (2 Kings 22:13). How they do that, and what they learn in their fact-finding mission, is the substance of our text, 2 Kings 22:14-20.
The text presents consulting the woman prophet Huldah simply, as the unremarkable next thing to do.
Huldah is one of three prophets active in Judah at this time who are named in the Bible; the others are Jeremiah and Zephaniah. Jeremiah and Zephaniah have books in our Bibles. Huldah has these verses. I’m not sure we can safely assume this is because she had less to say at the time.
Later generations have struggled to understand why those men of the 7th century BCE went to Huldah, a woman prophet, rather than to one of the men. Some of the rabbis suggest the officials go to Huldah because they hope she will be more merciful and compassionate than Jeremiah, because women are more that way. Here I question the rabbis. Huldah is a prophet. Everyone knows this means she will speak “thus says YHWH” and not her own words. This “women are gentler” story sounds like it was cooked up by people living at a later time, under the influence of their own prejudices and stereotypes, who had never met an actual woman prophet that they knew of.
Other rabbis suggest it was because Jeremiah was out of town. Still others suggest it was because everyone knew Huldah ran a beit mishneh, a Torah study school. [More recently, people have begun asking why this ever needed an explanation in the first place.]
Josiah’s next step, after Huldah confirms that the message of the text is a word from God, will be to impose radical religious reforms (2 Kings 23). It’s a desperate effort to jump start a national movement of repentance and regeneration. It fails. Josiah’s only consolation is that he doesn’t live long enough to see that with his own eyes.
This text is one of the things you’d never know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: The list of names in verse 14 emphasizes the importance of the delegation. That, in turn, emphasizes how important this matter is to king Josiah.
An aside, Huldah herself is said to be related to Rahab, both by marriage and descent, according to rabbinic tradition.
Verbs of speech reverberate through these verses. The formula “thus says the LORD” is repeated four times, YHWH says or speaks a couple more time, Huldah speaks, the delegation and the king ask. Words are spoken. And both Josiah and God hear. What seems most important in this text is saying, and hearing what is being said.
[And if we put it that way, it might remind us of the greatest commandment, “Hear, O Israel.” And remind us that “hear” often has the sense of “do” or “keep” or “obey” in scripture.]
Huldah never refers to the king by name. He is “the man who sent you to me” in verse 15, and “the king of Judah” in verses 16 and 18. This seems significant, and is often remarked by commentators, but the reason for it is not clear. Since Huldah’s entire speech seems to be prophetic recitation, however, we might note that technically it is God who never refers to the king by name.
Similarly, Huldah doesn’t herself inspect “the book.” “All the words of the book” are confirmed by God through the prophetic revelation.
That revelation refers to “this place” three times, again not by name, along with “its inhabitants,” twice. The refusal to name names feels distant, estranged – which seems fitting.
In verse 17, there is some ironic poetic justice; because the inhabitants of the place have literally “burned to smoke” incense or sacrifices to other gods, God’s wrath will burn against them.
YHWH’s indictment of the inhabitants of “this place” lists what they have done to violate the relationship with God. “The work of their hands” in verse 17 presumably refers to idols, but is general enough that it could cover other kinds of wickedness.
The list of what Josiah has done in response to the words he heard then forms a pointed contrast, with his soft heart, humility, torn clothes and weeping.
We might note that in this case the punitive judgment is collective; the mercy is individual.
The oracle says Josiah will be gathered to his ancestors “in peace,” but the next chapter will report that Josiah dies in a battle. Thinking back to the criteria for true prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15-22, our text a couple of weeks ago, we might wonder whether this means Huldah’s prophecy was false, since this bit of it doesn’t come true. The part about “this place” becoming a desolation and a curse does come true, though. Rashi’s solution is that “the peace” was that Josiah didn’t see the destruction of the Temple.
SOME THINGS TO THINK ABOUT: One of the central elements of the story is that the prophet Huldah authenticates, or confirms, the status of “the book of the law.” It is a word from the God of Israel. Although we think it was a text that today we would call scripture, in Josiah’s day its “word of God” status was less obvious. It was new and unfamiliar to people who ought to have known about it for a long time. All that might make us wonder about whether there are any texts or sources that would seem like that to us these days; how we determine the truth of things in our own time; and who or what might play a role for us like the prophet Huldah played for Josiah.
We might want to ponder the dilemma that faces Josiah. The actions he needs to take to bring his nation into compliance with the instructions are radical, and will be disruptive. And he has been told that disaster will surely come anyway. Someone could argue that there’s little point in trying to make a change in the situation at this point. It raises the question of whether some courses of action are right to pursue, even if they have little, or no, chance of “working” or influencing “the outcome.” Which raises the question of what we think determines the rightness of a course of action.
It might also raise the question of what we think is the value of truth – and whether its value only depends on what people can do with it.
We might also ponder what this story, and the larger context of the book of Kings, tells us about the importance of national leadership; about the relative importance of collective cultural behavior and individual compliance or resistance; about the consequences of collective cultural behavior; about the way those consequences can affect individuals. Even individuals who oppose the trends. We might want to do some thinking about whether there are any implications in all this for “going along to get along,” when it is advisable to do that, and when it’s important to be “counter-cultural” – and why.
As always, we might ponder what this story tells us about God, and how that confirms or challenges any other ideas about God we may have had.