We are studying 2 Kings 22:14-20 for Sunday, March 21. This is the story where King Josiah of Judah sends a delegation to the prophet Huldah to confirm that the “book of the law” he has just heard is an authentic word from God. His next step, described in 2 Kings 23, will be to try to eliminate idolatrous worship in Judah, and to restore the exclusive worship of YHWH. [Some notes on the text are here.] Here are some questions about the text we might want to consider or discuss:
King Josiah of Judah sends a high-level national delegation to “inquire of YHWH” by consulting the [woman] prophet Huldah. He has just heard the contents of “the book of the law,” recently found in the Temple in Jerusalem.
[Scholars think this document was at least part of the current book of Deuteronomy, so we might want to review the contents of that book! Maybe especially Deuteronomy 12, Deuteronomy 15, Deuteronomy 16:18-22, and Deuteronomy 28:15-68.]
What makes the contents of this book a matter of such national importance, do we think? How do we understand Josiah’s interest in having the contents of the book authenticated?
[More theoretical, maybe.] Why would the words of this book concern national life in ancient Israel, do we think? Would the words of a book like this concern national life in a contemporary society, do we think? Why?
[Still more theoretical, maybe.] If “the book of the law” was a portion of the book of Deuteronomy, at least some of it concerned the worship life of the people of Israel. The United States officially restricts government involvement in people’s worship life. Do we think what and how people worship is relevant to the life of a nation in any way? What way or ways? Why do we think that?
[A LOT more theoretical, and theological – but hopefully as interesting to you as it is to me!] One of the central themes that is unfolding across the lessons this quarter is the role of prophetic leadership in the national life of ancient Israel. That is another way of saying, “in the relationship of the special people of Israel to God, and how that relationship plays out in day-to-day life.”
To see the history here, we can look back to
- our first text of the quarter (Deuteronomy 18:15-22) – Moses is a prophet-leader, and other prophet-leaders are promised;
- remind ourselves that Joshua was a prophet-leader (Joshua 6:27);
- other prophet-leaders followed Joshua, for a while (maybe look at Judges 4:4-5, Judges 15:20; 1 Samuel 7:15-17);
- then the Israelites want a king, which turns out to be problematic – the first king, Saul, is an erratic leader (see 1 Samuel 8; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Samuel 12:19-25);
- then Samuel anoints David king instead of Saul (1 Samuel 16), and David has YHWH’s blessing, and even a special covenant (see 2 Samuel 7);
- but then things go downhill from there – Solomon turns away from YHWH, the kingdom is divided (see 1 Kings 11, 1 Kings 12:20-33);
- and the kings, who are meant to be leading the people to be faithful to God, often don’t;
- prophets (now outsiders, not royal court insiders) persistently warn them and try to get them to lead responsibly by walking in “the way of YHWH.” (e.g., see 1 Kings 21:20-29; 2 Kings 17), but kings and people often ignore them.
- God punishes the northern kingdom of Israel with defeat by the Assyrians and exile in 722 BCE;
- and the southern kingdom of Judah with defeat by the Babylonians and exile in 587 BCE.
- This doesn’t end God’s relationship with the people of Israel, as we know; there are prophets in Babylonia with the people, along with the spirit of God (see, e.g., Ezekiel & Daniel);
- and later in the quarter we will have text from after the exile (Ezra-Nehemiah) that will also call our attention to the role of national leaders in the life of the people, in particular to the role of priests, and of scripture.
So, we could say that over this time there is an evolution in the institutions by means of which God orders the life of the nation, that is to say, the people as a whole. Or rather, seeks to, as the main trend is that leaders and people are unreliable and tend to disregard God. We could even say people disregard God more and more as they put more and more institutional distance between themselves and God. The prophets start out as the authorized link between God and the people, the designated leaders – but often the people ignore them; once there’s a king, the prophets are advisors to the king – or try to be, but the kings often ignore them; after the exile, the people no longer have an independent government – but they still have priests, and also the words of the prophets, now as texts. Which, as usual, people often ignore.
God’s “way” becomes less and less “mandatory” in the sense of being enforced by the leaders of the community, and more and more “optional” for people – more and more something that calls for personal choice.
My guess is that everyone would agree that “God’s way” is even more “optional” for people today, in the sense of being a matter for personal choice rather than community-level enforcement. We could talk about whether we think that’s a good thing or not, and why we think that.
We could also talk about how we get authentic word about what God’s way entails – that is, where do we hear the words of God, and the words of prophets – or even quasi-prophets – who are God’s dependable spokespersons, in our own day?
[I know that was long, you all! But it really struck me crystal clearly this morning how the whole Deuteronomistic history is telling one large coherent story, with a lot of important implications for us, even though our own context is so different. I think it’s worth noticing that, and thinking about it.]
Why do we think King Josiah needed Huldah’s confirmation, or prophetic authentication, of the scroll or “book of the law” the priest Hilkiah had found? What does that tell us, do we think – for instance, about his relationship to scripture, or his relationship to God?
[More theological, and possibly more denominational.] Does anyone “confirm” or “authenticate” scripture for people today, do we think? Who does that? What makes us think that?
[More theoretical. Or, more personal. Or, both.] What does that imply for us, or for our own time, as far as relationship to scripture, or relationship to God, do we think?
What does this story [the short one about Huldah, or the long one of the Deuteronomistic history, either one] help us understand about God?
Do we think God plays a role in the life of nations other than ancient Israel? Why do we think that?
[Probably a harder question] What does that look like, do we think? Why do we think that?
Image: “Spennende Lekture” Walter Firle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons