Melakhim Bet Chapter 22
At the tender age of eight years, Yoshiyahu becomes the king of Yehuda. He initiates a project to make an accounting of the revenues of the Temple and, using the available funds, he commissions the renovation of the Bet Hamiqdash. During the construction, Hilqiyahu the Kohen discovers a Sefer Torah somewhere inside the building (many commentaries indicate that this was the original Torah Scroll written by the hand of Moshe Rabbenu, which had been hidden inside the Temple) and delivers it to Shafan the scribe.
Shafan approaches the king to update him on the progress of the building project, informing him that the funds have been disbursed as had been commanded. He then shares with him the discovery of Hilqiyahu, and reads to the king from the Torah text. Upon hearing the words of the Torah, Yoshiyahu tears his garment in mourning. He realizes that the Jewish people have failed to uphold their covenant with Hashem and are therefore condemned to destruction.
Yoshiyahu sends a delegation to meet with Hulda the Prophetess and inquire as to the future of their nation. Hulda tells the visitors that Hashem has indeed decreed destruction upon the Kingdom of Yehuda, and that it would be destroyed, and its population exiled, in the near future. However, since Yoshiyahu humbled himself and sincerely repented upon hearing the words of Torah, showing genuine remorse for the failure of the nation and their ancestors to adhere to the laws of Hashem, the king will not have to witness the terrible devastation that is to come. Yoshiyahu will die in peace before calamity is visited upon Yehuda. The delegation returns to Yoshiyahu and conveys Hulda’s message to him.
It is interesting to wonder what prompted Yoshiyahu to renovate the Temple at this juncture in history. After all, from what we can gather, he had no real idea what Judaism was or what it meant. Most likely, he assumed that the pagan practices and idolatry that were rampant in Israel were “Jewish” in one way or another. We may speculate that Yoshiyahu’s initial interest in repairing the Temple was nationalistically motivated; he may have seen its restoration as a source of pride for the people since it was their national place of worship and was a glorious monument to the history of the country and of the monarchy.
From the outset, this focus on revisiting and promoting the “heritage” of the people and generating some nationalistic pride differentiated Yoshiyahu from his grandfather Menashe, who was more interested in reshaping the kingdom in the mold of its neighbors. Again, this is only speculation, but he may have interpreted the assassination of his father, Amon, as a plea for change, and felt that he needed to bolster the credibility and Divine endorsement of his position by recalling the “glorious era” of King Solomon and his Temple; alternatively, he may have seen a general reticence, complacency or dissatisfaction among the people, and sought an exciting project that could unite and energize them, lifting them out of stagnation.
A careful reading of the words of Hulda the Prophetess is instructive. She provides two messages to the delegation from Yoshiyahu – one a confirmation of impending doom for the community as whole, and the other a more positive and optimistic reassurance for Yoshiyahu personally. Hulda prefaces her initial, negative message with the phrase “say this to the man who sent you to me.” However, when she shifts her tone to send the message of promise, she opens with these words “and to the King of Yehuda who sent you to me to seek Hashem, so shall you say to him.” Calling the king “the man who sent you to me” seems unnecessarily caustic, especially in view of the fact that Yoshiyahu was a good man. What is the purpose of these two introductory phrases?
I would like to offer two possible explanations: one based on the text itself, and one based on a comment of our Sages. On a purely textual level, we may suggest that Hulda is addressing Yoshiyahu in two frameworks. On one hand, he is the descendant of the wicked kings Menashe and Amon; as the heir to their corrupt legacy and representative of their royal lineage, he is dismissively referred to as “the man who sent you” and is apprised of the terrible destruction that will soon visit his people.
On the other hand, judged purely as an individual, Yoshiyahu is righteous and sincere, seeking Hashem wholeheartedly; from this point of view, taken out of the context of his father and grandfather, he can be granted the title “King of Yehuda”, praised for his desire to connect to the Almighty, and promised a charitable outcome for himself and his immediate family.
Another possible interpretation of the “dual introduction” of Hulda is based on an observation of some of our Sages. They point out that Yoshiyahu lived during the period of Yeshayahu, the greatest prophet of that generation, and really should have consulted with him. One explanation offered by our Rabbis for the choice of Hulda is that, since she was a woman, the king hoped she would have a kinder and more compassionate response to his query than the male Yeshayahu.
With this in mind, I would suggest that perhaps this is why, in delivering her harshest words, she calls Yoshiyahu “the MAN who sent you to ME” – in other words, he sent you to me because I am a woman, expecting me to provide a sweeter, more palatable message because of my gender, but he is sorely mistaken! As a prophetess, Hulda conveys only the words that Hashem authorizes her to communicate; her femininity or lack thereof has no effect on the content of her predictions.
According to this interpretation, Hulda offers Yoshiyahu a subtle rebuke for his pagan-style assumption that a prophet’s personality or character influences his or her transmission of the word of God, and that somehow consulting with a more amenable prophet would lead to a more pleasant outcome. On the contrary, prophecy is delivered in a pure, unadulterated form, and represents Truth that Hashem’s messenger is commanded to proclaim but has no authority or ability to tamper with.