Melakhim Bet Chapter 23
Yoshiyahu summons the elders and all the inhabitants of Yehuda to a gathering in the Bet Hamiqdash, where they officially commit to honoring their covenant with Hashem and observing the Torah. Then, under Yoshiyahu’s direction and supervision, a thorough “purge” of idolatry is conducted throughout the kingdom. The chapter is particularly detailed in its account of the variety of idols, locations and objects targeted by this project.
All altars, vessels, statues and other accessories associated with foreign worship are removed from the Temple. Illicit sanctuaries, whether devoted to Hashem or to other gods, are dismantled and defiled, and their officiating priests are either removed from office or slain. The houses of immorality, which were closely linked to some of the idolatrous cults, and the location where children were burned for the god Molekh were destroyed. Many of the idols, altars and other items dedicated to pagan worship, including those erected and established by Kings Shelomo, Ahaz and Menashe, were contaminated, defaced and demolished.
Yoshiyahu travels to the altar in Bet El, originally consecrated by Yarovam, and burns human bones upon it, permanently desecrating it, and then burns and pulverizes it. He discovers the tomb of the prophet who had confronted Yarovam and had long ago predicted Yoshiyahu’s destruction of the sanctuary; the king orders that his grave, and that of the prophet from Shomron buried beside him, should not be disturbed. Yoshiyahu returns to Jerusalem and orders that the entire nation observe Passover as stipulated in the Torah; this is the first time since the era of the Judges that the festival has been celebrated in this manner.
In addition to extirpating all forms of idolatry and eliminating them from Israel, Yoshiyahu also removes all practitioners of the occult, soothsayers, diviners, etc., who had been functioning without disturbance in the kingdom for some time now. The text tells us that never in history was there a king who repented and was as wholeheartedly devoted to Hashem as Yoshiyahu, but that the decree to destroy the Temple and exile the Jews had already been sealed during the reign of Menashe and would not be reversed.
Pharaoh Nekho of Egypt declares war against Assyria and wishes to advance against them; he expresses his intention to lead his troops through Israel to the battlefield. Yoshiyahu refuses to allow the Pharaoh passage, and musters his own army to intercede. Tragically, Yoshiyahu is unsuccessful and is killed by the archers of Egypt. His men carry his body back to Jerusalem and he is buried. Yoshiyahu’s son, Yehoahaz, is chosen by influential members of the nation to lead the kingdom, but does not follow the admirable religious path of his father; instead, he reverts to the wicked ways of earlier generations.
Pharaoh Nekho is unhappy with the appointment of Yehoahaz, who is not seen as a pro-Egypt monarch. Therefore, the Pharaoh imprisons Yehoahaz and places another son of Yoshiyahu, Elyaqim, upon the throne of Yehuda. Pharaoh demands an enormous tribute from the kingdom and changes Elyaqim’s name to Yehoyaqim; both of these actions are symbolic demonstrations of the dominance of Egypt and the fact that Egypt is really directing the “puppet government” of Yehuda. Yehoyaqim taxes the people heavily in order to meet his obligations to Pharaoh. He continues in the wicked path of most of his predecessors.
The renaissance orchestrated by Yoshiyahu begins with a gathering in the Bet Hamiqdash and a rededication to Torah. This is symbolic of a recognition – really, the theme of the entire book of Melakhim – that the primary focus of the Jewish Kingdom must be its relationship with and service of Hashem. The institution of the monarchy is meant to be instrumental to the worship of Hashem and observance of Torah and to convey the message that the success of the regime hinges on its adherence to the will of the Almighty, not its ability to provide a false sense of security to the population by projecting an impressive image of majesty.
Yoshiyahu’s purge of idolatry from the kingdom is clearly more sweeping and dramatic than the similar efforts of his great grandfather, Hizqiyahu. Why didn’t Hizqiyahu, who was also sincere and zealous about the observance of Torah, conduct as thorough of a campaign against pagan worship in his time? One possibility is that Hizqiyahu did, in fact, demolish many of the offensive altars and idols later targeted by Yoshiyahu; however, Menashe, his wicked son, may have restored them to function as part of his initiative to promote idolatry throughout the Kingdom.
Another possibility is that differences in the political landscapes that confronted the respective kings exerted an influence on their activities. Although Hizqiyahu attempted to reunify Israel through outreach to the Northern Kingdom (detailed in Sefer Divre Hayamim), his overtures were tentative. He did not view himself as possessing the authority necessary to impose his will on the citizens of the former Kingdom of Israel. These limitations in power were exacerbated by the constant international conflict that besieged and isolated Hizqiyahu and his regime, especially the repeated incursions and threats from Ashur.
By contrast, in Yoshiyahu’s era circumstances had changed, there was no looming world power vying for control of Yehuda and its environs, and therefore Yoshiyahu was able to enter the Northern Territories and destroy their illegal sites of worship without compunction. In this sense, Yoshiyahu was in a better position to pull off a “reunification” of Israel than Hizqiyahu had been. Sensing the potential for truly “messianic” achievements here, Yoshiyahu may have been emboldened and inspired with a degree of passion that eclipsed even that of the pious Hizqiyahu.
Nevertheless, Yoshiyahu ultimately fails. The cause of his downfall is twofold. Personally, he errs in involving himself in the conflict between Egypt and Ashur, a war in which he had no place participating. Unlike a proper King of Yehuda, he is not described as consulting with a prophet before entering the battle; indeed, according to the Book of Yirmiyahu, he was warned against doing so and chose to ignore the prophetic message altogether.
Apparently, Yoshiyahu was confident in the success of his reforms and truly believed that he had ushered in an era in which the blessings promised by the Torah would once again be fulfilled, including the blessing that “a sword will not pass through your land”. In his eyes, the idea that the King of Egypt might lead his army through Israel on his way to war would tarnish the idyllic image he had of his nation as a people living in accordance with the Torah and under the protective wings of the Divine Presence. As with a few of his predecessors, Yoshiyahu’s Messianic fervor impaired his judgment and derailed his political career.
One last important point to comment on in our chapter is the role that the “sins of Menashe” play in the eventual destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jews from their homeland. Why, despite the reforms implemented by Yoshiyahu, do the sins of Menashe still condemn the Jews to such a horrible fate? Why does Hashem see fit to visit the sins of the wicked king upon future generations? Is the future really predetermined by the actions of evil leaders of the past?
We must keep in mind that the door to repentance is never closed. However, the text of Sefer Melakhim was written after the events that it describes, and it presents an “inevitable” trend toward the dissolution and collapse of the Jewish Kingdoms. It would have been possible for the generation of Yoshiyahu to repent fully and to have earned an absolute reprieve for the wicked deeds of King Menashe. The fact that they are nonetheless held accountable for those actions is a sign that the effect of those policies and behaviors on the population was never quite uprooted from their minds and hearts.
The lengthy reign of Menashe had left an indelible imprint on the society that allowed him to rule and direct it for fifty-five years, and even the heroic and historic campaign of Yoshiyahu was not sufficient to purify the Jewish people from the corruption with which it had infected them. Indeed, the Midrashim comment that Yoshiyahu vastly overestimated the success of his efforts; although outwardly, idolatry and immorality had ceased, the common people continued to serve idols and engage in pagan practices secretly. Yoshiyahu only changed the public face of Israel, he did not transform the hearts of its citizens.
In one memorable image, the Rabbis comment that the King’s inspectors would go from house to house searching for any trace of idolatry. The offending parties had built their objects of worship into their doors, so that when the doors were open to greet the inspectors, no idols would be evident; however, once the inspectors had left and the doors were closed, the idol would be automatically “reconstituted”. In this way, the Sages convey to us the idea that the changes that occurred during the period of Yoshiyahu were not as fundamental and systemic as he had hoped and dreamed; they were important reforms, but they only scratched the surface of what needed to be done for the Jewish people to break free of the pernicious influence of the legacy of Menashe and rightfully reestablish itself as the holy nation of Hashem.