Friday, September 16, 2011

Josiah: Death of a King (II Chronicles 35)

Whose army killed King Josiah on the plain of Megiddo? The army of Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (II Chronicles 35:20-24)

Josiah was a religious reformer and the last good king Judah would ever have (II Kings 21:25). He was slain in battle at Megiddo against Pharaoh Necho II’s Egyptian army in 609 BCE (II Kings 23:29-30; II Chronicles 35:20-35). In addition to the canonical accounts, Josiah’s death is also recorded in I Esdras, a Greek version of Ezra found in the Apocrypha (I Esdras 1:25-32). Josiah’s death proved catastrophic, marking the beginning of the end of his nation. His son, Jehoahaz, lasted only three months as king before being deposed (II Kings 23:31-34; II Chronicles 36:1-4) and Judah would fall permanently twelve years later.

Tragically, Necho II had no desire to kill Josiah or even battle Judah (II Chronicles 35:21; I Esdras 1:26-27). Necho II had just become Pharaoh and was using the coastal route, Via Maris, to reach Carchemish in northern Syria (II Kings 23:29; II Chronicles 35:20; I Esdras 1:25). He simply wanted to aid his allies, the Assyrians, in their battle against the Babylonians. Necho II requested passage through Judah but for unknown reasons, Josiah refused and rushed to intercept the Pharaoh’s northward march at Megiddo (II Chronicles 35:22; I Esdras 1:28). Josiah’s ambush was unsuccessful and he died from wounds received from archers in the disastrous engagement (II Kings 23:29; II Chronicles 30:23-24; I Esdras 1:29-31).

Megiddo is where we derive the word Armageddon, which reads literally “Mount Megiddo”.

Josiah’s rationale for attacking the Egyptians is unknown. Avner Falk (b. 1943) describes the act of attacking the far superior Egyptian army as “clearly suicidal” (Falk, A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews, 181). Falk also offers several explanations. Firstly, Josiah feared an Egyptian victory would strengthen his traditional rival, Assyria, who had supported Manasseh’s syncretistic policies (II Kings 21:10-18). In this scenario, Josiah did not discern that it was no longer Assyria who would be his biggest threat, but Babylon, who would permanently overthrow his nation. Another hypothesis is that Josiah was honoring a mutual defense treaty with Babylon. Falk suggests that Josiah’s own narcissism proved his own undoing (Falk, 181).

Eric H. Cline (b. 1960) proposes that Necho II was threatened by Josiah’s religious reforms and tricked the king into meeting him only to assassinate him (Cline, The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age, 99). This theory fits the abrupt account in Kings - “And King Josiah went to meet him, and when Pharaoh Neco saw him he killed him at Megiddo” (II Kings 23:30 NASB) - though it does not fit Chronicles’ record which notes that Necho II warned Josiah and that the king disguised himself (II Chronicles 35:22).

Other scholars have attempted to reconstruct Josiah’s motives by claiming that he wished to reunite Israel and Judah. In battling Necho II, Josiah was attempting to eliminate Egypt from the region (Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950), A Brief History of Ancient Israel, 90).

Why do you think Josiah made such a disastrous decision? What is the most misguided decision you have ever made? What were the consequences?

One of the most perplexing aspects of the story is that Necho II, presumably a pagan who worshiped his own gods, invokes God’s will, in an attempt to deter Josiah:

“What have we to do with each other, O King of Judah? I am not coming against you today but against the house with which I am at war, and God has ordered me to hurry. Stop for your own sake from interfering with God who is with me, so that He will not destroy you.” (II Chronicles 35:21 NASB)
Necho II’s words actually did come from God (II Chronicles 35:22). I Esdras echoes these sentiments and adds that the prophet Jeremiah objected to Josiah’s strategy (I Esdras 1:28).

Was Necho really speaking for God? Why would Judah’s holiest king not follow God? Why would God triangulate, speaking to Josiah through a (presumably unreliable) third party? Have you ever felt God speaking to you through someone who espoused a different religion?

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