The Reign of Josiah and the End of the Assyrian Empire
Manasseh’s son and successor, Amon (642–640 BCE), died in a court assassination that historians have not been able to explain. According to 2 Kings 21:23–24 (= 2 Chronicles 33:24–25), the assassins were executed by “the people of the land,” who set Amon’s eight-year-old son, Josiah, on the throne. Since Josiah came to the throne as a minor, Judah was probably ruled at first by a regent or group of regents—perhaps Josiah’s mother or one of “the people of the land” who set him on the throne—but we are not told. In fact, the biblical writers, who are interested almost exclusively in Josiah’s religious reform, report nothing about his reign before his 18th year (622 BCE), when the reform began. By this time, Assurbanipal had died (627 BCE). After a period of chaos, his son Sin-shar-ishkun (623–612 BCE) succeeded him, but not before Assyria had descended into civil war and permanently lost control of Babylon, which was now ruled by the Chaldean Nabopolassar (625–605 BCE). In short, the Assyrian Empire was in its death throes. This meant that Judah was, in effect, an independent state again, and Josiah was free to institute administrative reforms and even to harbor territorial ambitions.
The overriding interest of the biblical writers, however, was Josiah’s religious reform, which is reported in detail in 2 Kings 22:1–23:30. The chief characteristics of this reform, which revived the cultic innovations of Hezekiah and brought an end to the counter-reformation of Manasseh, were, first and foremost, the assertion of the centrality of the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood. The reform included, as natural corollaries, the elimination throughout the kingdom (“from Geba to Beersheba” (2 Kings 23:8) of the bamôt, or “high places” (the local places of sacrifice and worship), and the exclusion of the regional priests from priestly service in Jerusalem. Other important measures included the prohibition of certain condemned cultic practices (2 Kings 23:4–7, 10–12), such as child sacrifice, and the extirpation from Judah of cults of foreign gods (2 Kings 23:13–14).
According to 2 Kings 22:8 the reform was set in motion by the discovery of “the book of the law in the house of the Lord” by Hilkiah, the high priest. When this scroll was shown to King Josiah, he summoned the people of Judah to the Temple in Jerusalem, where he read them everything that was in the document and vowed to instigate religious reforms in conformity with the rules that were written there. When the Kings and Chronicles accounts of these events are compared, it is not clear whether the reform was initiated by the accidental “discovery” of a scroll as Kings suggests, or whether an already ongoing reform program received its crucial impetus when a scroll was brought forward by the priests. Although 2 Kings 22:3 dates the discovery to Josiah’s eighteenth year, 2 Chronicles 34:3 states that he had begun to “seek the God of his ancestor David” in his eighth year, “while he was still a boy,” and had begun instituting reforms by his twelfth. It is also true that, even in the account in Kings, Temple repairs were already underway before the finding of the scroll (2 Kings 21:3–7).
For nearly two centuries, most biblical scholars have accepted that Josiah’s “book of the law” was the biblical Book of Deuteronomy in its penultimate form. This seems clear from the striking correspondences between the reform measures Josiah is said in 2 Kings 23 to have carried out and the laws of worship and religious devotion recorded in Deuteronomy. Thus, for example, Josiah’s instructions to abolish various cultic practices conform to prohibitions in Deuteronomy; these condemned practices include the cult of Asherah and the “asherim,” or sacred poles (compare 2 Kings 23:4, 6, 7, 14 to Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3, 16:21, 17:3); the mas’sebôt, or “pillars” (compare 2 Kings 23:14 to Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3); the bamôt, or “high places,” of foreign gods (compare 2 Kings 23:13 to Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:2–3), and many others. Compare also Josiah’s observation of the Passover in Jerusalem “as prescribed in this book of the covenant” (2 Kings 23:21–23) with the commandment to observe Passover “at the place that the Lord your God will choose” in Deuteronomy 16:1–8.
There were certainly ideological and political dimensions, probably in motivation and certainly in result, to Josiah’s religious reform. In terms of national ideals, the assertion of the centrality of Jerusalem served to unify the country and strengthen the central government, and the mandate to return to perceived ancestral customs and values promoted national pride and cultural nostalgia. At the political level, the changes Josiah made represented a vindication for those in the country who still supported the principles of Hezekiah’s reform and, by the same token, a repudiation of those who had defended Manasseh’s policies. This was not a matter of throwing off the Assyrian yoke, however, since Judah was already free of Assyria when Hilkiah presented the “the book of the law” to the king. And in any case it was not Assyrian imperial policy to interfere with the religious practices of vassals or to require them to worship the Assyrian gods.
On the other hand, the evaporation of Assyrian supervision in the region did permit one aspect of Josiah’s reform that would not have been possible earlier, namely, its extension outside of Judah into the territory of the fallen kingdom of Israel. The Deuteronomistic historian gives special attention to the cancellation of the cult established by Jeroboam I at Bethel (2 Kings 23:15–20), and this would not have been possible if Josiah had not been able to expand his influence north into the territory of the former Assyrian province of Samerina (Samaria). While it seems certain that Josiah took advantage of the vacuum created by the Assyrian withdrawal, the existing sources do not provide a clear picture of the full extent of Josiah’s territorial expansion. It probably extended to most of Samaria, as 2 Kings 23:19 implies, and may well have penetrated into the Galilee, as suggested by the reference in 2 Chronicles 34:6–7 to his institution of cult reforms there. The possibility of western expansion into former Assyrian-controlled Philistine territory is less clear, especially since we know that this region was now dominated by Egypt, as explained below; but the 1960 discovery of a Hebrew ostracon dating to the end of the seventh century BCE near Yavneh Yam (south of Tel Aviv) provides strong circumstantial evidence that, at least in certain areas, Josiah’s westward expansion reached the Mediterranean coast.
After the accession of Sin-shar-ishkun, the failing Assyrian Empire lasted little more than a decade before the critical blow was struck. The agents were the Babylonians and the Medes. The Babylonian Nabopolassar organized the anti-Assyrian forces—Chaldeans, Arameans and Elamites—who had supported the Shamash-shum-ukin rebellion (652–648 BCE) and the rebellions of Merodachbaladan still earlier. By 616 BCE Nabopolassar was ready to begin his advance north and west against Assyria, but at first his results on the battlefield were at best mixed. At about the same time, however, the Medes began their own assault on Assyria from the north. They had found a strong leader in Cyaxeres, who had established a major kingdom on the plateau north of Elam with its capital at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan in western Iran, southwest of Tehran). In 614 BCE the Medes captured the ancient Assyrian capital of Ashu, and entered into an alliance with Nabopolassar. Then, in 612 BCE, Nineveh, which had been the imperial Assyrian capital since the time of Sennacherib, fell to the combined forces of the Babylonians and Medes. Sin-shar-ishkun seems to have died when the city fell, and Ashur-uballit II (612–609 BCE) became the last Assyrian king, setting up a rump government in Haran, about 100 miles west of Nineveh. Though the Babylonians were not yet secure enough in central and northern Mesopotamia to attack Haran and finish the job, the fall of Nineveh signaled the end of Assyria. It was a major turning-point in the history of the ancient Near East and sent shock waves reverberating throughout the region. The biblical monument to this event is the Book of Nahum, which is entirely devoted to the prophet’s “oracle concerning Nineveh” (Nahum 1:1).
Egypt played a prominent and somewhat surprising role in these events. As explained earlier, Egypt had been united since 656 BCE under the XXVIth, or Saite, Dynasty. Psammetichus I (664–610 BCE) had come to the throne as a protégé of Assyria. With the eclipse of Assyria, he became an independent and powerful ruler, not only presiding over the so-called Saite Renaissance at home, but also expanding north to take control of most of Philistia and coastal Palestine as far north as Phoenicia. According to the testimony of Herodotus, Psammetichus took Ashdod by siege and, on another occasion, negotiated the end of an incursion of Scythians into southern Palestine after they had plundered “the Temple of Aphrodite” in Ashkelon. These reports lack direct substantiation in Near Eastern records, but they are plausible and seem to indicate Egyptian domination of Philistia in the latter part of the seventh century B.C.E.
Despite his de facto departure from his old vows to Assurbanipal, however, the aging Psammetichus decided to come to the aid of Assyria in its hour of need. Egyptian troops fought alongside the Assyrians against Nabopolassar and his allies in 616 B.C.E., and under Psammetichus’s successor, Necho II (610–595 B.C.E.), their support continued as long as there was anything left of Assyria to support—that is, until 609 B.C.E. Historians do not agree about what motivated the Egyptian kings to adopt this policy of attempting to help Assyria survive. Perhaps they envisioned joint Assyrian-Egyptian control of Syria-Palestine. Perhaps they were attempting to position themselves so that when Assyria fell, Egypt would be heir to its empire in the West. It seems likely, in any case, that they wanted to preserve the status quo, as Egypt was beginning to thrive again, and were apprehensive about what future perils a victory for the Chaldeans and the Medes might bring to Egypt.
In 610 BCE the army of the Medes entered Assyria and joined forces with the Babylonians, who already had Scythian support, and in October the Babylonian and Scythian armies advanced on Haran, the last capital of Assyria. Ashur-uballit abandoned the city and fled west to await the arrival of his Egyptian allies. In 609 BCE Necho II set out with a huge expeditionary force and marched north. When the Egyptian army was crossing through the Megiddo pass, Josiah confronted it, and Necho captured and killed him. The circumstances under which this happened are not clear. It is usually assumed on the basis of 2 Chronicles 35:20–24, which describes a battle, that Josiah was trying to intercept the Egyptian army, and it is possible to think of a number of reasons why he might have wanted to do so. If he thought that his own resurgent kingdom was strong enough to wrest control of western Palestine from Egypt, he might have viewed the accession of a new and inexperienced Egyptian king as an opportunity to assert himself.
He might have felt an obligation to assist the Babylonians because he regarded Judah as a longtime ally of the Chaldeans, going back to the time of Merodachbaladan and Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:12–13). Or he might simply have wanted to do everything possible to prevent the recovery of Assyria, however unlikely, and the potential for a return to the conditions of subservient vassalage that had prevailed during the reign of his grandfather, Manasseh. On the other hand, the cryptic account of Josiah’s death in Kings (2 Kings 23:29) says nothing about a battle. It indicates only that when Necho was on his way to join the king of Assyria, “King Josiah went to meet him; but when Pharaoh Necho met him at Megiddo, he killed him.” This raises the possibility that Josiah did not go to Megiddo with a hostile encounter in mind. He might have been seeking an audience or attempting to enter into some kind of negotiation, but the interview became antagonistic and got out of control.
In any case, the Egyptian army proceeded north and, according to the Babylonian Chronicle, crossed the Euphrates in July of 609 BCE; then, joining forces with the Assyrians, they marched against Haran. The results of a four-month siege seem to have been inconclusive—Ashur-uballit may never have reentered the city—but the time was sufficient for the Egyptian army to take control of Syria as far north as Carchemish (cf. 2 Chronicles 35:20), establishing its field headquarters at Riblah in the northern Beqa‘ (Tell Zerr‘a on the Orontes, 21 miles south of Homs). Necho summoned a group of Syro-Palestinian rulers to Riblah to require them to swear oaths of loyalty to Egypt. Among them was King Jehoahaz of Judah (2 Kings 23:33), Josiah’s youngest son. whom “the people of the land” had made king when his father was killed (2 Kings 23:30). Necho deposed Jehoahaz and replaced him with his brother Eliakim, changing his name to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:31–35), and imposed a heavy tribute on Judah. Judah’s brief period of independence—between Assyrian and Egyptian control—was now over.
Egypt seems to have dominated Syria-Palestine, including northern Syria, for a few years, holding the Babylonians at bay until 605 BCE, when the Babylonian crown prince, Nabu-kudurri-usdur (the biblical Nebuchadnezzar or Nebuchadrezzar), was given charge of field operations in the West. The Babylonian Chronicle reports that under his leadership the Egyptian army was routed in a decisive battle fought at Carchemish. Necho fled south, but Nebuchadnezzar overtook him at Hamath and defeated him again. The Egyptian king then returned to the banks of the Nile, leaving Syria in Babylonian hands. By that time, though the fate of Ashur-uballit is unknown, the Assyrian Empire was a thing of the past. Its former territories were divided between the Medes and the Babylonians. The Medes took the Assyrian heartland and northern territories, while the Babylonians took the rest of Mesopotamia and the western territories. This included rights to not only Syria but also Palestine, so that a further showdown between Babylonia and Egypt was inevitable.