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2 Kings 23

In 2 Kings 22, the discovery of the Torah in the Beit HaMikdash prompts King Josiah of Judah to lead a national return to God and purging of idolatry. Throughout the nation, shrines and idolatrous altars are destroyed. Notably, this destruction often involves burning and beating into dust. In Beth-El, a region of particularly high idolatrous activity, King Josiah notices some graves on a hill. Naturally, he thought to exhume the bones of the graves and have them burned upon the primary idolatrous altar in Beth-El (verse 16). As it turns out, that this altar would be defiled by the burning bones of the idolatrous priests who attended it was foretold by a Judean prophet. Josiah notices a particularly grave in the area and inquires about it of the townspeople. They inform him that that grave is the grave of that very Judean prophet who foretold of the present altar-defilement. Josiah then commands, in verse 18, that the bones of the Judean prophet not be disturbed, along with the bones of a false Samarian prophet who was interred with him.

I would like to analyze this story. What is going on in Judah at this time? It is a purging of idolatry. Josiah is rooting out any remnant of Judah’s strayings, and not just for the fun of it, but to ensure that these “stumps”, so to speak, can never take root again and regrow into rampant idolatry. Similar to Moses’ dealings with the Golden Calf, when he burned it and ground it to dust, Josiah is ensuring that the physical vestiges of idolatry are completely and utterly destroyed, without any chance of being used again. Nothing idolatrous can rest undisturbed. And that forces Josiah to confront the bones of the idolatrous priests. To let them lie undisturbed is to allow for a remnant of idolatry to remain. Perhaps these graves would become something of a shrine. Whether or not they might, though, the point is that there can be no toleration at all of idolatrous activities. They must all be rooted out and destroyed. One might argue that it is enough that these priests are dead. However, letting the dead rest undisturbed is an act of respect, which recognizes the dignity of humans even in death. As long as those bones lie undisturbed, a shred of respect for idolatry continues to exist. We can see parallels of this in the way Confederate war monuments and cemeteries are being treated in the South, i.e. torn down. Obviously, though, Southern society has not completely sworn off these people (I am NOT claiming that means they haven’t completely sworn off slavery), as many such “shrines” and cemeteries are preserved as hallowed sites.

Let us also analyze the significance of bones, atzmot b’Ivrit. This word shares a root with etzem–selfsame/propriety/essential. Translations for etzem include bone, essence, and substance. Clearly, the word has to do with the bare-bones, when-you-really-get-down-to-it nature of a phenomenon, in this case a human being. I think that is important to the meaning of the story. What we are dealing with here is an attempt to get down to the very roots of idolatry and root them out. And those roots lie deep down in human beings, in their very bones. Those bones call out to another Biblical scene, long before this Great Purge.

Below are two verses, 2 Kings 23:16 and Genesis 3:23

וַיִּ֣פֶן יֹאשִׁיָּ֗הוּ וַיַּ֨רְא אֶת־הַקְּבָרִ֤ים אֲשֶׁר־שָׁם֙ בָּהָ֔ר וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָֽעֲצָמוֹת֙ מִן־הַקְּבָרִ֔ים וַיִּשְׂרֹ֥ף עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ וַֽיְטַמְּאֵ֑הוּ

כִּדְבַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר קָרָא֙ אִ֣ישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר קָרָ֔א אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃

Josiah turned and saw the graves that were there on the hill; and he had the bones taken out of the graves and burned on the altar. Thus he defiled it, in fulfillment of the word of the LORD foretold by the man of God who foretold these happenings.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ׀ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֗ים הֵ֤ן הָֽאָדָם֙ הָיָה֙ כְּאַחַ֣ד מִמֶּ֔נּוּ לָדַ֖עַת ט֣וֹב וָרָ֑ע וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ פֶּן־יִשְׁלַ֣ח יָד֗וֹ וְלָקַח֙ גַּ֚ם מֵעֵ֣ץ הַֽחַיִּ֔ים וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם׃

And God יהוה said, “Now that humankind has become like any of us, knowing good and bad, what if one should stretch out a hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”

Notice the linguistics parallels. I will begin with the first common word in both verses: pen, translated as “turned” in the first verse and “what if” or, more commonly, “lest” in the Genesis verse. This word can also mean “corner”. The connection between “corner” and “turn” is obvious: both reflect a change in orientation, either of a surface or a person’s attention. Implicit in “lest” is a turn of attention to a newly created or newly realized possibility, which was previously hidden, as if around a corner. The attention turns like a corner. Josiah turns his attention upon the idolatrous grave, thinking he will have to destroy them lest the people return to idolatry. God turns his attention to a possible snare, a possible issue, the humans must be expelled from the garden lest they take from the tree. That brings us to the next set of common words: yishlach, lakach, and etz. In 2 Kings, Josiah dispatches somebody to take out the bones, to uproot them from the earth, if you will. In Genesis, God is concerned the humans will dispatch their hands and take from the tree, not the fruit, but the tree, the tree itself, perhaps breaking off its branches or uprooting it altogether. Either way, there is a destruction of bones/branches, an uprooting and destruction of essence.

That is what Josiah is trying to do here, he is trying to destroy the very roots of idolatry in Judah, trying to destroy the tree that it should never grow again. The bones of the Judean prophet, on the other hand, Josiah commands to be left undisturbed. This parallels the way that God takes action to prevent the destruction of the Tree of Life in Genesis. This true navi’s bones represent the essence of true Judean religion, faithfulness to God. Note, though, that the false Samarian prophet’s bones also remain intact. Why? Out of respect for the Judean prophet. There is no way to keep the remains of the Judean prophet intact if you disturb the remains of the Samarian one. There is no way to keep the true Judean religion intact if you completely destroy all remnants of Samarian falsehood. Why is this? I am not sure. It speaks to me of some possibility that in preserving our faithfulness to God, we somehow also allow for the possibility of a revival of idolatry. Samarian idolatry has somehow planted itself in Judean faithfulness. Alternatively, this is an image of hope. The false prophets last wish was to be buried with the true prophet. The two kingdoms, Judah and Israel, lie together in peace, undisturbed. Samaria has assimilated the faithfulness of Judah, and, as a result, rests in peace. In that last moment of life, the false prophet had perhaps his first true revelation. He realized that he had lived in the way of falsehood, and he sought to redeem himself by choosing, with his last conscious act, the path of faithfulness. There is a prayer in all of this that Israel and Judah dwell in peace together again under the rule of a righteous Davidic ruler like Josiah.

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