A Chicken and Egg Problem in Ancient Israelite History: The Law Book and Josiah’s Reform

This thought stemming from my reading of the long and classy introduction to the book of Jeremiah by Jack Lundbom in his vast commentary that makes up 3 vols. of the Anchor Bible series… see his Jeremiah 1-20, 105-106.

Lundbom Jeremiah 1-20

Critical scholarship for a long time believed and often still believes that the law book that was found in the temple in the 18th year of the reign of king Josiah (i.e. about 622 BC) according to 2 Kings 22:3-10 consisted of a large middle portion of what we know now as the book of Deuteronomy.  This is seen to be the catalyst for Josiah’s ensuing reformation of religion in the Judah of his day, which particularly sought to purify worship of Yahweh by eliminating religious ritual in outlying sanctuaries and restricting it to the temple in Jerusalem.  The narrative in 2 Kings 23 in fact focuses on the destruction of pagan altars outside of Jerusalem, but texts like 1 Kings 3:2 imply that a more thorough program of centralization of worship was undertaken.  This interpretation of the cause-and-effect relationship, that the law book inspired Josiah’s reformation, is clearly supported by the order of events in the Kings narrative.

Lundbom, however, says, “More recently, however, the Chronicler’s account has been given preference,” referring to 2 Chronicles 34, where the reason the law book is found in the temple is that Josiah has already, from 628 BC, undertaken religious reforms of the kind that led to the temple’s renovation.  This sequence has a certain credible logic to it.  Without such reform, no renovation might be expected.  Chronicles has usually been regarded as an inferior historical source to Kings, partly by virtue of being clearly composed later and being somewhat derivative in relation to Kings.  But every history has agendas or axes to grind, and the editor of Kings may in fact want to show that the Law of Moses in textual acts as an effective catalyst for religious renewal.  As an instance of Chronicles’ stricter historical accuracy, I think of its faithful relaying of the names of Saul’s sons despite their being compounded on the name of the rival god Baal (1 Chron. 8:33-34).  In any case, it is interesting to consider the alternative possibility that the discovery of the law book might have been the culmination for Josiah’s reforms rather than their initial catalyst.

As a footnote to this, Lundbom adds another unique suggestion – that the law book discovered in the temple was not the body of Deuteronomy at all, but the poem, some (esp. from the Albright school) would say ancient, known as the Song of Moses and found in Deuteronomy 32.  Often when I have sought to trace archaic or potentially archaic language through the Old Testament, it has appeared in this unique poem along with other well-known texts such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.  I am not yet in a position to evaluate Lundbom’s suggestion, but it shows an ability to stand outside of the mainstream consensus and find new answers to old questions, which is always good for keeping our thinking flexible!

Distribution Chart for an Unusual Hebrew Pronominal Suffix (Technical)

“Hey Mo, don’t you worry ’bout goin’ down south,

I’ll be sayin’ every word that comes outta your mouth,

Just be doin’ your best, and pray that it’s blessed,

I’ll take care o’ the rest.”

– Keith Green, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest”

Noticing that Psalm 2 had in common with Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses) and a range of other texts an unusual form of the 3rd masc. plural (usually) pronominal suffix, ‘מוֹ’ (-mo), I became interested in just where those endings turned up, why they might exist, and whether any significant implications stem from these features.

So let me offer an Excel chart that shows their distribution and specific references:

Distribution Chart for -mo 3mp pronominal suffixes


-mo suffix chart image

The distribution of these endings is interesting.  It shows clusters of its use on verbs (esp. Exod 15), nouns (e.g. Ps 2:3) and prepositions (normally ‘עַל’ or ‘לְ’, once ‘אֶל’, Ps 2:5).  For instance, Exodus 15 features seven such suffixes, exclusively on verbs, whereas all the prophetic uses are on prepositions, and then only in Isaiah and once in Habakkuk.  A few more observations:

  • The suffix is normally plural but occasionally singular, as in the Genesis references.
  • The suffix can occur in parallel construction with the regular 3mp ending, as in Ps 49:11.
  • The form is almost always found in poetry, though the poetry/prose boundary is difficult to identify in prophetic discourse (affecting the Isaiah references).  Exod 23:31, however, is a prose use.

A point of interest for me is whether this is an archaic form or instead an ‘archaizing’ form, a stylistic touch implying traditional authority or fidelity, e.g. continued use of archaic English forms by churchgoers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalm 49 instance might suggest a stylistic use.  I suspect that some clusters are genuinely archaic, including Exodus 15.  Isaianic  usage probably reflects use of this suffix largely restricted to prepositions in the middle of the Old Testament period.  Some of the Psalms uses, especially later ones, occur in proximity to references to Israel’s distant past, e.g. 78:24, 66; 83:11; 99:7.

It is challenging to find where secondary sources discuss this phenomenon, but see Gesenius/Kautsch/Cowley #32m (pp. 107-8 in my edition), #58g (156-7) re verb suffixes, #91b, h, l (255-258) re noun suffixes, and #103f, o (301-2, 305) re suffixes on prepositions.  #91l debates the implications of such forms for dating, in the authors’ case, denying that they can be relied upon to be genuine signs of archaism, while those of the Albright school (e.g. Cross, Freedman) might take them as betraying the archaic nature of a poem like Exodus 15.  (See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 86, for a sample reference to Exodus 15 and the beginning and ending of Deuteronomy 33 in these terms.  You’ll notice that all feature this suffix abundantly.)

I would assume that ancient Hebrew language like any other has a history and a course of development, and that it must be possible to arrive at some conclusions on the basis of phenomena such as the one mentioned here.  I believe that the authors behind Miller-Naudé, Cynthia L., and Ziony Zevit (eds.). Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) would advocate this position, though I haven’t yet read the volume.  With the same proviso, I understand that the opposing position is put in Young, I., R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008).  Let’s all check them out!