Last week we began to address a question raised by TABC students regarding a presentation of Rav Leib (Lawrence) Keleman’s outstanding “A Rational Argument for the Divine Origin of the Torah.” He presents the famous argument that Judaism is the only religion to make a claim of a mass revelation whose descendants remain alive until this very day. He notes that skeptics believe that some unidentified individual convinced the Jewish People that their ancestors experienced a mass revelation. Since the Tanach and the Gemara do not identify such an individual or such an event having occurred, Rav Kelemer humorously labels this supposed character “Fred.”
A few students have asked why Yoshiyahu could not have been a “Fred” character. They note that Yoshiyahu had publicized a Sefer Torah that was discovered in the Beit HaMikdash soon after a seventy year period of leadership that did not support Torah observance. Last week we began presenting a brief biography of Yoshiyahu to help us explain why it is utterly unreasonable to state that he was a “Fred” character. This week we shall complete the biography and respond to the question.
Yoshiyahu’s Achievements – Korban Pesach, Justice, and Expanded Borders
For a period of thirteen years, Yoshiyahu enjoyed great success as a ruler. He organized the most widespread observance of the Korban Pesach since the days of the Shofetim (Melachim 2:23:22). Yirmiyahu (22:15) describes Yoshiyahu’s reign as a time when justice prevailed in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Yoel Bin-Nun notes that an archaeological discovery seems to corroborate Yirmiyahu’s evaluation. A shard of pottery dated to Yoshiyahu’s time describes a soldier who called to the attention of the authorities what he deemed unfair treatment (the destruction of his clothes) by his commanding officer. Only in a society where justice prevails would a soldier even dare to lodge such a complaint. In an unjust society, a soldier would not dare complain against a commanding officer, for he certainly would be punished for his complaint.
Sefer Divrei HaYamim (2:34:6-7 and 21) describes Yoshiyahu as impacting all of Eretz Yisrael, not merely Judea. This appears astonishing in light of the fact that Yoshiyahu was a Judean king – what was he doing in the North? The answer lies in the historical events of the time of Yoshiyahu’s reign (see Da’at Mikra Divrei HaYamim p. 933). During that time, the Assyrian Empire that had controlled the Northern portion of Eretz Yisrael since the reign of Chizkiyahu was collapsing. Yoshiyahu appears to have seized the opportunity to expand the borders of his kingdom to include the former Northern kingdom.
Sefer Melachim (2:23:24), however, indicates the limitations of Yoshiyahu’s Teshuvah campaign. It states that Yoshiyahu succeeded in eliminating the idolatry that “appeared” in Judea. This clearly implies that the Avodah Zarah that was not in plain view remained. Two Pesukim later, we are told that there was never a king who so sincerely returned to Hashem either before or after Yoshiyahu. This also seems to imply that only the king Yoshiyahu had returned but that the people had not wholeheartedly joined him in his efforts.
Indeed, Chazal (Ta’anit 22b; see Rav Elazar HaKalir’s Kinah mourning Yoshiyahu) explain that during Yoshiyahu’s time, many Jews covertly worshipped Avodah Zarah. They describe how people hid Avodah Zarah behind their doors in order to escape its detection by soldiers enforcing Yoshiyahu’s rule. It seems that the soldiers were not particularly thorough in their searches, as they seemed to carry out royal decrees perfunctorily and without much enthusiasm. This also explains how Bnei Yisrael deserved the Churban not so long after Yoshiyahu’s death. Yoshiyahu’s reformation seems to have made little impact on people’s hearts. They merely cooperated in the removal of public idolatry. Finally, this also explains why Yirmiyahu was castigating Am Yisrael even during Yoshiyahu’s reformation (see Yirmiyahu 3:6-10 and 25:3).
The Traumatic Death of Yoshiyahu
Thirteen years after he began his reformation in earnest, Yoshiyahu was killed, at the age of thirty-nine, by Par’oh Necho’s Egyptian army. This episode was so traumatic that Sefer Melachim (2:23:29) describes this tragedy in one cryptic Pasuk. It is almost as if the Navi does not want to record this event and therefore presents the story in the shortest and most obscure manner possible.
Assessing the Extent of the Tragedy
Yoshiyahu’s death was a multidimensional tragedy. It seems that he was motivated to wage war to prevent Par’oh Necho extending his sphere of influence in the Middle East and thereby impinging on the former’s control of the northern portion of Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, Sefer Melachim records that after the death of Yoshiyahu, the Egyptians seized control of Eretz Yisrael and the subsequent Judean “kings” were merely vassal kings controlled by Egypt. The Babylonians then overtook the Egyptians (Melachim 2:24:7) and grabbed control over Eretz Yisrael. Thus, the death of Yoshiyahu effectively marked the end of Jewish sovereign control of Eretz Yisrael, which was not regained until centuries later in the days of the Chashmona’im.
However, the most profound aspect of this tragedy is the fact that such an incredibly righteous king could die in battle. To make matters worse, he died in the very same manner as did Achav! In fact, Rav Yoel Bin-Nun argues that it is for this reason that Am Yisrael ignored the impassioned pleas of Yirmiyahu and Yechezkeil to repent before the Churban. People most likely felt that serving Hashem did not pay. While Menashe served every sort of Avodah Zarah and reigned peacefully for fifty-five years, Yoshiyahu, who destroyed the Avodah Zarah, was killed prematurely in battle at age thirty-nine. Therefore, pleas for Teshuvah fell on deaf ears.
Furthermore, had Yoshiyahu not died and had lived until the age of sixty-seven (as did Menashe), his Teshuvah movement potentially could have remained in effect for another twenty-eight years, totaling forty-one years. In that amount of time, a new generation that did not know Menashe could have emerged and possibly been much more committed to Torah life than their parents’ generation. Such a Teshuvah movement likely could have averted the Churban. Alas, this was not to be (see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Reflections on the Tish’ah BeAv Kinot pp. 285-286 for a similar approach).
Yoshiyahu as “Fred”
Our brief biography has shown that Yoshiyahu was a noble individual whose actions had minimal impact on the Jewish People even during his reign and even less influence after his death. While he tried to impose adherence to the Torah upon all of the Jews the compliance for the most part was only superficial. Although Yoshiyahu was very powerful, it seems he lacked the charisma to genuinely influence the wider population. Accordingly, how can anyone reasonably assume that Yoshiyahu convinced the Jewish People that their ancestors had received the Torah from Sinai or even that he discovered a long-lost book of the Torah?
The Jewish People, as we have discussed in a number of our essays, are and have always been a contentious people who do not easily accept authority. Thus, many Jews did not accept Yoshiyahu’s religious reformation despite his massive authority as a powerful king. How could anyone reasonably assert that Yoshiyahu managed to fool and convince a highly skeptical people that their ancestors experienced a mass revelation at Sinai if he could not convince them to even abandon idolatry?!
Understanding the Discovery of the Sefer Torah
Skeptics point to the discovered Sefer Torah publicized by Yoshiyahu as evidence that Yoshiyahu was the one (“Fred”) who fraudulently convinced the Jewish People that their ancestors experienced a mass revelation at Sinai. However, the Pesukim do not at all state that all Sifrei Torah were unknown until Yoshiyahu introduced the Torah to the Jewish people. Indeed, the traditional explanation does not understand that Yoshiyahu was involved in the discovery of a previously unknown book. Rather, the traditional approach is that Yoshiyahu found, in his efforts to purify the Beit HaMikdash, a specific Sefer Torah that was opened to the Tochachah (reprimand) of Sefer Devarim. As explained by the Midrash HaGadol (Devarim 27) and Radak (Melachim 2:22:11), Yoshiyahu correctly saw this as a bad omen and sought the interpretation of a prophet.
The traditional explanation accounts very well for Yoshiyahu’s terrified reaction to hearing about the book’s discovery (Melachim 2:22:11). This is especially so according to the view in Chazal that the first line in the section to which the discovered Sefer Torah was rolled was the portion of the Tochachah that Bnei Yisrael and the king will be exiled to an unfamiliar land (Devarim 28:36). The skeptical approach, however, does not at all account for why Yoshiyahu was terrified upon reading the discovered Sefer Torah.
Da’at Mikra, the recently completed commentary of Orthodox academicians (which subtly responds to skeptical interpretations of the Tanach) adds a layer of depth to the traditional explanation of Yoshiyahu’s discovery. Based on Divrei HaYamim’s (2:34:14) parallel account of this incident noting that Yoshiyahu discovered the Sefer Torah “in the hand of Moshe,” Da’at Mikra explains that Yoshiyahu surprisingly encountered a precious artifact – the Sefer Torah that was written by Moshe Rabbeinu and placed on the side of the Aron (see Devarim 31:24-26) which serves as a witness to the Jewish People to warn us of great punishment if we sin. Yoshiyahu did not expect to find this artifact which was known to be lost.
Da’at Mikra suggests that the Kohanim hid this artifact during the reign of one of the evil Judean kings such as Achaz or Menashe for fear of its desecration. The discovery of this special Sefer Torah which served to warn us of disaster and was opened to the Tochachah (as explained by Chazal) was highly shocking to Yoshiyahu, who inquired of a Navi to explain this extraordinary phenomenon. Thus, Yoshiyahu’s shocked reaction to the discovery is fully accounted for by Orthodox Jewish explanations of this event.
Skeptical interpretations, on the other hand, of the discovery of the Sefer Torah make two leaps of faith – the incredible proposition that Yoshiyahu fraudulently introduced the Sefer Torah (or even a portion of it) to the Jewish People and that merely encountering a Sefer Torah (or Sefer Devarim) prompted the mighty Yoshiyahu to tremble with fear.
In addition, some skeptics argue that Yoshiyahu fraudulently introduced Sefer Devarim to the Jewish People. As “evidence” they note the absence of any hint at all in Yeshayahu, Amos, and Hoshei’a to Sefer Devarim. Da’at Mikra, however, lists dozens of parallels between Sefer Devarim and these Nevi’im.
As we have often noted, belief in the mass divine revelation at Sinai is far more rational than the skeptical approaches to the Torah. The skeptic must make tortured interpretations of the texts regarding Yoshiyahu and assume that the Jewish People accepted the fraudulent claims of a king with minimal charismatic influence. To believe that Yoshiyahu, who succeeded in convincing the masses of our people of almost nothing, managed to perpetrate the greatest fraud ever to occur in Jewish history requires one to make an irrational leap-of-faith. Moreover, the skeptical/secular approach does not account for Yoshiyahu’s deeply pained reaction to the news of the discovery of the Sefer Torah. The secular leap-of-faith that the Torah is of human authorship demands its adherents to believe in bizarre interpretations. It is also requires belief that the Jewish people, the most argumentative and contentious people in existence, were fraudulently persuaded that their ancestors experienced a mass revelation. On the other hand, belief in the divine revelation at Sinai most certainly is the far more reasonable and sensible approach in general and specifically to Yoshiyahu’s publicizing the discovery of the Sefer Torah.
Rav Yoel Bin-Nun relates an incident that highlights that absurdity of the secular/skeptical approach to Yoshiyahu’s discovery. A student of Rav Bin-Nun delivered a lecture at a Bible conference (that included both secular and Orthodox scholars) on the parallels between Sefer Devarim and Sefer Yeshayahu. A secular scholar upon hearing the lecture noted the cogency of the parallels but asked how it was possible if Sefer Devarim was written only in Yoshiyahu’s time (Yeshayahu prophesied decades before Yoshiyahu was even born). Rav Bin-Nun’s student humorously responded, “don’t you know that Yeshayahu was a Navi!”
My cousin, Bible scholar Dr. Yosef Priel of Bar Ilan University, pointed me to the writings of Y.M. Grintz (Iyunim BeSefer Melachim pages 349-370; cited in a footnote by Da’at Mikra in its discussion of the scroll discovery) who presents no less than twenty (!) proofs that the secular theory of Yoshiyahu fraudulently introducing Sefer Devarim or all of the Chumash is entirely false.