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Rediscovering the Scroll of the Law

The crisis of 2 Kings 22:8-20 is the discovery of the scroll of the Law by Hilkiah the high priest during the repairs of the temple that Josiah had earlier ordered. As v8 reads, it appears that Hilkiah has knowledge of the law, so that this discovery is not significant, at least for him, when it comes to the content of the law. If nothing else, the powerfully conservative effect of oral tradition would have kept alive the main points of the law even if this particular scroll was the only extant copy of the law. And so, this discovery cannot be described as a discovery of the law. The law was not discovered in the time of Josiah. Moreover, it should not be described as a rediscovery of the law, because that would claim too much about the ignorance of the prophets, priests, and kings at that time and in the recent past. The prophetic activity of the 8th and 7th centuries BC assume at least a general knowledge of the law.

            Relatedly, what happens in 2 Kings 22:8 should not be thought of as a discovery of the scroll of the law, either. Such a statement would have the potential to cast suspicion on the historical reliability of the Old Testament. While it is true that 2 Kings 22 provides no specific identification of the contents of the scroll, the discovery of any scroll of the law in the days of Josiah could suggest that a part of what we now call the law was a late addition to it. This is, in fact, the position of some critical scholars, who see in 2 Kings 22:8 evidence that some or all of the law, usually with reference to Deuteronomy, was “discovered” in the sense that a scroll was produced by the priestly class at a relatively late date. What Hilkiah discovered, then, could be called a scroll of legal additions. Such a view requires the Bible reader to adopt a certain level of suspicion of what is written in the Old Testament. After all, the law, i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, is presented as a unified whole whose primary author was Moses. To be sure, the standardization of language, updating of place names, and addition of some material (like the narrative of Moses’ death) are all identifiable in the law. But there is a giant leap between recognizing minor editorial additions and claiming that some or all of the book of Deuteronomy was composed at some point prior to or during the reign of Josiah.

            For that reason, it is much clearer to say that Hilkiah rediscovered the scroll of the law. Such a way of talking and thinking helps us to appreciate the context of Josiah’s early reign. Both his father and grandfather were wicked kings of Judah, and his grandfather Manasseh did much to turn the hearts of God’s people away from him. However, Josiah’s great grandfather was Hezekiah, who was a good king himself. It is reasonable enough to think that in the decades between Hezekiah and Josiah, the written record of the law would have been misplaced due to neglect or hidden to protect it from the threat of destruction. The fact that a future king of Judah would have no pang of conscience when he methodically sliced up and burned the written record of Jeremiah’s prophetic activity only goes to show how quickly faithfulness can turn to a dangerous faithlessness.

            But in this discussion of the rediscovery of the scroll of the law, it should not be lost that the full significance of God’s word was not appreciated, at least by Josiah, until the written record of the law was read to him. To be sure, he had to have had some familiarity with the religion of Israel in order to initiate religious reform and repairs of the temple early in his reign. But he did not know the full significance of his faith until the scroll was read to him. It was in the specificity of the curses, no doubt, that the full weight of sin came to bear on his own heart. And it was after hearing the word of God read to him that he responded with a tender, penitent heart toward his God. The lesson for us, then, is to appreciate that a vague familiarity with the Scriptures has some positive value, but a real engagement with God will only come when we earnestly wrestle with the details of his divine revelation to us.

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