The Narrative Lectionary brings us to the story of Josiah in 2 Kings 22:1-10 this week. I wrote about the story in this post earlier this week and created a visual timeline to walk through it.
One of the big questions I have about the story has to do with Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh. Why did he turn to the Canaanite gods so fully after his father, Hezekiah, had turned to Yahweh and found protection?
I think that we must understand the context of the ancient world in order to answer this question. When we explore this, then we can see why a) Manasseh may have turned to the Baals, and b) why Josiah’s return to the Book of the Covenant was so important for him, and instructive for us.
So, here is my Cartoonist’s Guide to Ancient Cosmology. Read this and then we’ll make some connections to Josiah and to the church today at the end…
A Cartoonist’s Guide to Ancient Cosmology, Power Structures, and God’s Promise.
The Universe, in the ancient world view, consisted of three levels. The Heavens is the place where the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, clouds, birds, etc. live and move. The Earth is where humans and animals live. The Underworld is the place of shadow and death. (note: Heaven is not a separate place to which you go. It is the Heavens in which the gods live and move)
The Sun makes his daily trek across the Heavens, then plunges into the Underworld and fights to the other side to rise again each morning.
The Moon makes her monthly cycle, changing along the way, living in both the day and the night.
The planets each follow their own paths.
The Stars are a great chorus that marks the seasons and journeys with us.
And EVERYTHING is a god.
Some cultures believed that humans were an accidental byproduct of divine violence. Humans were viewed, by the gods, as either a) an annoyance, like cockroaches, or b) cute bunnies that can be loved until they eat your vegetables and then you eat the bunnies.
Humans constantly lived in fear of the gods and did everything they could to appease the gods and cojole them into producing protection and bountiful harvests. This fear-based worship inlcuded sexual acts/prostitution, child sacrifice, self-mutilation, and oppression.
Each tribe had their own version of the gods, which led to Tribal Warfare and “My god’s bigger than your god” battles.
Some cultures grew large and became highly organized systems, led by one ruler, usually a man. The Emperor viewed himself as either a god, or as one who would become a god after death. The Emperor led in a top-down, command control system and built the Empire on the backs of slaves and by conquering other nations for resources.
Whenever the Empire arrives at your door, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse lead the way: War, Famine, Disease, Death.
A couple named Abram and Sarai lived within this universe, under these Word Power Systems. Then one day, somehow, they encountered a different version of the divine.
God made a promise, not a demand.
“I am with you. I am for you. I created you and called it good. I want to bless you so that all nations will know this promise and live in peace.”
Abraham and Sarah struggled to embody this promise, but they did move into it.
The children of Abraham became enslaved by the Egyptian Domination System.
Moses encountered the Divine. When asked “who should I say sent me” the Divine simply responded, “I AM.”
The Divine Promise came down from Mt. Sinai, and pitched a tent. The Divine did not lord it over the people like an Emperor, or extort the people. Rather, the Divine made a Covenant, an official Promise, to be with the people.
The Book of the Covenant gave concrete ways the people could live in the world that would keep them safe, and empower them to Love God and Love Neighbor.
What is happening here?
The Divine is not the Sun, Moon, or Stars. The Divine is not contained within the cosmos. The Divine is the creator and sustainer of all things and is beyond and within all things. And is FOR all things.
When humans live into this promise, it is SHALOM.
This Covenant was written on a scroll so that the following generations would never forget the Promise.
Back to Josiah’s Story…
Why did Manasseh turn to the Baals? I think he was afraid. He was caught between two Imperial Domination Systems: Egypt to the southwest and Babylon to the Northeast.
I wonder if Manasseh wanted to hedge his bets and get every god in Canaan on his side in order to bolster himself against the invasion. He made the same mistake that Solomon did when he married 700 women and brought all their local deities into his palace. He was making political alliances and forgetting the promise of God.
Alliances like these, ebroiled in the fear-based practices of Baal worship, led Manasseh to shed innocent blood in the streets of Jerusalem. That is why Isaiah said in Isaiah 5:1-11 “he expected justice, but found bloodshed (see this post)”
It appears that Josiah, on the other hand, had a good heart. We see the hint of this when he offered money to the construction crew and trusted them with it.
But, that’s as far as he could go with it.
Until he found the Book of the Covenant.
When he had a clear record of the Promise of God made to Abraham and made concrete in the words of the Law, then he knew what the Promise looked like.
Here are the key words in the Josiah story, spoken by Huldah, the prophetess,
because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. 20 Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place. 2 Kings 22:19–20.
What Does This Have to Do With Us?
Jesus was a Jewish man in the line of Abraham and David. He entered into an Israel that was, once again, under the oppression of another Imperial Domination System.
His life, teachings, death, and resurrection were an embodiment of the Promise of the Covenant. He was Divine made flesh. He was the living tabernacle of the promise dwelling among us.
Upon his ascension he placed the Promise, the Spirit of God, in each of us, where it has always been from the beginning. We are the living tabernacle of the Divine, called to be a blessing to all nations, to speak truth and love to violent world systems.
This story has been written down for us. We call it the Bible.
Here is a great and tragic irony. The Christian Church of the West, of which I am a descendant, has repeatedly turned away from the promise and into the World Power Systems.
The Roman Church become an Imperial Domination System that led to European colonization, the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the irradication/genocide of indigenous people on Turtle Island (North America), and the exploitation of natural and human resources for financial gain.
The Protestant Reformation turned the church into Tribal Warfare. “My understanding of God/Communion/Scripture/etc is bigger than your understanding!” These doctrinal debates led to literal war that left 22 million people dead in the wake of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
These tribal wars had two lasting effects:
- Faith became a private thing, separated from the public square.
- The vacuum of faith in the public square led to the secular age, the rise of rationalism, and the Modern Era where only Science and Political Power have public currency
We are living in a Josiah Moment.
We need to hear the word of Huldah once again. “Because you humbled yourself…”
We need to connect deeply to the Promise made flesh in Jesus, not to our Western Christian Heritage.
Jesus is God made flesh who humbled himself. He lifted up the lowly. He stood with the outcast. He demonstrated the love of God on the cross. He did not repay evil with evil, but conquered evil with love.
We can only truly know Jesus through reading the stories in the Book.
The Book isn’t God. We don’t need a legalistic moralism that leads to more Tribal Warfare or Imperial Domination.
We need to study the Book well.
Will we look deeply into the Promise recorded in the Book and remember the Gospel, the Good News?
God is with us, God is for us.
ALL OF US.
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