King Josiah's Reforms Were Lies

One of the important Bible reading skills to hone is catching the Biblical writers when they are unwittingly revealing an important truth. Since these truths are generally embedded within polemics wrapped in a fabricated story to support that polemic, it is important to read cautiously.
Over and above the metaphysical untruth of the deity, Yahweh, there is the additional fiction of Israelite history, which was constructed to persuade a polytheistic people to abandon their cultic traditions in favor of single devotion to one deity and ultimately monotheism.

The constructed narrative begins with the call of Abraham (Genesis 12), the deliverance of the people from slavery (Exodus), their invasion and conquest of Canaanite/Philistine land (Joshua), and their repeated failure to remain faithful Yahweh’s covenant which results in their being given into the hands of various nations by Yahweh in order to punish them for whoring after other gods (much of the rest Hebrew Bible).

This history is deigned to achieve two ends: (1) persuade the people that they had a monotheistic (or at least a henotheistic past); (2) to convince them that the reason for their present calamities is that they have abandoned the worship of Yahweh and have adopted the practices of the nations.

Today, Biblical scholars and archeologist understand that Israel’s true origin is at the very least messy. Archaeological discoveries show that Israelite religion was largely pagan and included devotion to Asherah, the goddess of fertility (who was often worshipped as a consort of Yahweh), the other gods of Canaan, sun veneration, human sacrifice and cultic prostitution. According to one scholar, “The cults [Canaanite and Israelite] were so similar that one could take the vessels from one deity and put them in the service of another.”[1]

Another Biblical scholar, Mark Smith, puts it more frankly, calling the reform of Josiah and Hezekiah, the kings who actively sought to rid Israel of her pagan ways, “outright innovations.”[2]

However, what I find most interesting are the times in the Bible when Israel’s true history is accidently attested to. Such is the case in Jeremiah 44, in a scene in which the prophet Jeremiah is condemning the women of Israel about their worship of the Queen of Heaven. The women defend their practice, arguing that it is in keeping with the practice of their ancestors and their kings:   

Then all the men who were aware that their wives had been making offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.” (Jeremiah 44:15-18)

Jeremiah responds by attributing their misfortunes to their idolatry, saying “It is because you burned offerings, and because you sinned against the Lord and did not obey the voice of the Lord or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his decrees, that this disaster has befallen you, as is still evident today” (Jeremiah 44:23).

Of course, neither the Queen of Heaven nor Yahweh is real, but the fact that there is this constant struggle to compel the people to worship Yahweh is itself indicative of a serious discrepancy. Had their ancestors really experienced seas parted with staffs and walls falling by trumpets that would have surely left an impression.  In addition, they would have certainly indoctrinated their children effectively, suppressing their natural curiosity, and leading them to dogmatic certainty that the religion that they happened to have been born in is obviously the only true religion.
Parents without a single credible miracle story manage this feat all over the world. And yet, in the Hebrew Bible, we find a deity constantly lamenting, even begging, because the people he has supposedly so gloriously delivered refuse to worship him:

“O my people, what have I done to you?
  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 6:3-4).
That the Israelites believed in other mythologies prior to becoming monotheists is not the main issue. The salient point is that an identity, in fact a history, was imposed upon them. Some of that imposition was not only achieved by deception but by violence. For example, the book of King reports that Elijah, having demonstrated the superiority of his deity, murders the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:39-40).

We should be doubtful about the historicity of that story. Despite the repeated injunction against testing the Lord, the prophet orchestrates a test, and voila, Yahweh miraculously reveals himself. And we all know that Yahweh only reveals himself through coincidences that have apparent natural explanations.

Yet, it is important to note how often the Bible highly recommends killing people who practice a different religion. Thus, although this particular incidence did not occur, violence in the name of Yahweh was probably common.

Lastly, we should not simply conclude that the Scripture writers were mistaken, embellished, or that their traditions grew into exaggerated sagas. All of these are true, but there were probably a handful of people who knew perfectly well that what they were writing was not true and that they were rewriting the past to manipulate the present. They were lying.   

[2] Mark Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 163.