[b-hebrew] King Josiah's Exciting Discovery

jimstinehart at aol.com jimstinehart at aol.com
Tue Dec 11 21:58:08 EST 2012

Prof. Yigal Levin:
1. You wrote: “Nowhere doesit say that Hilkiah and Josiah could not read the book that had been found. Onthe contrary, Hilkiah tells Shaphan that he had found a "book of theLaw". How could he have known what the book was if he could not read it?”
Here is what II Kings 22: 8says: “And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have foundthe book of the law in the house of the LORD.’ And Hilkiah gave the book toShaphan, and he read it.”
The only type of trulyancient writing, using a writing method that was so old as to be indecipherableto the high priest of Jerusalem, that would likely be found in the Temple wouldbe an ancient part of the Torah, and hence could be referred to by Hilkiah asbeing “the book of the law”. If the high priest Hilkiah could read that holywork himself, why would he give it to the scribe Shaphan to read, when thescribe usually handled secular matters, whereas the priest handled religiousmatters? Hilkiah didn’t know precisely what “the book of the law was”, thoughhe rightly suspected it must be part of the Torah, given its ancient writingsystem and the fact that it had been found buried in the Temple, until Shaphanread it to him.
Please note that Shaphan,by sharp contrast, has no trouble whatsoever reading the book immediately. Tome, if the high priest had been able to read this sacred holy book himself, hewould not have willy nilly handed it over to the scribe. Rather, Hilkiah wouldhave first read the book himself, and then knowing its contents, Hilkiah wouldhave promptly handed the book over to King Josiah directly, with the scribeShaphan not playing any key role in the matter at all. 
2. You wrote: “Shaphan thereports back to the king, first about the repairs (which he had been put incharge of), and then mentions the book and reads from it before the king. Notbecause the king could not read, but because reading to the king was thescribe's job. So the story really does not say what you claim it does.”
Is that a plausible interpretationof these two verses of text? “Then Shaphan the secretary told the king,‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book’. And Shaphan read it before the king.”II Kings 22: 10.. “And the king went up to the house of the LORD, and with himall the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests andthe prophets, all the people, both small and great; and he read in theirhearing all the words of the book of the covenant which had been found in thehouse of the LORD.” II Kings 23: 2.
If King Josiah could readthe book himself, and knowing that it was so important that King Josiah soonread this sacred book to “all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants ofJerusalem”, why would the king first have his scribe, who normally was involvedwith secular matters such as repairing the Temple, read him the book?
To me, the implication isthat only Shaphan the scribe could read the book in its original format, due tothe writing system used in the book. Shaphan, who routinely corresponded withAssyria and Babylonia, could read that writing system without any hesitation.The language and vocabulary of the book were no problem, being well-known byKing Josiah and his high priest. But what Shaphan needed to do was (i) firstread the book to King Josiah, so that King Josiah (who could not read the bookin its original format) would know precisely what had been found in the Temple,and then (ii) promptly transform the ancient writing system used in theoriginal book into alphabetical Hebrew writing. That could be done very fastand quite mechanically, because it wasn’t translating from a foreign language.Rather, it was simply putting the book into a writing format that King Josiahand high priest Hilkiah could read.
3. You wrote: “In general,I find the idea of a book, Deuteronomy or otherwise, being "lost" inthe Temple since the days of Moses highly unlikely. Since the Temple itself wasonly built centuries after Moses, where would it have been in the meanwhile?”
I hear you. But having saidthat, can’t you see that this famous story would only have verisimilitude ifwhat I said in my first post is true? Jewish wisemen in the 7thcentury BCE must have thought, probably accurately, that at least parts of theTorah had originally been written using a writing system that would be veryeasy to decipher for a person like King Josiah’s scribe, who occasionallycorresponded with Assyria or Babylonia, but that would be impossible todecipher by literate people such as the high priest of Jerusalem and King Josiah,who were very well-versed in alphabetical Hebrew writing but who did notpersonally read the originals of correspondence sent from Assyria or Babylonia.
What’s super-exciting aboutthis famous story is that it is effectively telling us what ancient writingsystem had been used to record parts of the Torah, which would most likelyapply to the very oldest part of the Torah (not necessarily to Deuteronomy). Imyself think that there’s at least a grain of truth to this story, namely thata portion of the Torah was so old that it had originally been written downusing a writing system that was completely different from alphabetical Hebrew,even though the underlying language and vocabulary had not changed too muchover time.
In my next post I will setforth my own interpretation of what’s exciting about King Josiah’s discovery,and cite some scholarly authority that to an extent backs up my view.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois
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