This post is a summary of the article “Putting Down the Priests: A Note on Royal Evaluations, (wĕ)hišbît, and Priestly Purges in 2 Kings 23:5 and Mosiah 11:5” by Matthew L. Bowen in Volume 51 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Based on common use of the words “put down” ((wĕ)hišbît), among other parallels, Bowen suggests that Mormon’s reference to Noah’s purge of the priests set up by his father is an allusion to a similar but contrasting purge by King Josiah in 2 Kings 23.
In this article, Matthew Bowen explores two scriptural depictions of kings deposing the priests installed by the previous ruler: one being that of King Noah, as described in [Mosiah 11], and the other being King Josiah, in 2 Kings 23. In the former case, Mormon describes a wicked king removing the righteous priests set up by his father, [Zeniff] In the latter, the Old Testament frames Josiah as a righteous king, with the priests he deposes implied to be idolatrous. Bowen suggests that Mormon may have been familiar with the material that would eventually comprise 2 Kings, using a similar word, rendered in both cases as “put down”, to describe the priests’ removal. Bowen posits that Mormon have intended to contrast King Noah’s wicked purge with King Josiah’s righteous reforms.
The Hebrew term underlying the phrase “put down”, wĕhišbît, has the same root as the word “Sabbath”, with the root meaning to “cease” or “stop”. Ezekiel uses the same form when he describes the destruction of graven images, and others in the bible use it in the sense of removal of people (e.g., Amos 8:4).
Interestingly, the word “idolatrous” in the account of Josiah’s purge isn’t actually present in the Hebrew text. It’s instead implied by priest’s ritual activities later in the verse. The priests Josiah removed had been set up to burn incense to Jehovah, and the Hebrew term describing them wouldn’t have originally had a negative connotation. Regardless, the writer who described the purge clearly saw Josiah’s actions in a positive light.
In addition to using the term “put down” to describe the actions of King Noah, Mormon also uses other kinds of phrasing that suggests ties to Josiah’s account, specifically the phrase “did walk in the ways of the Lord”, variations of which are applied often in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Kings 15:26; 1 Samuel 8:3), as well as elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (i.e., Ether 10:2). And where the Old Testament lionizes Josiah, Mormon’s disdain for King Noah and his new priests is clear. Whether Mormon intended it or not, it would be difficult to find two kings who contrasted more directly than Josiah and Noah.
Bowen’s article presents for us a nugget that adds a bit of context and connection to a well-worn Book of Mormon story, and one that always grabbed my attention at an early age. If the assumption that Mormon had access to Josiah’s story holds (and I see no compelling reason to discount it), it may give us a bit of access to Mormon’s thought processes and to how he used and considered the history passed down through the Brass Plates.
The predictable counterpoint from critics would be that this serves as evidence that Joseph Smith plagiarized from 2 Kings. But if Noah’s story is such a concoction, it’s a clever one—a nuanced inversion of Josiah’s story that happens to carefully borrow important Hebrew phrasing.
Another point here worth considering—Bowen’s proposed contrast between Josiah and Noah only follows if Mormon shared the positive perception of Josiah that we see in the Old Testament. But if Mormon inherited his view of Josiah from Nephi and Lehi—a possibility Bowen addresses in a lengthy endnote (#5)—it’s possible that Mormon had a somewhat more dim view of Josiah’s reforms. If so, that would somewhat weaken the apparent contrast, perhaps leaving a thin possibility that Mormon viewed the two figures as having more in common than just the deposing of priests.