King Josiah’s Smashmouth Abolitionism

Jon SpeedAbolitionism

Jon Speed is the Missions and Evangelism Pastor at First Baptist Church of Briar in Briar, TX. He is the producer of the films “Babies Are Murdered Here” and “Babies Are Still Murdered Here.”

The Issue Introduced

In recent months a version of pro-life incrementalism has been promoted by the hosts of Cross Politic, a Christian video podcast hosted by Toby Sumpter, Deleaone Shannon, and Gabriel Rench.  This promotion has been done both in blog form and on their podcast. In a fairly recent episode which has become the talk of the abortion abolitionist world since it released, the hosts interviewed Pastor CR Cali, author of The Doctrine of Balaam (the pertinent part of the interview starts at about the 45:00 mark).   The episode, of course, was well done and fair. Incrementalism aside, Cross Politic is worth listening to if you aren’t already.  There are few like it in the evangelical world—sane political commentary from a Christian worldview.   

In the course of their conversation with Cali, Pastor Toby Sumpter (assistant pastor at Christ Church) objected to the idea of criminalizing abortion, a major point of Cali’s book.  It is also a major feature of abolitionist bills that have been introduced in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Indiana, and Washington, among others. As they discussed the point, Pastor Toby brought up an idea that I had never heard.  He cited King Josiah’s actions from 2 Kings as an example of godly incrementalism. He claimed that Josiah did not execute the priests but rather was more likely to have removed them from Judah. Therefore, reasoned Toby, Josiah was a smashmouth incrementalist and was still recorded as a godly king.  The implication is that pro-lifers who do the same thing with heartbeat bills, pain capable bills, hospital admitting privilege bills for abortionists, burial requirements for aborted babies, etc., etc. ad nauseum, are likewise just in their writing of these laws that regulate but do not abolish abortion. 

The term “smash mouth incrementalism” was coined by Pastor Doug in a blog article called “Smashmouth Incrementalism” where it was not so much defined as described (Blog & Mablog, Tuesday October 10, 2017).  A few days later Toby expanded on Doug’s blog post with one of his own (“Smashmouth Incrementalism and Abolishing Abortion” at Having Two Legs: The Blog of Toby Sumpter on October 13, 2017) after Cross Politic had interviewed Pastor Wilson on their show.  In it he reminded us that the term “smashmouth” is an adjective which means, “aggressive and confrontational”.  

While it has not been formally defined in so many words, I think the definition, “Aggressive and confrontational changes toward ending abortion with incremental legislative steps” will suffice for our purposes.  I doubt that any of the contingent from Moscow, ID would disagree. If I added the words, “over a period of at least 47 years” there might be some pushback, but only because I am pointing out the obvious. I am admittedly impatient with small steps toward an unplanned end to abortion.  After all, it is murder of the most innocent among us, which the guys at Cross Politic and Christ Church certainly agree with.  

Asa, Jehoshaphat and Josiah (Oh My)

Recently, I was reminded of the interview with Pastor Cali and in preparation for a sermon I am doing on King Josiah, I went to the text.  I read and re-read the pertinent passages in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles and could find no mention of an emigration of male cult prostitutes and idolatrous priests from Judah.  So I took the time to contact Pastor Toby and ask him if he was perhaps mistaken and intended a different king.  

Pastor Toby was very gracious and replied the same day.  He affirmed that he indeed intended to refer to King Josiah and the basis for his claim comes from the word translated variously “put down”, “caused to cease”, and even “abolished” in 2 Kings 23:5.  For example, The Interpreter’s Bible says of these priests, “…whom Josiah ‘caused to cease’ (so M.T.)” (Buttrick.  III:321). The ESV reads, “And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah ordained to make offerings in the high places at this cities of Judah around Jerusalem…” (emphasis mine). 

Toby explained that because his lexicon includes the idea of “remove” as a possible translation of the Hebrew term, that he takes that to mean that Josiah removed these idolatrous priests as well as the male cult prostitutes of 2 Kings 23:7 whose dwellings (in the Temple!) Josiah destroyed.  He stated that he takes the information in 2 Kings 23:5 to be, “…the general announcement to leave all the idolatrous shrines or die. So it seems to me likely that the sodomites who were willingly removed were merely exiled.” He also cites the examples of Asa and Jehoshaphat in 1 Kings 15:12 and 22:46 “who the text says more specifically that they sent the sodomites out of the land” (Facebook Messenger conversation).   By “removed” he means both from their offices and from the kingdom of Judah, but not executed as the Mosaic Law demands. He agreed that the priests in 2 Kings 23:20 were executed, but he said, “I take that to refer to those priests who insisted on remaining on the high places” (Facebook Messenger Conversation).  

To begin with the latter points first, and rather briefly, it is true that Asa DID expel the sodomites from Judah and that he was considered, “…wholly true to the LORD all his days”.  Yet there can be no doubt that God’s report of his character is mixed since his failure to remove the high places is recorded in the same verse in which he is praised (1 Kings 15:14). Asa started well in his position as king, but 2 Chronicles reveals that he did not finish well.  He made an ill-advised alliance with Syria without consulting the prophets or even praying about it. The prophet Hanani rebuked Asa saying, “Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the LORD your God, the army of the king of Syria escaped you” (2 Chronicles 16:7, ESV).  This, in spite of the fact that Asa had previously faced the army of one million Ethiopians with an army of 580,000 faithfully in dependence upon God and won (2 Chronicles 15:8-12)! In the last two years of his life he would become diseased in his feet and even then only sought the help of physicians and neglected to seek the LORD (2 Chronicles 16:12).  There’s a lesson here for smashmouth incrementalists who partner with the secular, Roman Catholic-led pro-life movement. You can win unlikely battles if you honor the ways of God rather than the pragmatism of man.  

In Jehoshaphat’s case it is not clear at all that he expelled the sodomites from the land.  1 Kings 22:46 reads, “And from the land he exterminated the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his father Asa” (ESV).  This action on one hand condemns Asa’s incrementalism and on the other debunks thoroughly the idea that Jehoshaphat expelled the male cult prostitutes. “Exterminate” is a lot different than “expel”.  The King James translation gives the text as, “put out”, but the Hebrew term comes from ba’ar which means, “to burn, consume, be kindled” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.  I:121).  It is possible that Jehoshaphat burned them to death.  More on that in a moment.  

Additionally, the cumulative effect of the reigns of all of the kings of Judah, in spite of Josiah’s valiant efforts, was total judgment in the form of Babylonian captivity.  Josiah’s abolitionism was not enough to overcome the generations of incrementalism and compromise. J.C.J. Waite says, “Thorough though [Josiah’s] Reformation was, it was almost entirely external and never effected any real change in the hearts of the people.  This is clear both from those prophecies of Jeremiah which belong to this period (Jer. 2-6) and the almost immediate reversion to idolatry after Josiah’s death” (“Josiah”. The New Bible Dictionary.  664).  A.P. Stanley points out that none of the contemporary prophets (including Zephaniah and Jeremiah) referred to even godly Josiah’s reforms in spite of four entire chapters in holy writ being dedicated to them.  As Stanley said, “’Too late’ is written on the pages even which describe this momentary revival” (Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church.  II:431).   Compromise and moral decline were the cumulative effects of the reigns of the kings of the Southern Kingdom recorded in Kings and Chronicles, and Josiah’s effort, though valiant, were too late in the decayinging process to adequately remedy the situation.  As a whole, the approaches taken by the various kings are not to be taken as a model of political ethics. Therefore, they are not be the best model for ending abortion. Josiah, considered individually, may be the best model since he approached pagan idolatry and child sacrifice as an abolitionist.

2 Kings 23:5

I spent a couple of days reading the texts and researching Josiah in my own library.  I had read most of the standard Bible dictionary articles on Josiah, the commentaries on 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35, some other biographical material on Josiah and Bible histories. I could find no evidence that Pastor Toby was correct about the term in 2 Kings 23:5.  Is it possible that he has stumbled on something that my library did not include because it is incomplete?

With the clarification from Pastor Toby’s private message, I went to my copy of Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament to identify the term and consult the appropriate article.  It turns out that the term comes from shabat, where we get the term “Sabbath” from.  The term can mean “cease, desist” or “rest” but it is only used for rest in the context of the Sabbath.  So we are left with “cease” or “desist”. Victor P. Hamilton, the author of the article for shabat in TWOT, says that in the Hiphil, “…the meaning is ‘to put an end to, to cause to cease’.  Preponderantly, in the Hiphil of shabat, God is the subject of the verb.  It is a favorite verb of the prophets to describe God’s judgment on His people (Is. 13:11)” (II:902).  

This is a pertinent point because God’s judgment (justice) is always in accordance with His Law.  In the context of 2 Kings 22-23, it is the discovery of the Book of the Law in the Temple that sparks Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22:13-20).  He covenanted before God to keep the Law of God right down to every last commandment (2 Kings 23:3, noting “commandments…testimonies…statutes…the words of this covenant”).  Are we to believe that in his famous zeal for the Law that he let the idolatrous priests and sodomites “slide” simply because other kings such as Hezekiah did? It is unlikely at best considering the thorough nature of his reforms as well as the unique praise that the Spirit of God gives Josiah such as, “…no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25 ESV, emphasis mine).  Yes, shabat is sometimes translated as “remove” in rare occurrences, but it should certainly not be here because of the immediate and larger contexts of 2 Kings 22-23.  In the case of the ESV where it translates “deposed”, it does not necessarily infer removal from the land and does not rule out execution as part of that deposal.  

I am blessed with a rare resource; my pastor, Randall Easter, who has taken every Greek course that is offered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and who has his MDiv. from that institution.  I asked him to take a look at the usage of the word in the Greek Septuagint from 2 Kings 23:5. He says, “The Greek word is in the Aorist Active Indicative, 3rd Singular and is used to describe the whole event that happened.  The word’s definition is ‘burn down, burn up, consume by fire’ (Danker.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.  517)”. In a private message Pastor Easter said that he would translate the first line of the Septuagint’s version of the verse, “And he burned up the pagan priest”.  This would be in line with the aforementioned Hebrew term in 1 Kings 22:46. If Josiah is following Jehoshaphat’s example, as Pastor Toby states, then perhaps he burnt them to death.  

Seminary Resources

At this point, my library was exhausted of material.  So, I went to the library of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth to consult their collection of references, monographs and commentaries.  I consulted probably fifty different volumes in that library on 2 Kings 23:5. In my research, I learned something about the history of the interpretation of this passage.  

Many of the older commentators were, let’s say, “uncomfortable” with Josiah’s zeal.   No one argues that he did NOT execute the idolatrous priests of the Northern Kingdom in 2 Kings 23:20.  The scholars of the nineteenth century could not square his passion for the Law with what they know about the grace we receive in the New Covenant.  Some suggest that he may have gone too far in his zeal. Poor Josiah was just a “cage stage” theonomist and should have shown more grace. For a good example of this consider the words of F.W. Farrar in his volume Second Kings in The Expositor’s Bible:

“…many centuries were to elapse, even under the Gospel Dispensation, before men learnt the sacred principle of the early Christians that ‘violence is hateful to God.’  Josiah must be judged by a more lenient judgment, and he was obeying a mandate found in the new Book of the Law. But the question arises whether the fierce commands of Deuteronomy were ever intended to be taken au pied de la letter.  May not Deut. xiii. 6-18 have been intended to express in a concrete but ideal form the spirit of execration to be entertained toward idolatry?  Perhaps in thinking so we are only guilty of an anachronism, and are applying to the seventh century before Christ the feelings of the nineteenth century after Christ” (391-92). 

I suspect that Pastor Toby is guilty of the same anachronism in his pastoral desire to withhold criminal penalty from those who commit abortion-murder.   We will revisit this idea at the conclusion of this article.

Do not miss the point that the immediate context reveals that Josiah DID in fact execute people for idolatry.  His efforts in the Northern Kingdom indicate his desire to re-unite the two kingdoms into one. If so, then why would he have two standards of justice, a standard of grace for Judah and a standard of Law for Samaria?  It does not make sense. 

Translation of shabat

To the issue of translation of the term, it is informative to consider how other Semitic languages render the text in their versions of the Old Testament.  According to Charles J. Ellicott in the Syriac and Arabic it is translated “he slew” (Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III & IV, 192).  In the Syriac Peshitta Bible with English Translation, the verse is translated, “They killed the pagan priests whom the kings of Judah had established to burn incense on the high places…” (Kiraz & Juckel.  Kings:331, emphasis mine).  

Why does a Syriac translation of the Old Testament bring anything to the table in this discussion?  It’s an important document. This version of the Old Testament is thought to have been the product of Jewish people, perhaps Jewish-Christians, some portions of which are as early as the second or third century A.D.  In fact, “The oldest extant MS of the Peshitta has the distinction of being the oldest copy of the Bible in any language of which the exact date is known; it is a MS of the Pentateuch dating from A.D. 442” (Metzger. “Versions, Ancient”.  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, IV:754).  

Returning to the Hebrew, Erik Eynikel points out in his monograph on Josiah that in the Hiphil when Yahweh is the subject, the term is translated with the idea of “ending” the various objects of His justice in various prophetic speeches and judgments.  In fact, God uses the term to describe ending “all of life” in Jeremiah 36:29, “…cut off from it man and beast” (The Reform of King Josiah and the Composition of the Deuteronomistic History  216).  Roman Catholic scholars admit the possibility that Josiah killed the priests of 2 Kings 23:5.  In A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture the writer refers to Deuteronomy 17:2-4 and says, “…possibly they were killed” (Orchard.  II:348).  


The preceding is the evidence that the term can include the idea of execution.  Admittedly there are not many sources who affirm this interpretation compared to the number of commentaries on 2 Kings.  Keep in mind this is in the context of the genteel nineteenth century commentators who think Josiah went too far and were embarrassed by his zeal.  But it is also in the context of the vast majority of Bible scholars who make no comment on exactly what Josiah did here whatever.  They do not comment on it in either direction and some commentaries skip the verse altogether.  Perhaps this is a holdover of the nineteenth century attitude.  

However, the big takeaway from my study of these many commentaries, Bible dictionary articles and monographs is this: not ONE Bible scholar represented in these volumes suggested that the idolatrous priests of 2 Kings 23:5 or the male cult prostitutes of 2 Kings 23:7 emigrated out of the land under Josiah’s direction.  Not one.  

I admit that there are other commentaries that I have not consulted (Southwestern cannot have them all) and perhaps there is one out there that makes this case (there are none in Southwestern that are published by Canon Press, for instance; I don’t know if they have a commentary on 2 Kings or not).  However, the absence of this interpretation in one of our nation’s major theological libraries is notable, to say the least. 

It is a basic rule of hermeneutics that if you come up with an interpretation that cannot be verified by other scholars that you have a misinterpretation of the text.  With all due respect to Pastor Toby–and he is due MUCH more respect than I have space for here–his interpretation is a misinterpretation. It is far more consistent with the immediate context of 2 Kings 22-23 to hold that the idolatrous priests and male cult prostitutues were executed based on the actions of Josiah in the Northern Kingdom than to eisegete an exodus of the same from Judah.  

Running All of the Plays

Pastor Toby’s objection to fully criminalizing abortion is not his only hang up regarding abolitionism.  He is committed to the idea of “running all of the plays” to end abortion, by which he means we should support all anti-abortion legislation including incremental compromises.  He probably has other Bible-based reasons for doing so and if so, I would be happy to address them as well. I do believe that if he is convinced Biblically of the scriptural correctness of abolitionism, that he will become an abolitionist.  I am thankful that we share the same goal although we disagree on the nature of the playbook.  

Let’s deal with some presuppositions. The secular, Roman Catholic-led pro-life movement is not a part of a unified team with abolitionists, taking turns running one play while abolitionists run another.  The pro-life movement pretends to be on the side of abolition while they consistently run plays that are counter-productive. They essentially lose ground with every play, perhaps kneeling on the ball to try to run out the game clock for the entire sixty minutes.  Meanwhile the coaches, the general manager, and the owner of the team (all pro-life lobbyists) are keeping the abolitionists on the bench with the help of the pro-life politicians, the referees. Every single time a bill of abolition is filed the referees throw a flag on an illegal play and the coaches remind us that our place is on the bench.  You can thank referee Representative Jeff Leach (R-TX), Senators Greg McCortney (R-OK) and Greg Treatt (R-OK), as well as coaches Tony Lauinger (Vice President of National Right to Life), Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life. If you have not seen it, you need to watch the film Babies Are Still Murdered Here where the hypocrisy of the pro-life leadership is exposed.  

While it appears that abolitionists and pro-lifers are on the same team, the game is fixed.  It’s rigged. Do not bet against Roe v. Wade or the SCOTUS’ desire to uphold that wicked decree.   It’s not likely that anyone in Vegas is betting against the pro-choice\pro-life collusion to keep abortion legal.  At some point we need to leave the secular, Roman Catholic-led pro-life establishment with its doctrine of Balaam and we need to field a team that actually has a plan to win the game.  It is high time for a #PLEXIT (pro-life exit). 

It seems very reasonable to argue that we should do all we can to end abortion.  It seems very compassionate to argue against criminalizing the women who hire abortionists to murder their babies.  It is a common pastoral objection. Pastors have a sincere desire to minister grace to post-abortive parents. Indeed, that is the role of the church.  When we as pastors suggest that we should legislate with grace toward the abortive parents they commit a logical fallacy–a category error. The church ministers grace.  But the government ministers justice. Romans 13 is clear: it bears the sword against the evil doer. If we expect the government to know the difference between good and evil, the standard is the same as it was in Josiah’s day: the Law of God.  

This Law is very clear on the issue of abortion.  In Exodus 21:21 God prescribes the death penalty for any man who causes the miscarriage of a baby in the womb, even inadvertently.  Gary North points this out in his important work, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus.  He says, 

“The vast majority of Christians hate God’s revealed law far more than they hate abortion or abortionists.  They would far rather live in a political world that is controlled by humanists who have legalized abortion than in a society governed by Christians in terms of Biblical law.  So, God has answered the desire of their hearts. He has done to modern Christians what He did to the Israelites in the wilderness: ‘And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul’ (Ps. 106:15)” (383).  

Anachronism’s Abolished by Augustine

In conclusion, consider to the words of Augustine in his commentary on 2 Kings 22-23. They are quite applicable to our present malaise over the responsibility of magistrates to uphold all that God has commanded. 

“How then, do kings serve the Lord with fear except by forbidding and restraining with religious severity all acts committed against the commandments of the Lord?  A sovereign serves God one way as man, another way as king; he serves Him as man by living according to faith, he serves Him as king by exerting the necessary strength to sanction laws that command goodness and prohibit its opposite…It is thus that kings serve the Lord as kings when they perform acts in His service that none but kings can perform” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament. Marco Conti (ed.).  V:233-34).  

I would encourage Pastor Toby and the others at Cross Politic to challenge Christian magistrates to serve as Christian men by “living according to faith” (ministering to post-abortive parents) and as Christian magistrates by “exerting the necessary strength to sanction laws that command goodness and prohibit its opposite”.  We need to teach the nations [and therefore, by implication, the magistrates] to obey all things the Lord has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We need to promote the example of godly King Josiah. Using the Law of God as a guide, we need to abolish evil, not regulate it.  

Works Cited

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament.  Marco Conti (ed.).  Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, n.d. (2008).  

Apologia Studios.  “Babies Are Still Murdered Here”.  End Abortion Now.   Director: Marcus Pittman.  Co-Producers: Apologia Studios, Jon Speed.   Released October 31, 2019.  

Cali, CR.  The Doctrine of Balaam.  Columbus, GA: Wrath and Grace Publishing, 2019.  

A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.  Orchard, Dom. Bernard (ed.)  London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1953.

Easter, Randall.   Unpublished Translation and Parsing of 2 Kings 23:5.  Private message dated March 6, 2020.  

Ellicott, Charles John.  Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959

Eynikel, Erik.  The Reform of King Josiah and the Composition of the Deuteronomistic History.  Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.

Farrar, F.W.  The Second Book of Kings.  “The Expositor’s Bible”.  W. Robertson Nicoll (ed.).   NY: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1900.  

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.  Ed. & Revised by Frederick William Danker.  Chicago & London: University Of Chicago Press, n.d.  

Hamilton, Victor P.  “shabat”.  Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.  R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (eds.).  Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980.  

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.  

The Interpreter’s Bible.  Buttrick, George A. (ed.)  NY & Nashville: Abingdon Press, n.d. (1954).  

“Justice for Eric Garner, A Trillion Dollar Deficit and Pastor Cali on the Doctrine of Balaam”.  Cross Politic. Hosts: Toby Sumpter, Gabriel Rench and David Shannon. Recorded August 26, 2019.  Accessed March 4, 2019.  

Metzger, Bruce M.  “Versions, Ancient”.  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, An Illustrated Encyclopedia.  George A. Buttrick (ed.).  NY & Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962.  

North, Gary.  Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus.  Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997.  

Stanley, A.P.  Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888.  

Sumpter, Toby.  Facebook Messenger Conversation with Jon Speed.  February 27, 2020.  

Sumpter, Toby.  “Smashmouth Incrementalism and Abolishing Abortion”.  Having Two Legs: The Blog of Toby Sumpter.  Accessed March 4, 2020.  

The Syriac Peshitta Bible with English Translation.  “Kings Volume”  Kiraz, George A. & Andreas Juckel (eds.)  Trans. Gillian Greenberg & Donald M. Walter.  Piscataway, NJ: Georgias Press, 2018.  

Unsigned Article.  “ba’ar”.  Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.  R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (eds.).  Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980.

Waite, J.C.J.  “Josiah”. The New Bible Dictionary.  J.D. Douglas (ed.).  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964.  

Wilson, Douglas.  “Smashmouth Incrementalism”.  Blog & Mablog, October 10, 2017.  Accessed March 4, 2020.  


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