Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Jeroboam’s Sacrifice at Bethel, 1656, The State Heritage Museum, St Petersburg Russia.

Despite being chosen by God to replace the Davidic dynasty with his own and to rule Israel, Jeroboam goes down in biblical history as “Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.” The book of Kings frequently uses two recurring devices in its final comments about the lives of the kings: those in the southern kingdom of Judah are appraised against the benchmark of David, using variations of the phrase “He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, yet not like his ancestor David” while the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are judged using variations of the phrase “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin.” While David is the “model king” for the narrator of Kings so Jeroboam embodies all that is wrong in the northern kingdom. So what did he do that was so wrong?

While the phrase “the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat” is common enough, only once does Kings elaborate on what these sins were. At the end of the account of Jehu’s reign there is an addition to the typical formulaic condemnation: “But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit—the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan” (2 Kings 10:29). The condemnation is somewhat surprising itself because Jehu was one of the best kings of Israel from a religious point of view as he eradicated Baal worship and was one of only four kings to be promised a dynasty by God. Yet he was condemned by the narrator or editor because of “the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan”. So what were they and what was the big deal?

We should note several things about Jeroboam’s decision to set up these golden calves at places of worship.

  1. While Solomon was condemned for setting up places of worship for foreign gods, there is no suggestion in Kings that Jeroboam worshipped any god or gods other than Yahweh the god of Israel. He was a more committed Yahweh-worshipper than was Solomon.
  2. After the division of the kingdom – an act which Kings says was the will of God – it may have been difficult, if not impossible, for many Yahweh-worshippers in the northern kingdom to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. In any case, the building of the temple was a relatively recent thing, during the reign of Solomon, and before that Israelites worshipped at several sacred sites, many of them in the north. It wouldn’t have been at all radical for Jeroboam to have developed any of these sacred sites. Bethel was probably a logical choice because Abraham and Jacob had both built altars and worshipped there (it was where Jacob had his famous vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder), the prophetess Deborah was buried there, the Ark of the Covenant had been placed there at one time overseen by Phineahas son of Eleazer son of Aaron (Judg 20:26–28). It was also close to important roads connecting significant cities. In many ways it was an ideal choice as a place for Yahweh-worship. As it was in the far south of the kingdom, the choice of Dan in the far north was also logical, providing two convenient places where Israelites could worship.
  3. But why golden calves? The Jerusalem temple had the Ark of the Covenant with its four-faced cherubim, one of which was a calf. Yet this apparently wasn’t thought of as idolatry. According to Exodus 5:22, Numbers 7:89, and Psalms 80:1, 99:1 God dwelt, or was enthroned, “between the cherubim.” In other words, God wasn’t in the images of the cherubim but in the empty space between them. In a similar way, Marvin Sweeney has suggested that rather than God being portrayed by Jeroboam as a bull he was envisaged as mounted on the bulls just as he was enthroned on the Ark. [1]
  4. God is described elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible by a word which can be translated as a bull. For example, in Genesis 49:24 God is described as the אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב mighty one of Jacob, and this expression is repeated in Isaiah 49:26; 60:16 and Psalm 132:2,5 (Isaiah 1:24 uses the similar phrase the mighty one of Israel). This word אַבִּיר mighty one is translated as “bull” in places such as Isaiah 10:3; 34:7; Psalm 22:2; 50:13 and the idea of God’s bull-like strength as the protector of Jacob/Israel may have been behind this phrase which could be translated as “the Bull of Israel.”

Compared to Solomon’s worship of foreign gods, Jeroboam’s worship of Yahweh the God of Israel at a place where the patriarchs worshipped, and using imagery similar to that used in the Jerusalem temple, seems innocent enough. If it offended God it could have been easily corrected by a word through a prophet. Instead, Jeroboam goes down in the historical record as the one who caused Israel to sin. Why?

I said in my previous post that I’d come back to how various stories in Kings became ‘merged’ and what was going on in the editing or redaction process so that we end up with a disjointed or contradictory narrative. It’s clear enough from the book of Kings itself that the writers relied on earlier records. For example, the record of Jeroboam’s reign ends with “Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he warred and how he reigned, are written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:19). We don’t have these “Annals” but the writers refer to texts like these often enough that we know that they must have used them as sources for this account. It’s likely that these Annals were the official court records, written by the Kings’ scribes. A lot of the material was obviously left out – which is why Kings mentions “the rest of the acts” of the various kings – but new material was also probably added. In other words, the Book of Kings isn’t simply an abridged version of the Annals; it’s a re-working of it. Even at this first stage of composition material from different sources would have been placed together – a verbatim quote from the Annals alongside information from another source, or from the writers’ imaginations. I’ve written about redaction before, and the evidence for redactional layers in Kings so I won’t go over it again here. But imagine that a scribe who is reading Kings at a later stage decides to add some comments of his own in the margins, or in the space at the bottom of the column in his scroll, perhaps with some additional information or a story he has heard or read from another source, or his own political or theological opinions. Further imagine that when that scroll starts to wear out and needs to be replaced that another scribe decides to add those margin-comments or footnotes into the body of the text in his new scroll to keep it neat and readable. At this stage it becomes impossible to tell what was ‘original’ and what was a marginalised comment. Take it a step further and imagine this process happening again and again as scrolls are copied and re-copied.

So back to the Jeroboam story. The story may have begun as a positive account of Jeroboam’s reign, a king who endeavoured to restore worship of Yahweh after Solomon’s ‘apostacy’ and sponsorship of foreign cults, probably written by one of his own official court scribes. But then these records are used by scribes in the southern kingdom of Judah to write their own version of the history of the two kingdoms. When the king of Judah and his officials went into exile in Babylon the need to preserve their history became even more pressing. In the shadow of the destruction of Jerusalem there would also have been a need to explain why God allowed this to happen, and so history was re-written with the question “how did we get here?” in mind.

We need to remember that the history of the northern kings, as we now have it, was written by scribes in the southern kingdom. Their worldview was Jerusalem-centric and anything which diminished the importance of Jerusalem from that viewpoint would have contributed to its fate. The problem with Jeroboam’s golden calves was not that they were images, but that they took worshippers away from Jerusalem! One scribe’s hero became another scribe’s villain.

To be continued …

[1] Sweeney, Marvin A., I & II Kings: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 177.