1 Kings 12:25–33 (NIV)✞: Golden Calves at Bethel and Dan
In the last passage was saw the kingdom of Israel being split into two: the majority of the descendents of Abraham live in the North, in a nation that is still called Israel1, while the remainder in the South form a new Kingdom called Judah.
In this passage, in the immediate aftermath, Jeroboam, the king of the new kingdom of Israel, fortifies some of the cities on the border with Judah. It seems the two nations considered each other rivals right from the very beginning! Then again, given how there had already been strife between the tribe of Judah and the rest of the Israelites even in the time of King David, perhaps this isn’t a surprise.
But it’s not just war Jeroboam is concerned with, he’s also worried about people his people going back to Judah for religious reasons:
26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”
He seeks out some advice and decides to create a couple of golden calves for the people of Israel to worship, but the way he introduces them is fascinating:
… He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
At first glance this isn’t fascinating at all, but more on the point below.
He puts one of the calves in Dan, a city at the very northern tip of the kingdom, and the other in Bethel, with is right at the southern tip. (See this map.) Verse 30 (NIV)✞ makes an understatement when it says that “this thing became a sin.” In fact, even though Jeroboam was specifically doing this to make it as easy as possible for people to find a nearby “god” (so that they wouldn’t be tempted to to back to Judah), verse 30 seems to imply that at least some of the people ended up worshiping both, making the trip all the way “as far as Dan.” If we consult the map, the implication seems to be that some people prefer to travel all the way up to Dan instead of going a short way across teh border to Jerusalem to worship the LORD.
The passage rounds out by listing some other ways Jeroboam tried to make it easy for his people to worship false gods, so that they wouldn’t be tempted go to to Judah:
31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. 32 He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. 33 On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.
I’m guessing a non-religious person would see nothing shocking about this passage. If you don’t believe in God in the first place then all of Jeroboam’s actions in this passage make complete, rational sense: the people very well might have abandoned him at some point if the only way they had to worship the LORD was to make the trek down to Judah. So getting rid of one “god” to replace him/it with another “god” makes total sense. (Heck, while we’re at it, we’ll institute two gods, at each end of the nation, for convenience!)
If, on the other hand, the LORD isn’t just a “god” but the one and only true God, this isn’t just a political decision it’s setting the entire nation on a path to incurring His wrath. Which is exactly what happens: for the rest of the history of the nation of Israel they will never have a “good” king—they’ll never have a king to obeys the LORD, or even attempts to. We can’t blame all of that on Jeroboam’s actions in this passage, but he was the one who started Israel on that path.
We’ll see throughout the rest of Israel’s history that they do have a concept that the LORD exists, and His prophets will occasionally rebuke kings in Israel for not obeying Him or listening to Him. So it’s not like other nations of the time, where they believe they have their “gods” and Israel/Judah have their “god,” and the “gods” can battle it out. No, the kings and people of Israel seem to have knowledge that the LORD exists, and that their history is with Him. But at the same time they don’t worship Him or obey Him or even pay much attention to what He might want from them, and whatever Jeroboam may or may not believe about Him, he doesn’t seem to have qualms about intentionally introducing worship of invented “gods” to his people.
The Golden Calves
Anyone who’s reading about these golden calves is obviously going to be reminded of the golden calf in Exodus 32, and that’s not an accident. In fact, look at the way Jeroboam words things when he introduces the golden calves:
After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
1 Kings 12:28 (NIV)✞, emphasis added
Now look at Aaron introducing the golden calf in Exodus 32:
And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Exodus 32:4 (NIV)✞, emphasis added
The text in 1 Kings actually makes more sense than the text in Exodus; why would Aaron be saying ”These are your gods,” plural, when there was only one? At least Jeroboam’s sin was grammatically correct!
When I blogged about Exodus 32 I mentioned that the footnotes talked about the grammar:
In the footnotes, it mentions that some of those plural words for “gods” could also be translated in the singular; so it could also be translated “Come, make us a god who will go before us” in verse 1, and “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” in verse 4.
However, what didn’t occur to me at the time is that most translations stick with the plural: “These are your gods,” instead of, “This is your god.” (The NKJV seems to be an exception, going with the singular. There could very well be others.)
I recently heard a podcast in which a scholar was saying that this was done intentionally; when we read the passage in Exodus 32 we’re supposed to think of 1 Kings 12, and vice versa. We’re supposed to see it as a pattern. Does that mean that someone edited that portion of the scroll of Exodus at some point after the time of 1 Kings—perhaps even during or after the exile—to align with what happened in 1 Kings? Not necessarily; as the NIV footnote for Exodus 32:4 (NIV)✞ indicates, the ancient Hebrew text can be translated either way, so it could very well have been written that way in the first place. But I’m guessing the author of 1 Kings had Exodus in mind when he wrote this passage, and I’m sure most translators have this pattern in mind when they’re translating Exodus from ancient Hebrew to English.
In my naive way, I always found it unfortunate that the Northern kingdom—the bad kingdom—got to keep the name Israel, while the Southern kingdom, ruled by David’s descendents, had to have a new name. Especially since not all of the people in the kingdom of Judah are actually from the tribe of Judah; there are Benjamites in Judah as well! ↩