« Prev Chapter XXVI. "Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, Who… Next »




1 Kings xii. 21-23.

"For from Israel is even this; the workman made it, and it is no god: yea, the calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces."—Hosea viii. 6.

The condemnation of the first king of Israel sounds like a melancholy and menacing refrain through the whole history of the Northern Kingdom.468468   It recurs twenty-three times: 1 Kings xiv. 16, xv. 26, 30, 34, xvi. 2, 19, 26, 31, xxi. 22, xxii. 52; 2 Kings iii. 3, x. 29, 31, xiii. 2, 6, xiv. 24, xv. 9, 18, 24, 28, xvii. 21, 22, xxiii, 15. Let us consider the extent and nature of his crime; for though the condemnation is most true if we judge merely by the issue of Jeroboam's acts, a man's guilt cannot always be measured by the immensity of its unforeseen consequences, nor can his actions and intentions be always fairly judged after the lapse of centuries. The moral judgments recorded in the Book of Kings concerning legal and ritual offences are measured by the standard of men's consciences nearly a century after Josiah's Reformation in b.c. 623, not by that which prevailed in b.c. 937, when Jeroboam came to the throne. It seems clear that, even in the opinion of his contemporaries, Jeroboam was unfaithful to the duties of the call287 which he had received from God; but it would be an error to suppose that his sin was, in itself, so heinous as those of which both Solomon and Rehoboam and other kings of Judah were guilty. "Calf-worship," as it was contemptuously called in later days, did not present itself as "calf-worship" to Jeroboam or his people. To them it was only the more definite adoration of Jehovah under the guise of the cherubic emblem which Solomon had himself enshrined in the Temple and Moses himself had sanctioned in the Tabernacle. There is not a word to show that they were cognisant of the book which had narrated the fierce reprobation by Moses of Aaron's "golden calf" in the wilderness. Jeroboam's chief sin was not that as a king he tolerated, or even set up, a sort of idolatry, but that he induced the whole body of his subjects to share in his evil innovations.

The charge brought against him was threefold. First, he set up the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Secondly, he "made priests from among all the people, which were not of the sons of Levi." Thirdly, he established his "harvest feast" not on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, which was the Feast of Tabernacles, but on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. In estimating these sins let us endeavour—for it is a sacred duty—to be just.

1. We read in the Authorised Version that "he made priests of the lowest of the people,"469469   Literally, "he filled the hand," because the priests were consecrated by putting into their hands the parts of the sacrifice which were to be presented to God on the altar (Exod. xxviii. 41, xxix. 9-35; Lev. viii. 27). and this tends to increase the prejudice against him. But to have done this wilfully would have been entirely against his own288 interests. The more honourable his priests were, the more was his new worship likely to succeed. The Hebrew only says that "he made priests of all classes of the people," or, as the Revised Version renders it, "from among all the people." No doubt this would appear to have been a heinous innovation, judged from the practice of later ages; it is not clear that it was equally so in the days of Jeroboam. If David, unrebuked, made his sons priests; if Ira the Ithrite was a priest; if Solomon, by his own fiat, altered the succession of the priesthood; if Solomon (no less than Jeroboam) arrogated to himself priestly functions on public occasions, the opinion as to priestly rights may not have existed in the days of Jeroboam, or may only have existed in an infinitely weaker form than in the days of the post-exilic chronicler. An incidental notice in another book shows us that in Dan, at any rate, he did not disturb the Levitic ministry. There the descendants of Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the grandson of Moses,470470   Such is the true reading. The "Manasseh" of our existing text is a Jewish falsification of the text timidly and tentatively introduced to protect the memory of Moses (see Judg. xviii. 26 ff.). continued their priestly functions from the day when that unworthy descendant of the mighty lawgiver was seduced to conduct a grossly irregular cult for a few shillings a year, down to the day when the golden calf at Dan was carried away by Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria. If the Levites preferred to abide by the ministrations of Jerusalem, and migrated in large numbers to the south, Jeroboam may have held that necessity compelled him to appoint priests who were not of the House of Levi. Neither for this, nor for his new feast of Tabernacles, nor for the calf-worship, were the kings of Israel condemned (so far289 as is recorded) even by such mighty prophets as Elijah and Elisha.

In choosing Dan and Bethel as the seats for his new altars, the king was not actuated by purely arbitrary considerations. They were ancient and venerated shrines of pilgrimage and worship (Judg. xviii. 30, xx. 18, 26; 1 Sam. x. 3). He did not create any sacredness which was not already attached to them in the popular imagination.471471   For the sanctity of Bethel, "House of God," where God had twice appeared to Jacob, see Gen. xxviii. 11-19, xxxv. 9-15. The Ark had once rested there under Phinehas (Judg. xx. 26-28), and it had been the home of Samuel (1 Sam. vii. 16). Dan, too, was "a holy city" (Judg. xviii. 30, 31; Tobit i. 5, 6). In 1 Kings xii. 30 ("the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan") some words may have dropped out. Klostermann adds, "and neglected Bethel"; but is that the fact? The LXX. adds, καὶ εἲασαν τὸν ἇκον Κυρίου. On the other hand, the clause has been taken to imply the opposite—i.e., that even as far as Dan some were found who went in preference to Bethel, "the king's chapel" (Amos vii. 13). In 1 Kings xii. 28 the fairer rendering would be, "These are thy God," not "gods." In point of fact he would have served the ends of a worldly policy much better if he had chosen Shechem; for Dan and Bethel were the two farthest parts of his kingdom. Dan was in constant danger from the Syrians, and Bethel, which is only twelve miles from Jerusalem, more than once fell into the hands of the kings of Judah, though they neither retained possession of it, nor disturbed the shrines, nor threw down the "calf" of the new worship. Jeroboam could not have created the "calf-worship" if he had not found everything prepared for its acceptance. Dan had been, since the earliest days, the seat of a chapelry and ephod served by the lineal descendants of Moses in unbroken succession; Bethel was associated with some of the nation's holiest memories since the days of their forefather Israel.


2. Again, if in Jeroboam's day the Priestly Code was in existence, he was clearly guilty of unjustifiable wilfulness in altering the time for observing the Feast of Tabernacles from the seventh to the eighth month. But if there be little or no contemporary trace of any observation of the Feast of Tabernacles—if, as Nehemiah tells us, it had not once been properly observed from the days of Joshua to his own, or if Jeroboam was unaware of any sacred legislation on the subject—the writers of the tenth century may have judged too severely the fixing of a date for the Feast of Ingathering, which may have seemed more suitable to the conditions of the northern and western tribes. For in parts of that region the harvest ripens a month earlier than in Judah, and the festival was meant to be kept at the season of harvest.472472   Lev. xxiii. 39. There is no hint about the other two annual feasts of Passover and Pentecost. Josephus implies that Jeroboam's feast was in the seventh month, as in Judah (Antt., VIII. viii. 5).

3. These, however, were but incidental and subordinate matters compared with the setting up of the golden calves.

Jeroboam felt that if his people flocked to do sacrifice at the new and gorgeous Temple in Jerusalem they would return to their old monarchy and put him to death. He wished to avoid the fate of Ishbosheth.473473   2 Sam. iv. 7. He believed that he should be doing both a popular and a politic act if he saved them from the burden of this long journey and again decentralised the cult which Solomon had so recently centralised. He determined, therefore, to furnish the Ten Tribes with high places, and temples of high places, and objects of worship which might rival the golden cherubim291 of Zion, and be honoured with festal music and royal pomp.

He never dreamed either of apostatising from Jehovah, or of establishing the worship of idols. He broke the Second Commandment under pretence of helping the people to keep the first. The images which he set up were not meant to be substitutes for the one God, the God of their fathers, the God who had brought them from the land of Egypt; they were regarded as figures of Jehovah under the well understood and universally adopted emblem of a young bull, the symbol of fertility and strength.474474   Conceivably there may have been a reference to the heraldic sign of Ephraim (Deut. xxxiii. 17), as Klostermann supposes. Some have fancied that he was influenced by his Egyptian reminiscences, and perhaps by Ano, his traditional Egyptian bride. That is an obvious error. In Egypt living bulls were worshipped under the names of Apis and Mnevis, not idol-figures. Egyptian gods would have been strange reminders of Him who delivered His people from Egyptian tyranny. It would have been insensate, by quoting the very words of Aaron, to recall to the minds of the people the disasters which had followed the worship of the golden calf in the wilderness.475475   Exod. xx. 23, xxxii. 4, 8. See Professor Paul Cassel, König Jeroboam, p. 6. The identity of Jeroboam's words with Exod. xxxii. 4 may be due to the narrator. Beyond all question, Jeroboam neither did nor would have dreamed of bidding his whole people to abandon their faith and worship Egyptian idols, which never found any favour among the Israelites. He only encouraged them to worship Jehovah under the form of the cherubim.476476   It has been considered probable that he found an additional sanction for these material symbols in an ancient existing image at Gilgal, to which there may be obscure allusion in the Prophet Hosea (iv. 15, ix. 15). Whatever may have been292 the aspect of the cherubim in the Oracle of the Temple, cherubic emblems appeared profusely amid its ornamentation, and the most conspicuous object in its courts was the molten sea, supported on the backs of twelve bulls. It is true that later prophets and poets, like Hosea and the Psalmist, spoke in scorn of his images as mere "calves," and spoke of him as likening his Maker to "an ox that eateth hay."477477   See 2 Chron. xi. 15, where the chronicler in his flaming hatred calls them devils (i.e., "satyrs," Feldtäufel, Isa. xiii. 21; comp. Hosea viii. 5, xiii. 2). They were probably two young bulls of brass overlaid with gold (see Psalm cvi. 19; Isa. xl. 19). They even came in due time to regard them as figures of Baal and Astarte,478478   Tobit i. 5. but this view is falsified by the entire annals of the Northern Kingdom from its commencement to its close. Jeroboam was, and always regarded himself as, a worshipper of Jehovah. He named his son and destined successor Abijah ("Jehovah is my Father"). Rehoboam himself was a far worse offender than he was, so far as the sanction of idolatry was concerned.

And yet he sinned, and yet he made Israel to sin. It is true that he did not sin against the full extent of the light and knowledge vouchsafed to men in later days. The sin of which he was guilty was the sin of worldly policy. With professions of religion on his lips he pandered to the rude and sensuous instinct which makes materialism in worship so much more attractive to all weak minds than spirituality. Proclaiming as his motive the rights of the people, he accelerated their religious degeneracy. "The means to strengthen or ruin the civil power," says Lowth, "is either to establish or destroy the right worship of293 God. The way to destroy religion is to embase the dispenser of it.... This is to give the royal stamp to a piece of lead." If we may trust to Jewish tradition, there were some families in Israel who, though they clung to their old homes, and would not migrate to the south, yet refused to worship what is, not quite justly, called "the heifer Baal."479479   Ἡ δάμαλις Βάαλ. If this be the right reading, not δύναμις, the feminine implies special scorn, either implying ἡ αἰσχύνη (Bosheth), or pointing, as Baudissin thinks, to an androgynous deity. Grätz thinks that "Bethel" may be the true reading. The legendary Tobit (i. 4-7) boasts that "when all the tribes of Naphthali fell from the house of Jerusalem and sacrificed to the heifer Baal I alone went often to Jerusalem at the feasts," and, in general, observed the provisions of the Levitic law.

There seems to have been but little religion in Jeroboam's temperament. In every other great national gathering at Shechem and other sacred places we read of religious rites.480480   Josh. xxiv. 1; 1 Sam. x. 19; 2 Sam. v. 1-3; 1 Kings viii. 1-5, 62. No mention is made of them, no allusion occurs respecting them, in the assembly to which Jeroboam owed his throne. He might at least have consulted Ahijah, who had given him, when he was still a subject, the Divine promise and sanction of royalty. He might, had he chosen, have followed a higher and purer guidance than that of his own personal misgiving and his own arbitrary will. The error which he committed was this—he trusted in policy, not in the Living God. "It was," says Dean Stanley, "precisely the policy of Abder-Rahman, Caliph of Spain, when he arrested the movement of his subjects to Mecca, by the erection of a Holy Place of the Zeca at Cordova, and of Abd-el-Malik when he built294 the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, because of his quarrel with the authorities at Mecca." He was not guilty of revolt, for he acted under prophetic sanction; nor of idolatry, for he did not abandon the worship of Jehovah; but "he broke the unity and tampered with the spiritual conception of the national worship. From worshipping God under a gross material symbol, the Israelites gradually learnt to worship other gods altogether; and the venerable sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel prepared the way for the temples of Ashtaroth and Bethel at Samaria and Jezreel. The religion of the kingdom of Israel at last sank lower than that of the kingdom of Judah against which it had revolted. 'The sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin,' is the sin again and again repeated in the policy, half-worldly, half-religious, which has prevailed through large tracts of ecclesiastical history. Many are the forms of worship which, with high pretensions, have been nothing else but so many various and opposite ways of breaking the Second Commandment. Many a time has the end been held to justify the means, and the Divine character been degraded by the pretence, or even the sincere intention, of upholding His cause, for the sake of secular aggrandisement; for the sake of binding together good systems, which it was feared would otherwise fall to pieces; for the sake of supporting the faith of the multitude for fear they should otherwise fall away to rival sects, or lest the enemy should come and take away their place and nation. False arguments have been used in support of religious truths, false miracles promulgated or tolerated, false readings in the sacred text defended.... And so the faith of mankind has been undermined by the very means intended to295 preserve it. The whole subsequent history is a record of the mode by which, with the best intentions, Church and nation may be corrupted."

This view of Dean Stanley is confirmed by another wise teacher, Professor F. D. Maurice. Jeroboam, he says, "did not trust the Living God. He thought, not that his kingdom stood upon a Divine foundation, but that it was to be upheld by certain Divine props and sanctions. The two doctrines seem closely akin. Many regard them as identical. In truth there is a whole heaven between them. The king who believes that his kingdom has a Divine foundation confesses his own subjection and responsibility to an actual living ruler. The king who desires to surround himself with Divine sanctions would fain make himself supreme, knows that he cannot, and would therefore seek help from the fear men have of an invisible power in which they have ceased to believe. He wants a God as the support of his authority. What God he cares very little."

And thus, to quote once more, "the departure from spiritual principles out of political motives surely leads to destruction, and is here portrayed for all times."481481   Vilmar.

« Prev Chapter XXVI. "Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, Who… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection