Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah – Part 3

The Canaanite God

To Read the Introduction: Syncretism in the Old Testament – Introduction

To Read Part 1: Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah – Part 1

To Read Part 2: Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah – Part 2


The Reforms of Jeroboam

Solomon’s religious and economic policies generated much unrest in Israel and caused the division of the monarchy along geographical lines. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were strong supporters of David’s throne and after the death of Solomon, they were ready to accept Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, as his successor.

The northern tribes, however, unhappy with Solomon’s policy of forced labor, did not want to keep the agreement with David’s house that created the united monarchy. Thus, the division of the kingdom came mostly because of the oppressive policies of Solomon. However, the Deuteronomic Historian presents the division of the kingdom in religious terms.

According to the Deuteronomic Historian, the northern tribes revolted because there were groups of people within the Northern tribes who were longing for religious reforms and for the return of the pure worship of Yahweh. This desire for reform can be gleaned from Ahijah’s words to Jeroboam:

Then Ahijah . . . said to Jeroboam: … thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: “Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon . . . because he has forsaken me, and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, as David his father did . . . And I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires, and you shall be king over Israel. And if you will hearken to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you” (1 Kings 11:30-38).

Ahijah probably held to the traditional view that Israel’s leader should be chosen by Yahweh. Thus, by fomenting a sprit of revolution against the Southern Kingdom, Ahijah saw in Jeroboam’s kingship an opportunity for reform and the elimination of Solomon’s syncretistic policies.

When Jeroboam became king of the ten tribes that formed the Northern Kingdom, the center of worship was in Jerusalem. Jeroboam feared that the people would go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the major festivals and to offer sacrifices in the temple. Jeroboam came to the conclusion that if the people returned to worship in Jerusalem, there was a risk they would retain their allegiance to Rehoboam and thus compromise the security of his kingdom.

In order to address this situation, Jeroboam established two centers of worship, one at Dan, the northernmost city in the Northern Kingdom, and the other at Bethel in the southern border with Judah. He also built two golden calves or bulls to serve as the symbol of the worship of Yahweh.

To maintain the cultic centers in Dan and Bethel, Jeroboam selected people who were not from the tribe of Levi to become priests in these temples and in the high places that were established throughout the kingdom.

According to the Old Testament, the official duty of the priesthood was assigned to the tribe of Levi. Jeroboam’s decision to select non-Levites to serve in the temple arose when the Levites opposed the cultic practices that Jeroboam established. It is possible that Jeroboam’s decision to move the capital from Shechem to Tirzah was motivated by the opposition of the Levites who lived in Shechem.

In addition, Jeroboam moved the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles to fifteenth day of the eighth month rather than the seventh month as it was celebrated in Judah (1 Kings 12:32). This change has been seen as an attempt to return to old tribal traditions.

There is much controversy about the symbolism of the calves or bulls placed in Dan and Bethel. The bull was the symbol of El and Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites. It has been suggested that in establishing the bulls as symbols of Yahweh, Jeroboam was not promoting idolatry, but rather giving official recognition of the traditional way the people of Israel worshiped Yahweh as El. Thus, the bull would be considered to be a representation of Yahweh’s creative powers and military strength.

Many scholars today argue that the bulls were pedestals on which the invisible Yahweh was supposed to stand. In some Semitic religions the gods were represented as standing on the backs of animals. However, since Yahweh’s presence in the temple was invisible, the people of Israel eventually began to worship the symbols as if they were gods.

Jeroboam’s reforms were not seen in a positive light by the writers of the book of Kings. The Deuteronomist saw Jeroboam’s reforms as a rejection of Yahweh. As a result, Jeroboam is condemned by the Deuteronomist because he set up golden calves, which became the focus of Israel’s worship, and because he established centers of worship outside Jerusalem.

The worship of Yahweh in the form of a bull opened the doors for the influence of Canaanite culture and religion to enter the life of the Northern Kingdom. Whatever intentions Jeroboam might have had, the commingling of Yahweh worship with Baal symbolism was disastrous for Israel’s faith and produced severe criticism from an unnamed “man of God” (see 1 Kings 13).

Hosea was the first prophet who openly criticized the worship of the calf. In Hosea 8:5-6 the prophet criticizes the worship of the calf on behalf of Yahweh: “I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of innocence? For it is from Israel; a craftsman made it; it is not God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces.”

After the death of Jeroboam, the kings who followed him continued the religious practices established by Jeroboam, leading to the general condemnation of every king of Israel. Each king was condemned for doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord, for walking in the way of Jeroboam, and by allowing the worship of the golden calf to remain in place (see 1 Kings 15:34).

Ironically, Ahijah, the prophet who prophesied Jeroboam’s rise to power, is the one who also predicts the collapse of his kingdom. Instead of bringing the tribes back to the worship of Yahweh, Jeroboam established religious reforms that, from the perspective of the Deuteronomic Historian, brought the nation to the brink of disaster.

In the end, the Deuteronomic Historian has a stern condemnation of the Northern Kingdom:

The people of Israel had sinned against the Lord. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight (2 Kings 17:7, 15-18).

Yet, the Lord gave the people an opportunity to change their ways. He warned Israel through the ministry of the prophets, but the people were unwilling to listen. As a result, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria and taken into exile in 722 BC.

To Be Continued.

Studies on Syncretism in the Old Testament

Syncretism in the Old Testament – Introduction

Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah – Part 1

Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah – Part 2

Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah – Part 3

NOTE: For other studies on syncretism in the Old Testament, read my post, Syncretism in the Old Testament.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Ahijah, Book of 1 Kings, Golden Calf, Hebrew Bible, Jeroboam, Old Testament, Syncretism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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