“Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are now living…” –Joshua 24:15
On my first weekend tour in Israel, we went north to the Galilee. We stopped at several sites, some that were Biblical sites and a few others that were not. After lunch on Saturday, we toured Tel Dan, the site of the Biblical city of Dan on the far northern edge of Israelite territory. We saw its gates, some of its excavations, and an Iron 2A cult center that had been found near the back of the tel.
The cult center contained the remnants of an altar, with stairs that advanced up one side. Behind this was some sort of podium, probably built for some ritual function (which is what archaeologists say when they aren’t quite sure how ancient people used something.) The open air site has been identified by many as the shrine mentioned in 1 Kings 12:25-33 that Jeroboam built in Dan after he tore the Northern Kingdom away from Rehoboam (Solomon’s less-than-wise son).
Jeroboam was concerned because the northern tribes still wanted to go to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, so he set up shrines with golden calves in Dan and Bethel, the northern and southern edges of his kingdom. Now his people didn’t have to bother themselves with a troublesome journey all the way down to Judah. Now they could worship closer to home. He told the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here is your God, oh Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
Now, Jeroboam had broken some pretty big rules when he did this. He made an image of God, of whom no image was supposed to be made. He set up other places of worship apart from the centralized temple in Jerusalem. This action is remembered throughout 1 and 2 Kings as THE big sin, a sin of idolatry that Jeroboam caused Israel to commit. All the kings who follow Jeroboam (some better, some worse) are measured by this first wrong of the first leader.
But, what exactly was Jeroboam’s crime? Was he purposely leading the nation away from God? And why did he choose the calf? Was this a symbol of Yahweh (also chosen by Aaron in the desert)? Was he some kind of syncretist who wanted to combine the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal? Or was this all just one big political maneuver?
Our tour guide discussed these questions and gave an answer that I want to expand on in this post. The calf/bull was indeed a symbol of Baal, the god who was worshipped by people throughout Palestine, and the god who seemed to always be the biggest snare for the Israelites. Our guide suggested that the question we should ask is not, “Why did Jeroboam do what he did?” (because Scripture does make it seem mostly like a political power move), but rather we should ask, “Why did the people of Israel continue to fall into the trap of idolatry again and again and again? Why didn’t they ever learn?”
Our guide explained that in the ancient mindset, gods were often localized. One god ruled in Egypt, another in Palestine, another in Assyria, some other out in the desert. Baal was the god who had traditionally ruled in the region where Israel had settled. He was a god of fertility, and as shepherds and farmers, the Israelites probably found him a pretty hard deity to ignore.
Looked at in this way, the Israelites were not just dumb, rebellious people who liked making God angry. They were experiencing serious cultural pressures to appease the local god. Even if they wanted to worship and obey Yahweh, could they really trust him to provide for their needs when they were living in Baal’s country? Shouldn’t they cover their bases by spreading out the love to both deities (and maybe a few more when it was fashionable)?
We can see this mindset of local gods clearly a couple times in the OT. In 1 Kings 20 Israel’s army defeats the Aramean army in the hills around Samaria. The Aramean king reasons that his army was defeated because they fought Israel on their deity’s home turf. “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they” (v. 23). He thought that fighting against Israel where Yahweh was not the traditional deity would give him the upper hand in the next battle. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.)
In 2 Kings 17:24-34, an account is given of what happened in the aftermath of Assyria’s conquest of Israel. In typical Assyrian fashion, they exiled Israel to other places, and they brought in new people from far off lands and settled them in northern Israel. However, when these people experience hardships in the land (hungry lions!), their conclusion is that they are suffering because they aren’t worshipping the God of Israel, the deity of that region. Aid is sent in v. 27. “Then the King of Assyria commanded, ‘Send one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” A priest returns and instructs them how to worship and obey Yahweh. The final result is a people who worship Yahweh sometimes but gods from their homeland other times. (These people are some of the ancestors of the Samaritans of the NT.)
Back to Jeroboam. What was he doing when he made those golden calves? I think he was making a sort of syncretism between worship of Yahweh and worship of local gods, but he was trying to be subtle about it. He hid what he was doing under the cloak of “your God who brought you out of Egypt,” but all the while the message of the idols was that worshipping Yahweh could look however they wanted it to look. They could pay lip-service to Yahweh while still placing the most importance on Canaanite practices, pagan idols, and cultural values that pulled them further away from intimacy with God.
Why the history lesson? Well, because I think we still do the same thing sometimes today. We still are often more willing to trust God when we can combine him with cultural elements that make us comfortable. American cultural elements. These aren’t idols, fertility rites, or pagan sacrifices. No, we are more ensnared by ideas like independence, making money, having fun, watching sports ( a big one for me!). As long as we think that God is ok with all these things, that he wants us to have them and enjoy them, then we are okay with God.
Take independence, for example. Yes, freedom is a human right that we are all entitled to. Yes, we celebrate the freedoms we have here in America. They are amazing! But, how often does independence then become an American deity, an idea we take such pride in that we almost worship it. We are free to do what we want and we are proud of it! And when Christ calls us to be his disciples, his servants, even his slaves, how often do we say, “But Jesus, I’m an American! I get to do what I want to do! You can’t control everything I do. Jesus, you’re going to just have to learn that we Americans are not giving up all this freedom.” Independence becomes a comfort zone, a local god that wrenches us from dependence on our Savior.
And so, we pull a Jeroboam. We combine what we like about God with what we like about ourselves. “Hey this is awesome! Jesus saved me from my sins, and he still wants me to be a typical American!” Deep down, we all know that this attitude is not true. But it is a part of our culture that is very hard to escape. Those local gods can be pretty tough to ignore, because they offer us what we want without ever having to trust God.
Jeroboam started Israel on a slow drift away from God and towards the local gods. Many of us, as individuals, are making that same slow drift toward the local gods of our own place and time. We’ve all probably been born into this drift midstream. Giving up our local gods means swimming against the current. Remember that even Jesus had to swim against the currents of legalism and zealotry that were the local gods of his own day.
Choose who you are going to serve: God, or the local gods. But you can’t choose both. Such was the mistake of Jeroboam.