The idol state uses the language of compassion because its intention is a messianic one. It finds the masses harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, needing a savior.
—Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (1983)
…Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.
—John Calvin, Institutes (1536)
Jeroboam the Son of Nebat
Jeroboam found Israel harassed, overburdened, and in desperate need of a savior. Jeroboam knew that God had chosen him to be that savior. He knew because God’s prophet had told him (1 Kings 11:29-40). But when Jeroboam tried to expedite matters, he earned Solomon’s wrath and was forced to flee to Egypt. But upon Solomon’s death and with Pharaoh’s approval, Jeroboam returned to Israel to stage a tax revolt. The leaders of the northern tribes welcomed him and put him at the head of the delegation that met with Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.
Jeroboam and his associates didn’t go to Jerusalem to meet this heir apparent. They insisted that Rehoboam meet them in Shechem, a city that belonged to the tribe of Ephraim (1 Kings 12:1-15). Rehoboam went. The northern representatives asked for relief: lower taxes; less conscripted service. Their implied threat was the succession of the northern tribes if Rehoboam wouldn’t comply.
Rehoboam consulted with his father’s advisors. They told him to agree to Israel’s terms and to take on the role of a servant-leader. Rehoboam rejected their advice and turned to his younger friends. They told him to him to stand up to Jeroboam and the others and tell them he would outdo his father in his rigor and severity. Rehoboam did as they said, and Israel’s representatives walked out. They made Jeroboam their king. Jeroboam now had the power and position he needed to make an impact, to work towards solving Israel’s problems.
Behold Thy Gods, O Israel!
But Jeroboam was worried. He saw that his people still went down to Jerusalem to worship. He was afraid that, if they continued this practice, their hearts would turn back to the Davidic kingdom and to Rehoboam, David’s heir. Now God had promised to build Jeroboam a “sure house”—if Jeroboam would only keep his commandments (1 Kings 11:38). But Jeroboam wasn’t content with the promise of God. He lacked true, convicting faith. And so he decided to he decided to bolster his political position with some liturgical innovations of his own.
Jeroboam, the son of Nebat made two golden calves– idols– and proclaimed, “Behold, thy gods, O Israel that brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). Jeroboam placed one of the calves in Dan on Israel’s northern border, a city with a long history of idolatry (cf. Judg. 17—18). He placed the other in Bethel, an ancient city near Israel’s border with Benjamin and Judah.
To the calves he added “a house of high places”—that is, temples and altars. He appointed his own priests from “the lowest of the people.” He crowned it all with a new compulsory feast, a rival to the harvest Feast of Tabernacles in the south. He set his feast in the eighth month of the civil year, “even in the month which he had devised of his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33).
Why a golden calf? Commentators usually look back to Egypt and to the idolatry that surrounded Israel in that house of bondage to explain the calves. They think particularly of the Apis bull, a manifestation of the god Ptah, and later of Osiris. Certainly the children of Israel would have known all about the Egyptian bull, but Scripture never makes any connection between Apis and the golden calf. It does, however, say a lot about calves and bulls and a lot about gold.
In biblical imagery, the calf or young bull suggests strength, virility, and power. Gold speaks of wealth, glory, and heaven. (All of the furniture in Solomon’s Temple was made of gold.) But beyond all this, the bull was the most expensive of the sacrifices that Israel brought to God. It was the sacrifice that God ordained as a purification offering for the priests and for the whole nation (Lev. 4). If Jeroboam had chosen a golden lamb or even a golden lion, we would more easily see what he was doing. The golden calf gave metallic substance to God’s principle of mediation. But the calf was supposed to be a representation, a channel, not the reality. No one was supposed to think that God was actually a golden bull. The idols simply made God immanent, controllable, and silent.
The Old-Time Religion
There are some details in the biblical narrative that we might easily miss. First, the language Jeroboam used comes directly from Exodus. When Aaron made the first golden calf, he too said, “These be thy gods [or God], O Israel, that brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 34:4). The imitation was deliberate. Like Aaron, Jeroboam wasn’t dismissing God; he was just making Him more user-friendly. He was creating an “app.” Second, Jeroboam began his political jockeying in Shechem. That city had a long history reaching back to the time of Abraham. Shechem (or Sichem) was his first stop when he came to the Promised Land, and it was the first place he built an altar to the Lord (Gen. 12:6-7). Third, Jeroboam next turned his attention to Penuel. Penuel means “the face of God.” This was where Jacob wrestled with the angel of the LORD and received his new name: Israel (Gen. 32:24-32). Fourth, when Jeroboam built his shrine for the southern calf, he placed it in Bethel. Bethel, “the house of God,” was where Jacob had his vision of a ladder reaching to heaven (Gen. 28:10-22). It was also one of the sites where the Tabernacle stood for a short time (Judg. 20:18, 26, 31 where “house of God” is Bethel). Finally, Jeroboam named his two sons Nadab and Abijah. That’s suspiciously close to Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons who died before God when they “offered strange fire” (Lev. 10:1-2).
It seems that Jeroboam was deliberately connecting his religious innovations with significant names, places, and events from Israel’s earliest history. He would have Israel believe that he was looking back, past Moses and his liturgy, to an earlier and purer Hebrew religion; that he was taking Israel back to her roots, to the days of Abraham and Jacob, to the ministry of Aaron and his sons, a ministry that Moses suppressed most severely. This sort of word-magic plays well among unlearned and restless souls whose ears itch for something new masquerading as something very old. We have seen this in our own history: cults have regularly enshrined the words “Apostolic” and “Pentecostal” to suggest a purer and more powerful Christianity than that of Nicene orthodoxy.
The Goal of Designer Religion
Jeroboam told his people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem” (1 Kings 12:28). In truth, Bethel was only about twelve miles from the Temple. The real issue for Jeroboam wasn’t the convenience of his people for worship. It was his own control over his people. His whole system, designed as it was to excite the eye and to appeal to spiritual pride, was nothing but a spiritual snare. Its purpose was to secure and maintain the loyalty of Israel. The system proved quite successful. Every one of his successors on the throne of Israel “walked in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat who made Israel to sin.” They all gave lip service to God and they all bowed to the calves. They all ruled as tyrants.
Calvin said that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols.” James Montgomery writes, “We invent religion—not because we are seeking God, but because we are running away from him” (Romans, 156). Because God transcends His creation, every object we use to represent Him, to bring Him down to Earth, is necessarily a lie and a flight from reality—His true reality. Idols are a door to the irrational.
It’s for this very reason, pagan religion centers on the image—concrete, immediate, and lurid. Think of the Nazis. Think of the Soviet hammer and sickle. Think of giant poster images of “the leader.” Think about the power symbols used in the last U.S. election to create the cult of personality and power. But Christianity is different, grounded in the word of the Creator God, in propositional truth. While pagan religion appeals to and overwhelms the senses… the gospel speaks to the mind and so touches the heart. Image and spectacle work to awe, to incite, and to control. The gospel, by contrast, calls men and women to liberty in terms of the study and thoughtful application of the written law of God. The power state always promotes image and spectacle. (It also balks at logical discourse, debate, and doctrinal religion.) Christianity insists that the truth can be put into words and that this truth alone can set us free. (John 8:31-32; 17:17). And so John warns us, “Little children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21).