Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Bovine Shrines

Dang, if that crazy old guy with the torn-up coat wasn't right after all.

The prophet Ahijah had prophesied that Jeroboam would someday rule over ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Sure enough, when Solomon's jerk of a son, Rehoboam, managed to piss off most of the nation, these break-away northern tribes chose Jeroboam to be their new king.

Ahijah also promised that God would bless Jeroboam with a dynasty as great and as enduring as that of David. With just one caveat:

If you do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statures and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. (1 Kings 11:38 NIV)

Yeah, there's always a catch.

When King David conquered the city of Jerusalem, he did more than just make it the political capital of the tribes of Israel. By bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city, he also made Jerusalem the religious center as well. David originally intended to build a temple to house the Ark, but that task fell to his son, Solomon.

This presented Jeroboam with a problem. Yes, the Northern Tribes had declared their independence from the House of David, and no, Rehoboam did not have the military strength to re-take them; but if Jeroboam's people had to keep going to Jerusalem in order to worship and to perform sacrifices, they'd wind up under Jerusalem's thumb after all.

I sometimes wonder if it was a bad idea for King David to bring the Ark to Jerusalem in the first place. Yes, it consolidated the religious and political centers of the nation in the same place; but it also brought the priesthood under the direct control of the King. You could even see this as an argument in favor of the Separation of Church and State.

For Jeroboam, the solution was obvious. To keep his subjects from worshiping in an enemy nation, he set up mega-churches of his own.

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, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel. And the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there. (1 Kings 12:28-30)

Bethel was already a religious site; it's name means “House of God.” It was located in the Tribe of Benjamin, near the border between the Jeroboam's Northern Kingdom, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. According to Genesis 28:19, this was the place where Jacob had his dream of angels ascending and descending a Stairway to Heaven, providing later inspiration for Led Zeppelin. Dan was located clear on the other side of Israel, up in the northern reaches near the headwaters of the Jordan River.

But what jumps out at the reader is the fact that Jeroboam made golden calves to represent God. Didn't the Israelites try that once before at Mount Sinai? Didn't that incident teach them not to worship gilded livestock?

One cynical answer could be that the author of Kings inserted the calves into the story in order to remind the readers of the sinful Golden Calf in Exodus. And the words of Jeroboam here do seem to be deliberate echoes of Aaron's words in Exodus 32:4. Or perhaps that the Golden Calf story from Exodus was a bit of retroactive continuity intended to foreshadow Jeroboam's idols.

But the two incidents could have arisen independently. I strongly suspect that the worship practices of the Hebrews was not nearly as standardized as the author of Deuteronomy would like us to think. Even if we follow Tradition and accept that the Law of Moses was written by Moses himself; considering how loosely-knit the tribes were before the monarchical period and how frequently the Israelites slid into adopting the religions of their neighbors, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a great deal of variation in how the individual tribes practiced the worship of the God of Abraham.

In an agrarian culture, worshiping a deity who takes the form of livestock makes a certain amount of sense. The Egyptians worshiped a bull-god named Apis; and when the Israelites at Sinai asked Aaron to make a statue to represent the God who had delivered them from bondage, in Exodus chapter 32, Apis was probably the first thing that came to mind. The Cretans worshiped bulls, as did the Canaanites; and art of the Assyrians, Israel's neighbor to the north, is noted for its winged bulls.

So Jeroboam, wishing to present his people with an alternative to the Temple cult of Jerusalem, and lacking an Ark to represent the Presence of the Almighty, followed the examples of his neighbors and made these cows as stand-ins.

I can't help but wonder, if Jeroboam had just established places of worship without the idols, things might have gone better. Perhaps he could have made arrangements with the High Priest of the Temple to have officially sanctioned priests perform sacrifices in the other places. Perhaps they might have developed a decentralized religion, as the Jews were forced to later with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

Or maybe it would have made no difference and Israel's break with the House of David would have resulted in apostasy no matter what they did.

From here the story gets weird.

A certain Man of God shows up at Bethel on one of Jeroboam's holy festivals. Not only did Jeroboam set up bovine idols at his new shrines, he also established his own holiday on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. This seems to have been to replace the Feast of Tabernacles, (Sukkot) established by Moses and held a month earlier. This might not seem like such a big deal, but Jeroboam also performed the sacrifices at Bethel personally. Having the king perform religious ceremonies was a common practice among Israel's neighbors, but Moses had established a kind of separation of Church and State in the Law: the priesthood and the secular leadership were separate entities, and the religious rituals were the sole provenance of the priests. A couple generations earlier, King Saul had gotten in trouble for presuming to offer a sacrifice by himself. (1 Samuel 13:5-14)

But back to this Man of God. The text does not name him; it only says that he came from Judah to deliver a message.

By the word of the LORD a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD: “O altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who now make offering here, and human bones will be burned on you.'” That same day the man of God gave a sign: “This is the sign the LORD has declared: The altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out.” (1 Kings 13:1-3)

Josiah was a later king of Judah, whose reign saw religious reforms and a revival of the Temple worship. It is believed by many Bible scholars that the Book of Deuteronomy was written during the time of Josiah, and possibly much of the Books of Kings as well.

The king reached out intending to grab this holy heckler, but when he did so his hand shriveled up so that he could not withdraw it; and just as the man of God had prophesied, Jeroboam's altar cracked and split asunder.

This really frightened Jeroboam. He asked the Man of God to intercede with the LORD and heal him. The Man of God did so, and Jeroboam's hand was restored to health. (1 Kings 13:4-6)

The king invites the Man of God back to the palace for something to eat and to give him a little “thank-you” present, but the MoG is also a Man with a Mission. “Even if you were to give me half your possessions, I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water here.” God told him to go to Bethel, deliver the message and come back. He was not to eat or drink anything while in Jeroboam's territory; he was not to Pass GO; he was not to collect $200. He was not even to go back by the same route came. And so he turned around and headed back to Judea. Snap. Jeroboam, you have been burned.

But there was also a prophet who lived in Bethel at that time. We don't get his name either. Hearing about what happened at the shrine, the prophet saddled up his donkey and rode after the man of Man of God back to his place for
a couple cold ones and maybe a quick nosh or something.

The MoG explained that he couldn't do this, for the same reasons he gave to the king. The prophet replied that it was okay because he was a prophet too and an angel had told him to give the man of God some refreshments.

Well, if a prophet said that an angel had told him, then it must be all right, right? I mean, a prophet wouldn't lie about something like that, would he?

I suppose that's what the Man of God thought. He thought wrong. (v.11-19)

Why did the jerk do that? Why did he lie to the man of God? I don't think he was deliberately trying to wreck the MoG's mission. I wonder if he might have just wanted the prestige of being able to say, “Oh yeah, that prophet from Judea? Yeah, I know him. Had him over for dinner once.” He was an old man, the text tells us, and perhaps his better days of prophecy were behind him. Maybe he hoped latching onto this new guy would make him seem more relevant. Or maybe he was just too gregarious for his own good.

He was a legitimate prophet, though, because in the middle of dinner with his guest the word of the Lord came to him.

While they were sitting at the table the word of the LORD came to the old prophet who had brought him back. He cried out to the man of God who had come from Judah, “This is what the LORD says: 'You have defiled the word of the LORD and have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. You came be back and ate bread and drank water in the place where he told you not to eat or drink. Therefore your body will not be buried in the tomb of your fathers.'” (1 Kings 13:20-22)


At this point, the I think the reader can be forgiven for thinking that God is being kind of a jerk here. The man of God, after all, was acting in good faith. He didn't know the prophet was lying; for all he knew God had changed his mind about the Not-Eating-or-Drinking thing. If anything, the skeevy prophet was to blame. Wasn't God coming down hard on the guy?

Maybe. The best I can say is that the reason the Man of God was prohibited from accepting hospitality while in Jeroboram's territory was to emphasize God's displeasure with the king's idolatry. By accepting the prophet's dinner, after telling the king he wouldn't, he was undercutting the message God sent him to deliver. And he really should have known better than to accept the guy's invitation, even if the guy was a prophet.

I would imagine the rest of the meal was rather strained. The Man of God finishes his dinner; that's only polite and at this point he might as well; and the prophet saddles up his donkey for him. And on his way down the road, he is attacked and killed by a lion. But that's not the freaky part.

The lion does not devour the MoG, or maul him further, or go after the donkey, or even just wander away. For that matter, the donkey doesn't bolt either. Both animals just remain standing there, beside the MoG's body, as a mute testimonial to the man's death.

When the smarmy prophet hears about this, he goes with his sons to the scene of the tragedy. The man's death was partly his fault – okay, largely his fault – and so he tries to make amends the only way he can. He has his sons bring the MoG's body home with him, (carefully, no doubt, under the watchful glare of the lion), gives the body proper funeral rites, mourning over him and burying him in the prophet's own tomb. And he told everybody about the Man of God's prophecies against the shrines of Jeroboam.

Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways, but once more appointed priests for the high places from all sorts of people. Anyone who wanted to be a priest he consecrated for the high places. This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to his downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth. (Ch.13 v.33-34)

“High Places” is how the Books of Kings refer to any of the shrines to other gods, although it's not entirely fair. The Temple of Solomon wasn't exactly built in a valley either. I suspect it's a logical impulse to locate places of worship on hill and mountain tops. If the gods dwell in the heavens, it makes sense to climb to a high elevation in order to worship them. And so the shrines to the Canaanite and other gods get tagged in the Bible under the general name of “high places.”

But note what else this passage says: it's a new accusation against Jeroboam. IT was briefly touched on before, but this passage emphasizes it. Jeroboam did not just set up his own rival temples, or have his people worship idols, or even invent his own religious holidays. He'd give out priestly appointments to anyone who asked.

Under the Mosaic tradition, only descendants of the Priestly Line of Aaron were permitted to become priests; (and only members of the Tribe of Levi, to which Aaron belonged, were permitted to serve in the Tabernacle, and after that the Temple). Because of this privilege, the Tribe of Levi was not allocated tribal lands, the way the other Tribes of Israel were; instead, they were given a handful of cities distributed throughout Israel. Not every Levite worked in the Temple, but in a sense the entire tribe was dedicated to God.

On the surface, Jeroboam's decision to open his priesthood to all-comers seems egalitarian and wholly a good thing. (As well as being a practical necessity, seeing as the Tribe of Levi had remained loyal to the House of David). But I get a hint of something else in this passage. Yes, the king is permitting applicants from other tribes into the priesthood; but more significantly, the king is making the decisions. The priesthood becomes no longer just a religious office, but a political appointment, serving at the whim of the king. I'll bet that bothered the Jerusalem Temple Establishment even more than the gold cows did.

The story has one more sequel. About the same time as his confrontation with the Man of God from Judah, Jeroboam's son Abijah fell sick with a severe illness. With no one else to turn to, Jeroboam remembered Ahijah, the prophet who had given him the scraps of his cloak and prophesied his rise to kingship.

Jeroboam knows that Ahijah is likely to be disapproving of the whole cow thing, and so tells his wife to visit the prophet in disguise, and ask him what will happen to the boy. He's not asking for a miracle here, or even a blessing. He just wants to know the child's future, and perhaps to reassure himself.

It's been many years since Ahijah gave Jeroboam the tatters of destiny, and the prophet has grown old and blind. But the Lord has given him advance notice of the visit. “Come in, wife of Jeroboam,” he says. “Why the pretense?” He has a message for Jerry and it's not good news. The Lord God of Israel raised Jeroboam up as king of Israel, but Jeroboam has not lived up to his end of the bargain. For this reason, God is going to bring disaster on Jeroboam's house.

I will cut off from Jeroboam every last male in Israel – slave or free. I will burn up the house of Jeroboam as one burns dung, until it is all gone.” (1 Kings 14:10)

Ahijah also tells the woman that her son will die “When you set foot in the city”. Is it fair that the boy be punished for the sins of his father? No, Ahijah says, the kid is getting off easy. Jeroboam's son will die mourned and loved by all of Israel and given a respectful burial precisely because is is the only member of the family in whom God has found anything good. The rest of Jeroboam's household will meet with ignominious deaths and dogs will eat their carcasses.

Things come to pass just as Ahijah predicted. The boy dies as soon as his mother crosses the threshold of their house. He is buried and mourned by all of Israel. Jeroboam continues to reign for some years more, and is succeeded by his other son, Nadab. The son of Jeroboam reigned for only two years before he was assassinated on the battlefield by one of his own generals, Baasha, who siezes the throne and sets about killing the rest of Jeroboam's family.

This pretty much sets the pattern for the rest of the Northern Kingdom's history. Short dynasties lasting only a generation or two at most and ending with violence. The line which was to have been as enduring as the House of David, ended in blood.