Jeroboam, Son of Nebat

Though he is far from a household name, Jeroboam, son of Nebat is one of the most important figures in Biblical history.  As the first king and founder of the independent northern kingdom of Israel, he became the paradigmatic wicked king.  He is, in many way, the first schismatic and heretic in the history of God’s people.  In addition to creating the northern political structures, he began an alternative religious system that would not only endure in the northern kingdom throughout its existence, but even make inroads into the southern kingdom of Judah.  Under the later Omride dynasty, the kingdom which he founded would become a regional power and at least for a time far surpass the southern kingdom of Judah in influence and power.  The condemnation of future northern kings will continuously begin with the fact that they have committed the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 15:34; 16:2-3, 7, 19, 26, 31; 21:22, 52; 2 Kgs/4Kgdms 3:3; 9:9; 10:29, 31; 13:2, 6, 11, 13; 14:16, 23-24, 27-29; 15:1, 8-9, 18, 24, 28; 17:21-22; 23:15).

Jeroboam’s story begins during the reign of another wicked king, Solomon.  Though it is not common to see Solomon in this way, it is his clear portrayal in scripture.  In addition to multiplying wives and committing the other offenses prohibited to kings in the Torah (Deut 17:14-20), he built temples to the pagan gods worshipped by those wives in Jerusalem alongside the temple of Yahweh, the God of Israel (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 11:7-8).  Even Yahweh’s temple was constructed by Solomon not according to detailed plans received from Yahweh himself, as the tabernacle had been.  Solomon planned his temple himself and built it according to the pattern of pagan Phoenician temples.

In response to Solomon’s wickedness, the God of Israel raised up foreign enemies against him to harass him and his kingdom.  When he did not repent, he raised up Jeroboam, son of Nebat.  Jeroboam’s name means “his people are many.”  In a play on words regarding his destiny, it can also mean, “he struggles for the people.”  Jeroboam came from the tribe of Ephraim, descended from one of the sons of Joseph.  Ephraim was the most numerous tribe of Israel, occupying the hill country around what would become Shechem and Samaria.  Their prominence is shown by the prominence of Joseph within the patriarchal history of Genesis.  It is also shown by the fact that once the kingdoms divided, the northern kingdom which included all the tribes but two, became known not only as Israel but as Ephraim (cf. Ps 78::9, 67; Is 7:9, 17; 11:13; Jer 31:6, 9, 18-20; Ezek 37:16-19).

Jeroboam had been a young member of Solomon’s court.  In his many building projects in Jerusalem, Solomon had employed forced labor, drafting workers from other tribes.  A significant number of these workers came from Ephraim (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 11:27-28).  Jeroboam was put in charge of the laborers from his own tribe.  The prophet Ahijah was sent to Jeroboam to make an announcement to him, that in judgment, the kingdom of Israel was being taken away from Solomon and his descendants.  Only one tribe, Judah, would remain with the line of David in order to keep the covenant which the God of Israel had made with David (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 11:36).  In fact, the same covenant originally given to David (2 Sam/2 Kgdms 7:16) was also offered to Jeroboam if he would walk in the ways of Yahweh’s commandments as David had (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 11:38).  Solomon’s response, when he learned of this judgment and prophecy against him, was to seek to murder Jeroboam.  He fled to Egypt until Solomon had died.

After Solomon’s death, when Jeroboam heard word of it, he travelled to Shechem to Rehoboam, Solomon’s son’s coronation.  There he led a large group of the people to confront Rehoboam about their enslavement by his father Solomon (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 12:3-5).  Rehoboam responded with threats of greater and harsher enslavement if they dared defy him (v. 14-15).  Jeroboam then led the people of Israel in a popular revolt against Rehoboam in which Rehoboam lost control of all but his own tribe, Judah.  The prophet Shemaiah was sent to ensure that an all out civil war did not ensue (v. 22-24).  Nevertheless, throughout his reign and that of Rehoboam, Jeroboam was involved in continuous border conflicts in which he took several more cities from Judah (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 14:30).

Once he had become king of Israel, Jeroboam set about to create a new social order.  He still saw Rehoboam as a rival with greater legitimacy in his claim to kingship (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 12:27).  The central organizing structure of ancient societies and cultures was not the state or concepts of homeland but rather religion and ritual.  This caused the threat of Rehoboam for Jeroboam to center on the mandated pilgrimages to the sanctuary in Jerusalem.  In order to prevent this, he established a new religious system for his newly one northern kingdom centered around sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan (v. 28-29).

The city of Bethel had been a cultic center from the Canaanite period, as signified by its name as the “House of El.”  The city of Dan had formerly been known as Laish.  In the far north, it had been a center of the worship of the Amorites and other peoples of Bashan.  While the tribe of Dan had been given an allotment of land at the time of the conquest under Joshua, they instead descended on the city of Laish and committed a massacre there to take it for themselves (Jdg 18:26-30).  They had already set up their own cult and priesthood practicing idolatrous worship long before the ascent of Jeroboam.  It is not coincidental that in the Revelation of St. John, Dan is no longer reckoned among the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:5-8).

While the forging of golden calves clearly hearkens back to the sin of Aaron in the wilderness (Ex 32:1-4), it is unlikely to be a casting back to that event, but rather to be a similar movement in attempting to syncretize the worship of Yahweh with elements of Ancient Near Eastern culture.  The bull was a symbol of strength and power, as exemplified by the ‘bull of heaven’ associated with the constellation Taurus being the possession of Anu, the high god of Mesopotamia or El, the high god of Canaanite and Phoenician religion.  Josephus identifies the calves made by Jeroboam as heifers rather than bulls (Antiquities 5.8.8).  This may be related to the Egyptian cow goddess Hathor who was associated with the sending of plagues.  Both Aaron and Jeroboam had just spent time in Egypt, and both identify the calves as the god of Israel who brought them out of Egypt.  In later Israelite history, it would become clear that the name of Yahweh was associated with these shrines, suggesting that Israel’s God was here being cultically served in pagan Ancient Near Eastern modes.

In addition to these two primary cultic centers, Jeroboam established multiple high places throughout his territory (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 12:31).  These were cultic centers to Canaanite and Phoenician gods, primarily Baal and Asherah, which were established on top of hills and mountains as being closer to the heavens and associated with the mountain of the gods.  Jeroboam then appointed priests from all the tribes, not the Levites, to serve at these cultic centers.  He went so far as to expel the Levites from his territory, leading to their return to Jerusalem and the temple (2 Chron 11:14).  He himself, as king, served also as high priest offering sacrifices himself, beginning with his own feast, parallel to Passover, which he created (v. 32).  This new polytheistic state religious system continued until the destruction of Ephraim by the Assyrians and is directly blamed by the author of Kings/Kingdoms for its destruction.

Jeroboam himself paid the price for his wickedness.  Late in his life his son became deathly ill and he sent his wife under cover of night to see Ahijah, the prophet who had first told him about the kingship (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 14:1-3).  Rather than answering his request, Ahijah pronounced judgment against him for all of his sins and iniquities.  The reason his son Abijah had become sick and would die is because he was not as wicked as his siblings, and so God was giving him the honor of a burial (v. 10-13).  The rest of Jeroboam’s line would be slaughtered with the sword.  Not only would his dynasty be massacred, but Israel itself would ultimately be destroyed for the sin into which he led them (v. 16).  This judgment would be fulfilled after Jeroboam’s son Nadab had reigned as king for less than two years (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 15:25-30).

Jeroboam the son of Nebat represents a new trajectory in ancient religion within the Hebrew scriptures.  This trajectory is glimpsed in the golden calf episode at Sinai.  It is begun by Solomon himself in his building of a pagan-style temple to Yahweh and further pagan temples alongside it.  While the nations descended from Abraham worshipped Yahweh, the God of their fathers, the nations had fallen into the worship of lesser, demonic spiritual powers.  Jeroboam’s newly designed religious system represents an attempt, not seen in scripture since the tower of Babel, to subject Yahweh, God Most High, to humanity’s religious desires through ritual practice.  Jeroboam placed himself as king and high priest as a mediatorial figure between the people of Israel and Yahweh and the other gods.  Like other Ancient Near Eastern priest kings he was establishing himself as divine, as a peer of the gods and a member of their company.  This is precisely the dynamic that the strict separation of priest and king, and later bishop and emperor, was intended to prevent.  Jeroboam therefore serves as an antichrist figure.  The inversion of his flight to Egypt upon prophesied kingship and that of Christ, both fleeing an apostate temple-building king over Judah, is intentional.  The antichrist in St. John’s Revelation is also depicted as establishing an apostate religion (Rev 13:13-18).

The system of ritual worship and foundational narrative given by Yahweh the God of Israel in the Torah serves for the transformation of humanity.  It enacts the purification of human sin and the raising of human persons to the presence of God.  It is therefore opposed to all other religious systems on earth, be they devised by demonic powers seeking worship or by human persons for their own ends.  This is even, or perhaps especially, true when these religious systems claim to worship the true God, the Holy Trinity.  Whether these systems serve the interest of a religious leader, a state, a culture, or a homeland, they serve to conform human persons through worship to the will of that leader, or state, or culture rather than to the likeness of Christ, even when they use his name.  In the person of Jeroboam son of Nebat is condemned every theological system, every form of worship, every set of beliefs which masquerades as Christianity, but proceeds from the will of man rather than that of God.  What proceeds religiously from corrupt human persons is in no way superior to that which proceeds from demons.  Heresy is no better than paganism.  In fact, while the evil spiritual powers worshipped by the pagans may exist, the false Christs imagined by human persons most certainly do not.

14 comments:

  1. Hi Father, I really enjoyed reading this. But I had a question about one of your points. In the bible, it says that it was God who gave Solomon instructions on how to build the temple. Maybe it is from my lack of understanding that I have never found any evidence that Solomon had built the temple in the resemblance of other pagan temples. Where then is it mentioned that Solomon built the Jerusalem temple in the resemblance of other pagan temples?

    1. Actually, there’s a huge contrast between Exodus and the creation of the tabernacle and the building of the temple. In Exodus, ever element, even minute ones, of the tabernacle are described in great detail, and then the Holy Spirit fills and empowers the artisans to make it exactly according to Yahweh’s instructions. When the time comes for the temple, David really wants to build one, and accumulates (literal) tons of gold, silver, lumber, etc. But there are not instructions. There is one somewhat ambiguous verse in 1 Chronicles where David says something that could be read to say that he had gotten the temple plans from God. But if you read the larger context, it repeatedly says that David explained to Solomon everything that he (David) had planned and wanted for the temple. Then when Solomon builds it, the description of it is immediately followed by the description of Solomon’s palace. If you read closely, you’ll see that Solomon’s palace is much better appointed and much larger than the temple he built for Yahweh. At the dedication, Solomon gives a reasonably pagan prayer of temple consecration, filled with imperatives directed at God about how he needs to dwell in the temple and what he needs to do for Solomon and Israel once there. God’s response is essentially to remind Solomon that he doesn’t live in buildings and he isn’t like the pagan gods, but then to note that he will voluntarily condescend to dwell there until Israel’s iniquities drive him out.

      Despite not having detailed instructions for the temple in scripture, we do have a detailed description of what Solomon built. It isn’t a more permanent design based on the tabernacle. It corresponds precisely to typical Phoenician temples of the 10th century BC when Solomon lived. We’ve dug up many of them. As one specific example, Solomon’s temple is an almost identical copy of the temple of Baal (Melqart) at Tyre. Hiram king of Tyre had a building partnership with both David and Solomon, so that was the likely source of influence.

      Its worth noticing the difference between the way the New Testament talks about the tabernacle and the way that it speaks about the temple.

      1. Thank you so much for the clarification Father! Really appreciate your blogs! God be with you! Praying for your ministry. Keep me, a humble sinner, in your prayers.

  2. Thank you Father Stephen.
    I appreciate the detailed account of Jeroboam’s life and how it led to the blending of ancient pagan religion with the worship of Yahweh. Your strong words relating to this in your last paragraph are words that non-Christians and false Christians rise up against. But those words are true, as revealed to us by God through the stories of holy scripture. Interestingly, rarely in the Church of our day does one encounter discussion on heresy that does not provoke a strong reaction. So thank you for not mincing words, Father.
    Now, on the other hand, I must admit it was hard for me to look firmly at the truth of King Solomon’s wicked deeds (I use the word ‘deeds’ as I even have trouble calling the person of Solomon ‘wicked’), even though I am familiar with all the references to them. I do not know how to reconcile this with the fact that “holy” scripture includes several books written by him, widely read as a guide toward wisdom and godly counsel, not to mention the profundity of Ecclesiastes, except to say that we all sin and fall short. Would you speak on this, Father? I am interested in your thoughts.

    Lastly, regarding your response to Ash Mohan about the findings of Solomon’s Temple, I was reminded of the Masonic/Freemasonry focus on Solomon’s Temple. Their use of Christian temple rites and symbols for the “building” of character, with no mention of the need for Christ, but rather the necessity to follow their ‘methods’, would be to me a masquerading of Christianity, as I believe, though not entirely certain, they consider themselves Christian.

  3. Just some brief comments about Solomon, based on some feedback I’ve gotten. The feedback in question won’t appear here because it was written in a less than helpful tone. Solomon is one of a number of Biblical figures who are often presented as heroic in Sunday School and in Bible story books but who are not actually heroes in the scriptures. Samson is another.

    As noted in this post and in response to other comments, it is simply a fact that the Hebrew scriptures don’t record instructions given by God for building the temple, only the tabernacle. The temple does not follow the plan of the tabernacle. It follows precisely that of Phoenician temples. Pagan temples. It is also a fact that the prayer prayed by Solomon, in any number of instances, follows a stereotypical format for temple blessing. used by the same temple builders. When Yahweh appears to Solomon following the dedication, it is to issue to him a dire warning not only for himself but for the whole nation. A dire warning which would come to fruition through the apostasy begun under Solomon.

    Unbelieving scholarship takes these facts as evidence that the worship of ancient Israel was essentially pagan or at least derived from paganism. Given 1 Kings/3 Kingdoms portrayal of Solomon, I would hold that it is more reasonable to interpret them as emblematic of his apostasy.

    The Solomon depicted in Ecclesiastes is a man at the end of his life, filled with regrets, looking back on his errors and failings. Even in this case, Solomon is not depicted as a righteous man.

    1. Thank you for addressing this matter. Father.
      You mentioned the Solomon depicted in Ecclesiastes. Yes, it has been said that it was written in regret. What about the Solomon depicted in Proverbs, The Song, and Wisdom? How are we to reconcile an unrighteous man as the author of these books of the bible?

      1. Well, first, it is unlikely that Solomon himself sat down and wrote anything. None of the texts you mention actually say that that is the case. The Song of Solomon, for example, is really a song about he and his beloved. He’s one of the dramatis personae within it. Likely, its based in traditions that date back to his era, but it was edited into its canonical form much later. Portions of Proverbs are said to have originated with Solomon, but its really a collection of wisdom traditions edited together by someone else. Some of those wisdom traditions go back to Solomon, others go back to other figures mentioned in the text like Agur and Lemuel. Even the proverbs ascribes to Solomon are identified as coming from different collections compiled by different scribes. Some are just attributed to ‘the wise’. Those last, in chapters 22-24 are especially important because they are actually lifted from an ancient Egyptian text called ‘The Instruction of Amenope’. That text is centuries older than Proverbs, and there are still existing manuscripts of the text from Solomon’s time. This is important because, the fact that someone’s words appear in the text of scripture does not constitute an endorsement of that text as a whole or its author. St. Paul quotes a hymn to Zeus in Acts 17. At other points he appears to quote stoic philosophers. This is not an endorsement, but something true in culture that St. Paul is adapting to his own purposes in the same way that clergy today, for example might reference a work of literature or a film in a sermon or writing in order to make a point. This is true of Solomon as well. The scriptures are clear about his character as a person. But that doesn’t mean that he never said anything wise or true. It also doesn’t mean that he is in hell. If anything, Ecclesiastes extends the hope that in his final days he may have found repentance. The book of Wisdom wasn’t written by Solomon nor does it date from his time. His name became attached to it because all of the Wisdom literature of the OT was referred to as ‘Solomon’ in the same way that all of the Psalms were referred to as ‘David’, even though he didn’t write them all. Wisdom was written in Greek at the beginning of the 1st century AD. The Fathers were aware of this. The earliest canon lists on which Wisdom appears list it as part of the New Testament.

        First Kings/3 Kingdoms, in the original text, is deliberately setting up parallels between Solomon and Adam. As a king, he is the one fallen from grace who loses the kingdom. For example, we are familiar with the story of Solomon’s youth where, at the sanctuary of God, the Word of Yahweh appears to him and says he will give him whatever he asks. We remember this story as him asking for ‘wisdom’ and so he became the wisest person who ever lived. This flies in the face, however, of what happens in the rest of the story where he shows himself to be anything but wise. In actuality, when told he can have anything he wants, Solomon tells Yahweh that he wants ‘the knowledge of good and evil’. And his trajectory is set from there.

    2. I understand Judges does not present Samson as a righteous man, but how do we reconcile this with Hebrews 11.32 “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—” where it talks about their faith. Also, how do we reconcile Jephthah inclusion in this list? He sacrificed his daughter.

      1. You make the important point that Jephthah is also on the list, and there is certainly nothing praiseworthy about his character in Judges. He offered a sacrifice in a place other than Yahweh’s tabernacle and that was the least of his offenses, which included human sacrifice and therefore likely cannibalism. This makes the point emphatically that we have no idea what the author of Hebrews might have said about Jephthah. Its difficult to even imagine. And this applies just as much to Samson. And Gideon and Barak for that matter, neither of whom is a praiseworthy figure in Judges. So the counterargument for any of these figures from their mention in Hebrews amounts to, “One New Testament author might have had something positive to say about them, though we don’t know what…” Not a strong argument.

        1. Thank you for responding, Father. Could you also comment on Judges 11.29 where ‘the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah’. How do we understand this phrase in Scripture? I know it is also used of King Saul, who is presented as an antihero or tragic figure.

          1. Judges 11:29 is an example of a phenomenon usually referred to by scholars as ‘Holy Spirit possession,’ though I’m not a huge fan of that label as it is somewhat misleading. But it describes the phenomenon that we see here with Jephthah, with Samson, with Joshua, and with the artisans charged with constructing the elements of the Tabernacle (Ex 31:1-5). A similar phenomenon happens in the book of Acts, particularly before sermons. This language of the Spirit coming upon someone or filling someone at a particular time is intended to convey the idea that the words or actions about to take place are words or actions directly from God himself. They are his actions or his words and he is using the human person involved as an instrument to perform them. In the case of Biblical figures such as Jephthah, Samson, and Saul it is important that what God accomplishes through these men, in these cases the deliverance of his people from foreign oppressors, from the actions undertaken by those men of their own accord which are often wicked.

  4. “In the person of Jeroboam son of Nebat is condemned every theological system, every form of worship, every set of beliefs which masquerades as Christianity, but proceeds from the will of man rather than that of God.” WOW!

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