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Jeroboam's Idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33; 2 Chronicles 11:13-17) January 9

Jeroboam set about securing his kingdom and decided to pursue a diabolical and disastrous strategy. Thinking that the people of Israel might change their minds and be persuaded to return to Rehoboam if they continued assembling for worship at Jerusalem during the feasts, Jeroboam decided the most practical and expedient course of action would be to change the religion in northern Israel and thereby keep the people away from Solomon's temple.

Accordingly, he created two golden calves and placed one in Dan and one in Bethel, meaning House of God. These locations were strategic. Dan was Israel's northernmost city, and thus would attract worshipers from those in the far north. Bethel was in Ephraim, near the southern border of Jeroboam's kingdom and not far from Jerusalem. Being along the main route to Jerusalem, Jeroboam's new worship center would attract those formerly accustomed to going to Jerusalem to worship. Why did Jeroboam choose calves as the primary symbols of his new religion? No doubt this was influenced by the time he had spent in Egypt—where bull worship had long been a prominent feature of Egyptian religion. Variations of this worship, which also incorporated bulls and calves, were also popular in the nations around Israel and Judah.

Jeroboam was a practitioner of syncretism—blending of traditions, beliefs and elements from different religions with God's true religion, which God strictly forbids (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). Some elements, such as priests, worship centers and religious festivals, to some degree imitated the worship system God had established. Yet Jeroboam added his own twists for his own ends and purposes. He palmed off his plans under the guise of making worship easier for Israel. Why have all Israel go to Jerusalem in the far south? Why not make the worship of God easier and establish two worship sites in Israel, making the trip far less cumbersome?

The New King James Version records Jeroboam's proclamation as, "Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!" (1 Kings 12:28). But it could also be translated, "Here is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt," as the Hebrew Elohim can be translated as either "God" or "gods" and the verb in this case fits both plural and singular usage. Notice that in the account where Aaron was prodded into making the golden calf at Mount Sinai, the older King James translates Exodus 32:4 as "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." Yet the New King James renders this as "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" The NKJV translated it this way because there was only one calf at Sinai. So does the existence of two calves in 1 Kings 12 denote two gods? Not necessarily—for in paganism multiple images can represent the same deity. And that is most likely what Jeroboam meant. Just as the golden calf at Mount Sinai was made to represent "the LORD" (Exodus 32:4-5), so the two golden calves of Jeroboam were both made to represent the same God—again, the true God. Yet God saw the worship introduced by Jeroboam as worshiping demons (2 Chronicles 11:15; compare 1 Corinthians 10:20).

Notice some of Jeroboam's other changes. He rejected the Levitical priesthood, replacing it with non-Levites who would attend to and administer the new religion (1 Kings 12:31). He "made priests of the lowest of people" (Green's Literal Translation), those who were willing to make any religious compromise necessary. As a result, we find the added detail in 2 Chronicles 11 of the migration of faithful Levites from Israel to Judah. The stated reason given is their loss of position (verse 14). Nevertheless, the fact that they were thoroughly taught, trained and practiced in the law of God was surely a contributing factor to their devotion to remain true to God's worship system and support the Davidic ruler, Rehoboam.

Jeroboam's new religion, it should be pointed out, was not really all that new. He still worshiped God in name, but with his own changes. Idolatry was sanctioned, acceptable places for worship were changed and a new priesthood—one personally loyal to Jeroboam—was inaugurated. Jeroboam did not rush wholesale into apostasy, the worship of a foreign god. Instead he merely "made things a little easier" for Israel to "worship the God of Abraham." Such gradual change is typically the pattern of apostasy—and we must always be on guard against it. This is not to say that we should never change or grow in understanding as God makes biblical truth clearer to us. We absolutely must. But we must be extremely careful to "prove all things" according to God's Word and "hold fast" what we recognize to be His clearly revealed truth and will (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV).

The Bible makes it clear that Jeroboam bears heavy accountability for deliberately initiating a counterfeit religion and setting such an evil precedent for succeeding kings of Israel. Jeroboam remains infamous long after his death, Scripture repeatedly branding him as one who "made Israel sin" (2 Kings 10:31; 13:6; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24). The Israelite kings Baasha, Zimri, Omri, Ahab and Ahaziah are all said to have "walked in the way of Jeroboam" (1 Kings 15:33-34; 16:19, 26, 31; 22:52). Jehoram "persisted in the sins of Jeroboam" (2 Kings 3:3). Jehu, Jehoash, Jeroboam II and Zechariah "did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam" (2 Kings 10:29; 13:11; 14:23-24; 15;8-9, 18). Jehoahaz "followed the sins of Jeroboam" (2 Kings 13:2). And note this stinging indictment: "Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord, and made them commit a great sin" (2 Kings 17:21).

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