According to the biblical book of Kings, Jeroboam I, the first ruler of the newly seceded northern kingdom of Israel, established two sanctuaries to rival the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem: Dan, along his northern border, and Bethel, along his southern border not far from Jerusalem. He commissioned the construction of two golden calves and installed one at each shrine. He also ordained a new priesthood and established a pilgrimage festival on a date of his own choosing. These shrines are portrayed as active places of worship throughout the duration of the northern kingdom (2Kgs 10:29, Amos 4:4, Amos 8:14) and, in the case of Bethel, afterward as well (2Kgs 17:24-28).
In the biblical account, these shrines provoke vehement censure (1Kgs 13:1-14:18), and “the sin(s) of Jeroboam” become paradigmatic for northern apostasy culminating in the fall of the kingdom (1Kgs 14:16, 1Kgs 16:31, 2Kgs 3:3). The narrative in the book of Kings also bears striking similarities to the account of Aaron’s construction of a golden calf in Exodus 32, highlighting the negative portrayal of Jeroboam’s religion. Later reflections preserved in 1Kgs 12:32-33 and in the book of Chronicles, amplify this condemnation.
Underlying the negative depiction of Jeroboam’s cult, however, scholars have found subtle details suggesting that Jeroboam’s cult was traditional and even Yahwistic in nature. His calves, many would argue, may be best understood as familiar Canaanite vehicles for the invisible deity enthroned above them—in this case, Yahweh—comparable to the cherubim in the southern cult of Judah. Jeroboam’s priesthood likely included Levites, as other texts assume (Judg 18:30), and his alternative festival date of the fifteenth day of the eighth month (rather than the seventh month) may have traditional parallels (compare the one-month shift permitted in Num 9:11, echoed in 2Chr 30:2-3, for the Passover) or be related to an older agricultural calendar. His choice of the sites of Dan and Bethel, too, apparently reflected a sensitivity to honor venerable memories of a premonarchic past (in the case of Bethel, see Gen 12:8, Judg 20:26-28; for Dan, see Judg 17-18).
These observations have led some scholars to suggest that the account as we have it in the book of Kings is later polemic (often associated with the so-called Deuteronomistic school) intended to malign Jeroboam—in practice a devout Yahwistic king—and to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the northern cult. Other scholars even argue that the narrative is an imaginative fiction written in the later Iron II, Neo-Babylonian, or Persian periods and so reflects later religious struggles; the writers painted a picture of the origins of the northern cult as syncretistic, if not idolatrous.
Archaeological evidence both complements and complicates our understanding of the historical reality portrayed in the texts. On the one hand, excavations at the site of Tel Dan suggest a high degree of convergence between the finds and the biblical accounts. Excavations there have revealed a large Iron II sacred precinct marked by temple-like architecture, cultic paraphernalia, the remains of what was likely a massive four-horned altar (based on comparative proportions, probably the largest in Israel), and animal-bone concentrations that suggest intensive sacrifice and sacred feasting. Further, many of the reconstructed practices of the Danite worshipers appear to be consistent with prescriptions found in biblical priestly texts. Excavations at the site of Betin (which many identify as ancient Bethel), on the other hand, have not yielded a major sanctuary comparable to that at Dan from this time and show only sparse evidence for activity at the site in the early Iron II and even less in the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. In both cases, however, archaeologists debate the date of certain strata and continue to conduct research at the sites.
Jonathan S. Greer is assistant professor of Old Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, MI, with research interests in the convergence of biblical texts, archaeology, and ancient Near Eastern studies. He is the staff zooarchaeologist for the Tel Dan project and has written several articles and a book (Dinner at Dan, Brill 2013) pertaining to the religion of Jeroboam and the northern kingdom.
a site with religious significance
Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.
A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.
Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.
migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan
A gold cultic statue of a young bull, whose worship the biblical authors condemned. The calf first appears in the time of Moses (Ex 32), but golden calves were also worshipped in Northern Israel during the monarchy.
A written, spoken, or recorded story.
An empire in lower Mesopotamia that dominated the ancient Near East in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. At the height of their power, they controlled all of the ancient Near East, including Egypt. They were defeated by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.
The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.
a journey, usually with religious significance
Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.
a site with religious significance
Literally "mound," a small hill-shaped site containing numerous occupational layers of a town or city built on top of one another over millennia.
Associated with the worship of Yahweh, the god of Israel and Judah.
29But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit—the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan.
4Come to Bethel—and transgress;
to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days;
14Those who swear by Ashimah of Samaria,
and say, “As your god lives, O Dan,”
and, “As the way of Beer-sheba lives”—
they shall fall, and never rise again.
Assyria Resettles Samaria
24The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in p ... View more
A Man of God from Judah
1While Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel2and proclai ... View more
16He will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and which he caused Israel to commit.”
Ahab Marries Jezebel and Worships Baal
31And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel d ... View more
3Nevertheless he clung to the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit; he did not depart from it.
32Jeroboam appointed a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the festival that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar; so he did ... View more
30Then the Danites set up the idol for themselves. Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time t ... View more
11In the second month on the fourteenth day, at twilight, they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
2For the king and his officials and all the assembly in Jerusalem had taken counsel to keep the passover in the second month3(for they could not keep it at its ... View more
8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar ... View more
26Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the Lord; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered bu ... View more
Micah and the Levite
1There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah.2He said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver that were ... View more