Saturday of Week 5 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 12:26-32; 13:33-34

Today is our last reading from the First Book of Kings for a while. While Solomon’s former courtier, Jeroboam, ruled over 10 of the tribes of Israel, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, ruled over Judah (including Simeon) which contained Jerusalem and the Temple. For Jeroboam this meant that the people in Jeroboam’s territory might still continue to go to Jerusalem to worship and could be won over to give their allegiance to Rehoboam, who would, in turn, get rid of Jeroboam. Jeroboam did not have confidence in the divine promise given to him through the prophet Ahijah (see yesterday’s Reading and 1 Kgs 11:38) and thus took action that led to his losing God’s blessing on his kingship.

He made two calves and built two shrines, one in Bethel and the other in Dan, to house them. Pagan gods of the Arameans and Canaanites were often represented as standing on calves or bulls as symbols of their strength and fertility. To the people Jeroboam said:

You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

Jeroboam’s intention was not to adopt another god, but to use the symbol of Baal-hadad to represent the Israelites’ invisible God. Such representations were never used; Yahweh could not properly be represented by a human-made image. In doing so, Jeroboam was reducing Yahwism to the level of the surrounding religions. It was very similar to what Aaron did when the people waited impatiently for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai and made the golden calf. Like Aaron, Jeroboam attempted to combine the pagan calf symbol with the worship of the Lord, although he apparently attempted no physical representation of the Lord – no ‘god’ stood on the backs of his bulls (as in the case of the Canaanites).

Bethel and Dan had long been places of worship. Dan was located in the far north of the kingdom near the source of the River Jordan. In the time of the Judges, there was a similar paganised form of worship practised here. Bethel was situated about 20 km (12 miles) north of Jerusalem, close to the border of Ephraim, but within the territory of Benjamin. It held an important place in the history of Israel’s worship of Yahweh. The two sites marked the limits of the new northern kingdom and the clear implication was that it was not necessary to go beyond them to worship the Lord.

“And this thing became a sin” says the writer. This tactic of Jeroboam violated the second part of the First Commandment (the carving of idols for worship) and it inevitably led to the violation of the first part (“You shall not have other gods besides me”). What is worse, although Jeroboam intended the worship of Yahweh (but not in Jerusalem), it opened the way for full pagan practices to come into Israel’s religious rites. This happened especially under King Ahab.

Jeroboam also built temples in high places. When they entered Canaan, the Israelites often followed the Canaanite tradition (and other cultural traditions too) of locating altars on high hills. These were probably former places of worship to Baal. It is clear that the Israelites were forbidden to take over pagan altars and high places and use them for the worship of the Lord. Altars were to be built only at divinely sanctioned sites. It is not clear whether a multiplicity of altars was totally forbidden provided the above conditions were met. It seems, however, that these conditions were not followed even in the time of Solomon, and pagan high places were being used for the worship of the Lord. These practices would lead in time to a falling away from the true worship of Yahweh and involve the mixing of different religious practices, which was strongly condemned.

For all of these innovations, Jeroboam began to provide priests to minister at the shrines. But these priests were from the common people and not from the tribe of Levi which was the Mosaic tradition. It is likely that Levite priests in his kingdom had migrated to Jerusalem (and the Temple), because non-Levites had been promoted as priests for the worship in Dan and Bethel, or because they declined to function at these shrines.

Jeroboam also instituted a feast to correspond to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles for which the people would normally travel to Jerusalem. Now they could celebrate the feast in Bethel. Priests from the shrines in the high places were appointed to officiate at Bethel. Finally, Jeroboam himself offered sacrifices and overstepped his privileges as king by assuming the role of priest.

It is clear that Jeroboam did all of this not out of religious conviction, but simply to protect his throne. His motives were political and not religious. He had to keep his people away from Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. But precisely for that reason and for neglecting clear warnings he was given [not in our readings], Jeroboam incurred the wrath of God and was ultimately destroyed.

The story reminds us of the dangers of abusing religion for other ends. The mutual relationship of church and state is always a complex issue. The end of our commitment to Jesus Christ is to join with him in the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is to bring us closer to God and to each other, to lead us to an ever deeper understanding of what is true and good, which should be a source of justice and peace and unity. But it can so often become, as we well know, a source of terrible divisions, hatred, violence and destruction.

It is also the case that religion when lived on the very highest level can be a source of division and hostility to those who feel threatened by it. Jesus said very provocatively that he had come to bring not peace, but the sword and the division of families. But this is a very different issue from the abuse of religion and we need to distinguish both. As Christians we cannot isolate ourselves from the important concerns of our communities.

Religion is false when it leads to hatred and destruction. Religion is true when it leads to unity and the creation of more good. But in either case, religion will never be free from divisions because all true religion is both a contradiction and a challenge to conventional thinking.

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