The Bible’s Supporting Players: Jeroboam

Bible opened up

During the 10th century B.C., Jeroboam became king of Israel, after the secession of the northern kingdom from Judah. By today’s standards, he might be judged a smart ruler with good intentions who yielded to ambition and risky political expediency to retain power.

One might even draw an analogy between Jeroboam, a self-made son of a widow, and Richard Nixon, who lived nearly 3,000 years later. While Nixon will likely be remembered more for the Watergate scandal than for his many positive accomplishments in office, so Jeroboam was to become identified with “the sin” of Israel, even though he began his career with God’s support.

Jeroboam owed his original rise to a high position in life to King Solomon. Richard Nixon owed his, in large measure, to the greatly respected President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But the analogy ends there.

Rebelling and Rioting

Appointed by Solomon as a super-intendent of works in his district, Jeroboam led a rebellion against his king (1 Kings 11). Solomon, who had been influenced by many wives of various faiths, permitted and supported idolatrous worship to take place. Thus, he became unfaithful to Yahweh.

Jeroboam was encouraged to rebel by the Prophet Ahijah, who promised that in the future the sons of Solomon would not govern all the Chosen People. Instead, if Jeroboam would be faithful to Yahweh, as David had been, the Lord would assure him a lasting dynasty. Ahijah tore his cloak into 12 pieces and gave 10 of them to the rebel Jeroboam, foretelling the schism of the tribes.

But the rebellion, despite significant support, was put down by Solomon’s police. Jeroboam had to flee to Egypt. Soon enough, though, events turned in Jeroboam’s favor. When Solomon died in 935 B.C., Rehoboam, the son of an Ammonite mother, succeeded his father, Solomon. The weak-minded new king surrounded himself with young fools his own age.

Heeding their advice, Rehoboam’s tactlessness with the people of the northern tribes provoked a riot that became a revolution. This led to the secession of the north from the south, which remained faithful to the son of the legitimate king. The 10 tribes of the north proclaimed Jeroboam, the rebel and anti-royalist, king.

Beginning of the End

As Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops notes in recounting the event, “History has its ironies.” Jeroboam was in a strong position, save for one very threatening circumstance. The infertile south had little except for Jerusalem and Solomon’s glorious Temple, where the Israelites worshiped during festivals three times a year. Those were big exceptions.

Many of the people in the north were unhappy with the division of the nation. In addition, as Jeroboam reasoned, if they continued to make pilgrimages to Rehoboam’s capital in the south, they would soon return to Rehoboam as their king. This in turn would lead to Jeroboam’s destruction.

Jeroboam, driven by ambition, resorted to political expediency. He had two golden calves made and told his people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28, NRSV).

Furthermore, he appointed his own priests, not from the priestly caste of the Levites. And he designated a local feast to replace the one in Jerusalem. That was the beginning of the end for the king who used a trick of apostasy to secure power. It’s why the Old Testament refers to “the sin of Jeroboam.” His young son died, as prophesied. Jeroboam was defeated in battle and died in ignominy. In addition, about 200 years later, the northern kingdom disappeared after it was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.

Jeroboam probably didn’t intend his golden-calves device to cause a religious schism. The calves were supposed to represent Yahweh, complying with the popular taste for images.

But, as Daniel-Rops notes, “From the very beginning of the northern kingdom, the symptoms of the evils that were to ravage it were apparent. The germs of foreign heresy, of syncretist contamination, Jezebel and her cortege of idols were not far off.”

Jeroboam, to his great loss, evidently believed the end justified the means.

Next Month: Tamar

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