The Politics of Idolatry

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While working my way through 2 Kings recently, I came across a recurring theme, mainly, “the sins of Jeroboam.” Repeatedly throughout 1 and 2 Kings, we find out that the kings of Israel who did evil in the sight of YHWH were often lumped together with the “sins of Jeroboam.” For example, in 2 Kings 3:3, we find out that Joram, though not as evil as his father Ahab (who, we find out, was one of the worst), nevertheless, “clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.”

Or, take the case of King Jehu. Though he was obedient in killing all of Ahab’s family (2 Kings 10:17) and in destroying Baal worship in Israel (2 Kings 10:28), nevertheless “he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 10:29). (For some other places where the “sins of Jeroboam” are spoken of, see 1 Kings 16:31; 2 Kings 3:3; 10:29, 31; 13:2, 11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28; and 17:22).

So what is this all about?

First, we need to remember that Jeroboam was the first king of Israel in the divided monarchy. He was a contemporary of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, who was King of Judah. The narrator tells us that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at war continuously (1 Kings 15:6). This alone tells us that Jeroboam was, at the very least, constantly under political pressure.

Second, we need remember what the sin of Jeroboam  actually was. We find the account in 1 Kings 12:25-33 and it is remarkably simple. Jeroboam’s sin was that he set up two golden calves and he told the Israelites, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). (It is sadly ironic that the language used here is exactly the language used by the people when Aaron brought them a golden calf in Exodus 32:4b). After Jeroboam’s reforms, the people of Israel went either to Dan or Bethel to worship one of these golden calves rather than Jerusalem in Judah–where Solomon’s temple of YHWH was and where the people were supposed to worship.

In light of these things, it should be clear that the actions of Jeroboam were not simply religious but overtly political in intention. The setting up of the calves (along with other liturgical reforms such as building shrines, having an alternate festival day, and installing non-Levitical priests – 1 Kings 12:31-33) was not mere religious reform (though that it was). Rather, it was both a political reaction to the heavy-handedness of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:13-14) and a political means of rallying the people of Israel in rebellion against Judah. Indeed, Jeroboam’s reforms pale in religious significance relative to their ultimate political objective. Jeroboam may have been religiously naive, but he was no political fool! Thus, Jeroboam’s action should be characterized as nothing less than an attempt to use religion as a means to a political end.

[Here commentators are somewhat divided on the question of whether Jeroboam was being portrayed as a radical or a conservative. If he was a radical, it was because he was decentralizing worship away from Jerusalem–a kind of rebellion against the tribe of Judah. If he was a conservative, it was because he wasn’t intending for the people to worship anyone but YHWH, but was using the calves only as a pedestal or means to worshipping YHWH. But either way, the narrator of Kings consistently recounts the action as reprehensible–whether it was a politically radical or conservative move alike.]

Clearly, readers are supposed to realize that Jeroboam broke the first and second commandments–and encouraged the people of Israel to do the same. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below (Ex 20:2-4).

The consequence of Jeroboam’s action is that he not only makes a significant religious blunder and misleads the people into explicit idolatry against God’s own command, but in so doing, he leads the people toward forming a new (misguided) political identity. Remember: The people of Israel were constituted, under YHWH, as an elect nation called and led by YHWH. But Jeroboam, in one fell swoop, divides the nation and demotes YHWH into yet but another pair of localized tribal deities in Dan and Bethel, rather than the one LORD God of Israel. YHWH, creator of heaven and earth and deliverer of Israel, now, under Jeroboam’s “religious reforms,” takes a mere place alongside the other Canaanite deities. All in the service of political expediency!

I’m reminded here of the temptations we are constantly faced with in the Canadian political scene. There are at least three (though there are surely many more):

1) We are constantly tempted to isolate religion in such a way that God is worshiped as  a “tribal deity.” These days we don’t call it that, but instead, constantly are told that “religion should be a private affair only.” It may not have been Jeroboam’s intention to privatize Israel’s deity, but the practicality of his decentralization of worship was indeed the “privatization” (as we would call it), or at the very least, “tribalization” of Israel’s religion.

2) We are tempted to use religion as a means of achieving a political end. It is terribly unfortunate when Christian Churches or Christian organizations succumb to the temptation to alter their practices or even their theological convictions in light of political pressures or in the service of an ultimate political end. In this regard, it is not that the Church should have no interest in politics (for religion and politics, though not the same, cannot be extricated), but rather to be constantly aware of how subtly political power or political goals can alter the substance of our theological convictions or even the missional goals of our organizations.

3) We are tempted to blend the religious and the political in a kind of theopolitical amalgam. We need to look no further than the situation the church faced in Nazi Germany when, in an attempt to maintain its status in the society, the church capitulated and created a strange syncretist version of Christianity and National German Socialism. Perhaps in Canada we may even allow secular versions of “tolerance” or “justice” to slowly and imperceptibly mold our theological convictions into an image of the State. In such cases, the work of the Church and the work of secular organizations can eventually look no different from one another. We need prophetic insight and discernment here to be sure.

Whatever Jeroboam’s intention was, and however innocent or radical he may have been, the Kings narrative gives us at least one important lesson. The repeated reminder to Israel of the sin of Jeroboam in the Kings account seems to indicate that a political end is never sufficient reason for religious reform. In other words, beware of making religious and theological compromises simply to accomplish a political objective. For in doing so, we can be sure that we have fallen into a form of political idolatry in which the political goal has taken its place alongside, or over, the true worship of God. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “I am the LORD [YHWH]; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isa 42:8)

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2 thoughts on “The Politics of Idolatry

  1. I really appreciate your article. I find myself needing to remember that this is an issue to consistently bring up in the church. My question though is concerning #3 of your observations. I recognize your prescription for discernment in this area. The line of being in the world but not of the world is significant and an on going question. How do churches be involved in a community yet hold true to their convictions? For example: A large organization in a town wants to help the poor in the community. They put on a supper every thursday night and have a clothes for the poor. The local church desires to be involved in the community but lack in leadership and finances to give. So do they be involved and follow this secular organization’s rules which may include a bit of compromise or not? These are realities hitting small town churches. How can we act? Here is where we come back to your prescription of discernment and prophetic insight. Thanks for your post to provoke thought.

  2. I don’t know that there is a clear answer to your question. This is why it behooves an individual church’s leadership to prayerfully consider each and every involvement. I suppose a question to ask is: Does involvement in this activity necessarily prevent us from carrying out our mission of making disciples? If we say “yes” or “maybe,” then we probably need to give pause. But such a question can’t be answered in advance.

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