25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And 26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. 27 If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29 And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. (1 Kings 12:25-26)
On our last trip to Israel, in February, 2022, we visited the Tel Dan archaeological site in the Golan Heights, at the far northern tip of Israel. This area is about 80 miles or so from Jerusalem, and sits in the middle of what was the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
We journeyed on rocky, uneven ground from the city gate, about a quarter mile or so uphill. Then we came to a clearing , surrounded by ancient stone walls. In the center of the clearing was an aluminum frame, showing the outline of the altar described in today’s reading.
Talk about history coming alive! There was a plaque at the entrance to the clearing, helping us understand what we were looking at.
So let’s talk about why this matters. Jeroboam made a shrewd move politically. He understood that when the united kingdom split north and south, the tribes that allied with him were still deeply religious Jews. But there was a problem. God’s law mandated several trips each year to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, and Jerusalem was in the Southern kingdom.
What’s the king of a splinter kingdom to do? Build his own altars, of course! Not just one, but two. I guess if you are going to disobey God, you might as well go big. Then, in an eerie echo of the golden calf episode of Exodus, he said to the people, “Behold your gods, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). Then, in a further nose-thumbing to God’s law, he installed his own (presumably non-Levitical) priests, and came up with a feast day which he “devised from his own heart” (v. 33).
All of these were astute, politically expedient decisions. It would help him hang on to his people, rather than risking defections to the Southern Kingdom with every Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles. And Jerusalem really was a long and dangerous journey in the best of times, let alone when there was a civil war going on. So Jeroboam may have actually thought he was protecting his people by creating a safer and more convenient place to worship. And if the people were truly just there for the party, then it wouldn’t matter if Jeroboam made up his own feasts, just as long as the people were able to celebrate something.
Oh, beloved, guard against civil religion! Guard against making decisions based on convenience. There are lots of little compromises that we can make that over time will make our Christian convictions unrecognizable. Everything from voting for a corrupt politician because you believe he or she will fight for your priorities, to neglecting the command to “not give up meeting together” in Hebrews 10:24-25 because it is just easier to stay at home and watch church on YouTube, we can all find ourselves offering sacrifices at the altar of Dan. And we may never notice that, in God’s eyes, this thing becomes a sin (1 Kings 12:30).