IV. Returning to the Context

In 1 Kings 12:32-33-1 Kings 13:1, the phrase "in front of the altar" appears four times (three times with the verb, "to ascend") in reference to Jeroboam's proximity to the altar and his intention to offer sacrifices upon it. The narrator is certainly drawing readers' attention to the fact that Jeroboam is about to offer the sacrifices at the shrine at Bethel. "Can you believe what he is about to do?" is the sense with which these verses read. "Can you believe how far he has gone?" Perhaps, the repetitions in 1 Kings 13:32-33 serve to build the suspense. "Will Jeroboam actually get away with what he has set out to do?" At least we can say that the postulation of a contrived emphasis upon the altar is confirmed by the fact that the unnamed prophet — who appears seemingly seconds before Jeroboam is about to sacrifice — speaks out "against the altar" and not against Jeroboam. The same phrase that was used for "in front of the altar" is used again here, except now clearly with the sense of 'against' and not 'in front of.' This seems to suggest that whereby Jeroboam was obviously very much in favor of the reform that he had implemented, YHWH was diametrically 'against' it. For by the word of YHWH the man of God cried, "Altar! O Altar! Thus says YHWH, Look! A son will be born to the house of David, Josiah his name, and he will sacrifice the priests of the high places upon you, the ones who are offering sacrifices upon you" (1 Kings 13:2). Though Jeroboam had now installed a new religio-political system for worship, YHWH would some day raise up a king who would bring it to an end. The system was such an affront to YHWH that he addressed it directly and pronounced its termination. Why was YHWH so appalled at Jeroboam's reform that he would have the priests themselves sacrificed upon the altar? The answer lies in the preceding chapter of Kings and in its usage of the above motifs.

Let us return to consider how Solomon had set Jeroboam as the man who was to be over those who were compelled to labor. The mention compulsory labor can be understood as a parallel to the bondage of Egypt. After Solomon had passed away, Rehoboam had become king, saying, "Now my father set a heavy yoke upon you, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions" (1 Kings 12:14). It is not hard to see that, at least with respect to slavery, the Israelites had symbolically found themselves back in Egypt. The narrator does not stop here, however. He continues to capitalize on the Egypt motif in 1 Kings 12:25-31. Here, Jeroboam considers how he might perpetuate the division that had obtained between Israel and "the house of David". He reasoned that if he could somehow prevent the people from worshiping in Jerusalem (i.e., the district of his rival) then he would fare a better chance of maintaining power. In order to accomplish this, Jeroboam, astoundingly, made two calves of gold and proclaimed, "Look! Your God O Israel who brought you up from the land of Egypt!" It should be noted that 1 Kings 12:28 differs with respect to only one word to that of Exodus 32:4. This is clearly an explicit reference to what took place soon after the Israelites' departure from Egypt. The exclamation was so important in the context of the book of Exodus that YHWH repeats these very words to Moses in Exodus 32:8. In that narrative, the Levites are called upon to slay about three thousand people; moreover, YHWH afflicted the people with a plague. The plague had been sent "because they had made the calf that Aaron had made" (Exodus 32:35). Although the precise meaning of this verse remains uncertain, it is clear that the plague was YHWH's response to the calf. By means of Jeroboam's religio-political reforms, then, the Israelites had in a second sense been brought back to Egypt.