05 September 2011

"This is the sign that the Lord has spoken:'The altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.'" (v. 3)


1 Kings 11 tells us that King David's son, King Solomon, failed God so spectacularly towards the end of his reign that God told him that when he died his kingdom would be divided. Only one tribe would be loyal - ten would be given away. (The 12th tribe, the Levites, was set apart to serve in the temple and so had no land to be taken (Deuteronomy 18:1-8)).

Jeroboam was the lucky winner of the ten tribes. He had been in charge of the whole of Solomon's labour force, but after Solomon found out God had promised the ten tribes to him, he'd found it necessary to flee to Egypt. About six years after Solomon's death, Jeroboam used his contacts in the labour force to lead a revolt against Solomon's son, Rehoboam, who was governing harshly. And so the kingdom of Israel was established to the north of the kingdom of the tribe of Judah.

But the people of the north could only go south to Solomon's temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifices - and Jeroboam was concerned that they might at the same time give their loyalty back to Rehoboam. So King Jeroboam set up a rival altar at Bethel. It seemed a good spot - for, after all, it was where God had appeared to Jacob (Genesis 28:10-19): the name means 'house of God'. Being more ancient, wasn't it better than the other house of God in Jerusalem ten miles to the south?

The problem was Jeroboam introduced rival priests (non-Levites) and a rival festival, one month after the one in Jerusalem. And, worst of all, rival gods: two bronze calves (1 Kings 12:25-33). So a messenger came from Judah, where the true house of God was, and where the true God was worshipped with true priests, to put matters straight. The response of Jeroboam to the miracles - the withering and restoration of his hand and the tearing down of the altar - is to repent. He wishes to thank the Lord's messenger with a meal, but the messenger wishes to avoid food which may have been offered to the idols.

To Ponder

In 1 Kings, those who work against God are punished (for example, Jeroboam's hand withers) and those who work with God are blessed (the hand is restored). How much do people still believe this today? Why?

Is it right to have two places of worship in a village? If so, what can be done to stop people thinking they are rivals? If not so, what does this story have to say about which one to keep open?

Bible notes author: The Revd Neil Cockling

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