“The sins of Jeroboam”: The Religious Responsibility of the Israelite Kings

Without doubt, the emergence of the monarchy in Israel precipitated a dramatic shift in Yahwist religion. Under the Davidic kingship, the previously tribal-based religion was transformed into an increasingly systematized state cult that formed the basis of monarchial legitimization. This process climaxed under Solomon with the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, which served as an exclusive cultic centre located in the heart of the kingdom’s political power base. Ultimately, this change led to the emergence of an “official theology of king and temple propagated by the court officials and priests of the state sanctuary, and second a theology of resistance supported by political and religious opposition groups frequently oriented in Yahweh religion from the time before the state” (Albertz, 105). Despite the probable existence of such resistance groups, the king of Israel, wielding both political and religious authority, was nonetheless without rival within the confines of his own state.  

Throughout the monarchial period, extensive precedent is set for the king’s involvement in cultic matters. In I Samuel 13:8-14, Saul makes a burnt offering to ask the Lord’s favour in battle. Although he is chastised by the prophet Samuel for his rash action, presumably this is because he did not await Samuel’s arrival, not because he made the sacrifice himself, for the narrative later tells of David’s sacrifices, for which no admonition is given (II Sam. 6:13, 17-18). In I Kings 1:9, the self-proclaimed king Adonijah likewise offers sacrifices, and again this act is met with authorial silence. Similarly, both Saul and David are said to have built altars to the Lord, in each instance as a means by which to appease God for a wrong action (I Sam. 14:35; II Sam. 24:18-25). Although such kingly cultic participation has been used as evidence for the Israelite monarch’s role as a religious figurehead (Albertz, 120), this needn’t be the case.

By the post-Exilic period sacrifice had become a task reserved to the sons of Aaron alone, but during the early years of the monarchy, the link between personal piety and institutionalized religion had not yet become inextricable. Indeed, as an excuse for his absence at the king’s table, David instructs Jonathan to say, “David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the clan” (I Sam. 20: 6). In this instance, the clan sacrifice is depicted as a commonplace event, one instance of local worship amongst many.

This is attested to by I Kings 3:2, “The people were sacrificing in the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord.” Even Solomon, prior to his construction of the Temple, conducts sacrifices at the “great high place” in Gideon (I Kings 3:4). It is possible, but improbable, that Aaronite priests officiated at each of these high places. More likely, particularly given the apparent loss of the Book of the Covenant until the reign of Josiah (II Kings 23:8-13), such sacrifices were more often than not conducted without oversight by the official priesthood. David and Saul’s sacrifices, then, need not be indicative of their unique role as cultic functionaries so much as of their participation in widespread and relatively ordinary cultic practices. 

This idea is bolstered by Saul and David’s respective use of a priestly ephod in order to inquire of the Lord. Faced with Philistine encroachment in Gilboa, Saul inquires of the Lord, but receives no answer “either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets” (I Sam. 28: 6). His use of Urim as a means of Yahwist divination is intriguing here, and is not without parallel. Only two chapters later David also consults the Lord through a priestly ephod, though his inquiry is answered (30:7-8). Pertinent for our discussion is not the precise function of this religious object, rather but its use not only by the ruling king of Israel, but also by David, who, albeit anointed as king by Samuel, wielded no more authority, neither religious nor political, than as the mercenary leader of a small contingency of Jewish warriors. How commonplace this use of the priestly ephod was is impossible to establish, but its use was, as the biblical texts indicate, neither reserved to the king, nor, therefore, is it indicative of his religious superiority or role as a religious figure. 

Despite this fact, throughout the monarchial period the kings play a unique role in the introduction of new cultic paradigms or in the reestablishment of older cultic models. Solomon’s construction of the Temple as a cultic centre and his institutionalization of the emerging royal cult is exemplary of the former role (I Kings 6-8). By contrast, Jeroboam’s reinstitution of earlier cultic models in Dan and Bethel, as an attempt to undermine and decentralize the royal cult in favour of his own rule, reflect the latter of these roles (I Kings 12:25-33).

In both instances it is clear that the monarch exerted considerable control over the religious direction of the nation as a whole, utilizing cultic practices in order to solidify their respective power bases. As Albertz notes, “[T]he state cult served directly to legitimize and stabilize kingly rule” (Albertz, 129). Centralized power was contingent, to some degree, upon an equally centralized cult. In the case of ancient Israelite power politics, religion and political power became inseparably intertwined. What is not clear, however, is whether this power over religious institutions is indicative of the king’s role as a religious figure. Indeed, contrary to Wyatt’s proposal that king himself was an object of ritual behaviour who gained some level of metaphysical status through his royal ascent to the throne (Wyatt, 70), there exists no textual indication which suggests the king’s cultic involvement was anything more than an expression of personal piety or a part of a broader political strategy (or, at times, both simultaneously). 

The question then remains as to whether or not the king was perceived or depicted as a religious figure. For this it is helpful to turn an eye towards the apparent use of royal propaganda. Although the reign of Saul was legitimized by his charismatic liberation of Israel from Philistine encroachment, the conquest inspired campaigns undertaken by David could boast no such redemptive impetus. This, Albertz suggests, led to the emergence of court theologians whose duty it was to legitimize the Davidic kingship by way of religious colouring. Using the so-called royal psalms as his basis for court theology, Albertz concludes that the king was indeed depicted in a uniquely religious light (115-16). Thus the king is described as the begotten firstborn son of Yahweh (Ps. 2:7; 89:28; 110:3), sentiment which echoes II Samuel 7:14, in which Yahweh declares in his covenant with David, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.”

The king is further depicted as Yahweh’s hand of righteousness on earth, defending the weak and redeeming the oppressed (Ps. 72:4, 12-14), and it is through him Israel will receive divine blessing (Ps. 72:15). Given this textual evidence from the royal psalms, Albertz notes, “Here [is] a theology invaded with the official religion of Israel, with all the backing of state support, which not only had completely different roots, but also ran quite counter to what constituted Yahweh religion from its beginning” (121).  In his comparison of the Israelite monarchs with those of their surrounding neighbours, Wyatt pushes this conclusion further, suggesting that insofar as the king is referred to as the “son of God,” he was effectively understood to be a god himself. Israel, then, was no different from the Near Eastern nations which surrounded it, deifying its kings as divine beings and, perhaps, even partaking in the cultic worship of dead kings (Wyatt, 72).

Taken at face value, these analyses have validity. Upon closer examination, however, their textual bases are problematic. Indeed, although the monarch in ancient Israel was without doubt religiously legitimized through state-established theology, and actively involved in cultic matters, but he was neither fundamentally conceived as a religious persona nor deified in any way. Starbuck’s discussion on the royal psalms is apt in this regard. The lack of any distinctive literary or theological relationship between the royal psalms suggests that they are, rather than part of a single corpus, autonomous works. Thus, he notes, “[t]he [royal psalms] are psalms whose concern is the institution of Israelite kingship. Their protagonist is an unspecified king; hence he is a typological representation of the ‘office’ of the institution” (Starbuck, 110). The propagandist focus of such psalms, then, is not on a particular royal house, but on the institution of kingship generally. As such, the psalms cannot adequately serve as an indicator of a specific royal ideology, let alone substantiate the notion of Israel’s deification of kings. Indeed, the psalms which do paint a father-son relationship between Yahweh and the king may as easily be hyperbolic metaphor as a remnant of royal ideology or propaganda. As Zevit notes, “nothing in the culture of ancient Israel as known from extant texts and architectural remains indicates that the king had any attributes distinguishing him from his subjects as a human being” (Zevit, 200). Simply, the fact that the king was deified as an object of religious devotion, either in life or after death, cannot be adequately substantiated. 

Where then does this leave us? The fact that the Israelite monarch utilized and manipulated the cult to legitimize his own rule has been established. Likewise, the notion that the king was either deified or looked upon as an object of cultic devotion, as was the case for the rulers of Israel’s neighbors, has been sufficiently discredited. Even so, the apparent conclusion that is afforded us—that the monarch in ancient Israel had no religious role which distinguished him from the common people—remains somewhat unsatisfactory. A further look at the text of I and II Kings, however, may serve to clarify this issue.

The unique pattern of repetition throughout I and II Kings paints a fascinating picture of authorial intent. It is notable that the names of only two of Israel’s kings earn persistent reiteration throughout these books: David the son of Jesse, and Jeroboam the son of Nebat. The former is depicted as the idealized monarch, the righteous servant of God and a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). The latter, however, is portrayed as the archetypal model for the sinful king, his name itself used as a hyperbolic catch-phrase to epitomize the persistent idolatry of Israel’s kings. Indeed, the generic phrase, “he followed in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit, and he did not turn away from them,” is used to delineate the failure of no fewer than a dozen kings of Israel to remove the golden calves, first erected by Jeroboam, from Dan and Bethel. The rhetorical purpose of this repetition is clear: Jeroboam, and those kings who followed in his steps after him, abused the power of the kingly office insofar as they enabled or allowed the continued idolatry of their people. This emphasis is noteworthy as it highlights a particular theological conception of the Israelite monarchy and its religious functions. That is, that kings were responsible to Yahweh for the religious fidelity of the nation, and were to be held accountable for the idolatrous actions of their people. 

This idea becomes more apparent in the contrasting the depictions of idolatry in the time of the Judges with that of the Kings.  Thus, in Judges we are told, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel” (Judg. 3:12). This mantra finds its reiteration, with slight amendments, with shocking consistency throughout the Book of the Judges. Like clockwork, each time the Israelites turn from Yahweh to worship other gods, they are handed over to their surrounding enemies until a new judge arises to destroy their idols and Asherah poles, vanquish their enemies, and restore the collective worship of Yahweh alone. Throughout the narrative of Judges, idolatry is invariably depicted as a corporate sin for which the entire nation is punished. Just as the whole nation is responsible for its rebellion against Yahweh, so too does it receive the sharp end of his wrath. This being the case, it is worth noting that, in his conclusion, the author of Judges directly correlates Israel’s repeated pattern of sin, repentance, and deliverance to its lack of a monarch, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25; cf. 17:6; italics mine). The author’s interpretation is clear: the individual sin for which corporate Israel is held accountable was the direct result of Israel’s lack of a monarch. 

This perspective provides an interesting frame of reference for examining the perceived religious role of the Israelite monarch. In particular, it is notable that the subsequent kings of Israel who failed to remove the golden calves from Dan and Bethel are not merely accused of “walking in the sin of Jeroboam,” but of causing the whole nation of Israel to sin: “he followed in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.” Thus, the corporate sin of Israel has been transcended and replaced by the individual sin of the king who allows and enables his people to engage in idolatry. This is the case not only in rhetorical emphasis. Rather, the preponderance of those kings who are said to have walked in the sins of Jeroboam receive punishment one of two forms: either political attacks against their kingdom, often resulting in the payment of tribute and/or the loss of territory (II Kings 10:31-32; 13:11; 15:18-19, 24-25, 28-29); or, on two occasions, assassination by their successors (II Kings 15:9-10, 13-14). In the case of Ahab, who is proclaimed to have “considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat,” he not only suffers a military defeat, but is killed in the same battle. Furthermore, his wife, Jezebel, who is considered complicit in—if not the perpetrator of—Israel’s rampant idolatry, is thrown from a window and consumed by wild dogs (II Kings 9:33-36). Indeed, for his own sin of erecting the golden calves, Jeroboam’s entire house is eradicated (I Kings 15:29-30). The fact that the kings themselves, rather than the nation as a whole, are punished by Yahweh for Israel’s idolatry is indicative that the author of I and II Kings perceived the monarch as being personally responsible for the religious orientation of the nation as a whole. Idolatry, rather than remaining a corporate and national sin, has become a sin for which the king himself is morally culpable on account of his personal failure to ensure the worship of Yahweh alone.

Indeed, the political successes or failures of Israel, and later Judah, are explicitly attributed to the righteousness or wickedness of the respective ruling king. II Kings 17, in particular, is fascinating in its description of Israel’s descent into Assyrian exile. First we are told that “[Hoshea the son of Elah] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… Against him came Shalmanaser king of Assyria” (17:2-3). While this passage implicitly attributes Assyrian encroachment to Hoshea’s wickedness, verses 7-20 take an interesting turn and uncharacteristically ascribe the exile to Israel’s collective idolatry. However, the author again lets slip his broader rhetorical purpose in verses 21-23: “And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord and made them commit great sin. The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight.” Again, in the spirit of the preceding narrative, the author of Kings ultimately attributes the idolatry and immorality of the Israelites not to the nation as a whole, but to Jeroboam and the succeeding kings who “walked in his sin.” There exists throughout the Books of Kings a consistent theological paradigm of the king as morally responsible for Israel’s religious behaviour. 

In light of this evidence, a new conception of the Israelite monarch’s role as a religious figure is afforded us. Although the king was neither perceived as a fundamentally religious figurehead, nor deified in the typical manner of Near Eastern rulers, he nonetheless exerted considerable religious power over the cultic practices of the nation. Often this power was focused in such a manner as to legitimize his rule, as is particularly seen in the cultic strategies of David, Solomon, and Jeroboam. Yet, as the de facto head of the nation wielding the power to direct the course of the nation’s religious behaviour, either by centralizing Yahwist worship or by enabling idolatry, the king was held personally responsible for the collective behaviour of his people. In this way, he may well be considered a religious authority, albeit without being defined by his religious functions. In sum, the conception of the king as a religious figure was fundamentally tied to his moral responsibility for the religious actions of the nation as a whole.


Bibliography

  • Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion I. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
  • Creach, Jerome F.D. ‘The Mortality of the King in Psalm 89 and Israel’s Postexilic Identity’. In John T. Strong and Steven S. Tuell (eds.), Constituting the Community: Studies in the Polity of Ancient Israel in Honor of S. Dean McBride Jr. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005, 237-49. 
  • Starbuck, Scott R.A. Court Oracles in the Psalms: The So-Called Royal Psalms in their Ancient Near Eastern Context. SBLDS, 172; Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999.
  • Whitelam, Keith W. ‘King and Kingship’. In David Noel Freedman (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1992, iv.40-48.
  • Wyatt, N. ‘Royal Religion in Ancient Judah’. In Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton (eds.), Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. London: T & T Clark International, 2010, 61-81.
  • Zevit, Ziony. ‘Israel’s Royal Cult in the Ancient Near Eastern Kulturkreis’. In Gary Beckman and Theodore J. Lewis (eds.), Text, Artifact, and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion. Brown Judaic Studies, 346; Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2006, 189-200. 

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