Beth El – The Northern Kingdom’s Cultic Center

Part I

I Kings 12:25

Jeroboam is quick to establish his kingdom by attempting to build a capital.  To what extent does he follow David?

What is the problem with choosing a city such as Shechem (Nablus) as a capital?  Compare it with David’s choice of Jerusalem.

I Kings 12:26-27

What threat does Jeroboam perceive from the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem?

In your opinion, what is the likelihood that Jeroboam expressed the idea of the people’s hearts returning ‘to their master Rehoboam king of Judah?’  If they are not Jeroboam’s words, then whose are they?

I Kings 12:28-30

In the wording of v.28 we hear an echo of 2 biblical events that took place in the Israelites formative period in the desert.

Echoing other events is not uncommon in Tanakh, and often functions to give and evaluation of the current event, or as an interpretation of the event that is echoed.  This is probably the earliest form of Midrash.  It is a powerful tool in a society that had a strong tradition of oral transmission.  (Printing books so that they are affordable is a recent invention.  How many of us could afford our own Torah scroll, not to mention copies of the rest of the books of Tanakh, copied by hand?)

In our verse, the first event recalled is Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses (‘did God choose only him?!’)  The words רב לכם (too much for you) which appear here are Korach’s opening argument in Numbers 16:3.

The second event is the golden calf, echoed in the words הנה אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך מארץ מצרים (Here is your God, O Israel, who took you up from the land of Egypt!)  It appears almost verbatim in Exodus 32:4 as the cry to come worship the calf.

What does recalling these stories do for our story here?

Tanakh is full of ironies.  What is the irony in Jeroboam’s taking council, as mentioned in the opening of v.28?

Why are they calves placed in 2 locations (Beth El and Dan)?

Part II

What was the purpose of the calves?

Reading our section, we assume that the calves were intended for worshiping.  However, a strange silence will follow for many years to come, raising the suspicion that their purpose was not cultic.  None of the prophets that follow speak out against the calves, until the 8th century.  Not even a prophet as zealous as Elijah.  So what was their purpose?

The most interesting of the classic commentaries is that of  Isaac Abarbanel (part of which you read in a previous class.)

Abarbanel I Kings 12:29  (1437 Lisbon -1508 Venice.)

The reason why Jeroboam chose to do the calves is not given…. What benefit did he see in adding the calves? …And also I see that it does not say that Jeroboam made an alter before the calves, and not that he bowed and sacrificed to it as the generation of the desert did.

And I did not see that the Man of God that came from Judah to prophesize about the alter [I Kings 13] mentioned the calves at all, and also Ahia the Shilonite when he prophesized to the wife of Jeroboam did not mention them at all [I Kings 14].  And also Elijah was angry because of the Baal that they were worshiping in the days of Ahab, and not because of the calves that existed in his days.

All this should show that the calves were not made for idol worshiping and not to sacrifice and bow to them as they did in the desert.

…Rather, this was their purpose:  Since Jeroboam saw that Solomon made the two pillars [I Kings 7:15-22] and placed them at the temple in memory of David and his son Solomon who built the temple, therefore he thought as well to make a memory and sign of his kingdom.  And since he was from the tribe of Joseph of the sons of Efraim, and Moses said about them “His firstling bull it has splendor…They are the myriads of Efraim… (Deut. 33:17)”, Jeroboam chose to make a calf as a memory of his family that was of the tribe of Joseph.

He placed it in Beth El since he was from the tribe of Efraim [and this was by his tribal territory] and the beginning of its dynasty. And he made it of gold to indicate the eternity of his kingdom and his greatness, as if to say that the symbol of the king of Judah was a copper pillar and the symbol of the king of Israel was golden and the shape of a useful animal – the ox.

And I would think that the calf was in the opening to the house that he made to the shrines of Beth El, just like the pillars were in the entrance to the Temple….

According to Abarbanel, why should we believe that the calves were not intended for worshiping?

Why were they created?

Is his explanation plausible?

I Kings 12:31-33

Why does Jeroboam appoint priests that are not from the tribe of Levi?

As we read through the Tanakh we should ask ourselves what position the tribe of Levi held in society, and exactly who were the Kohanim in the Temple in Jerusalem.  We are well aware of the high socio-economic position the Kohanim held during the Second Temple period, but what were things like during the First Temple period?

What holiday did Jeroboam try to replace?  Why?

Bringing it all together…

Jeroboam was no fool.  He recognized the potential power of the imposing royal temple in Jerusalem that was more compelling than any central shrine before it.  Jeroboam understood the need to replace the stately central shrine in Jerusalem, the one approved by Hashem, with an equally compelling place.  Beth El was a good and logical choice.  It was better than Jerusalem in that it had a tradition of being a holy place.  It would retain its position as the stately shrine for many years, but it would never become the capital.  Would the northern kingdom ever achieve David’s model of intertwining the state and religion in one location?

Part III

For Inquiring Minds…..

This section is intended to give you some background material.  Enjoy it or ignore it J.

Beth El in Bereshit (Genesis)

We meet up with Beth El for the first time in Bereshit (Genesis) 28:10-22.

Jacob is fleeing from Beer Sheva towards Haran – north.  He falls asleep at night and has a dream that involves a ladder, some angels, and a promise from God.

28:16-19:  What conclusions does Jacob draw about the place?

Who names it Beth El (=the house of God/El)?

Is it possible that the place became known as a holy place following Jacob’s experience there?  How would that compare to the status of Jerusalem?

Midrash on that section of Bereshit (2 of them given bellow) comes up with some interesting ideas:

What new location is introduced into the story by the Midrashim?

What is the reason for such a [revised] reading?

To what extent do these Midrashim respond to Jeroboam’s use of Beth El?

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה סט ד”ה (יז) ויירא ויאמר

יז) ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה ר’ אלעזר בשם ר’ יוסי בן זמרא: הסולם הזה עומד בבאר שבע ושיפועו מגיע עד בית המקדש….אמר ר’ יהודה בר’ סימון הסולם הזה עומד במקדש ושיפועו מגיע עד ביתאל.

“He was awestruck and said: How awe-inspiring is this place” R. Elazr in the name of R. Yosse ben Zimra:  This ladder was standing in Be’er Sheva and its incline reaches as far as the Temple…Said R. Yehuda son of R. Simon:  This ladder stands in the Temple and its incline reaches as far as Beth El.

מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור צא ד”ה [ז] [נוסחא אחרת

ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה, אין זה כי אם בית אלהים (בראשית כח יז), מכאן אמרו, כי כל מי שהוא מתפלל בירושלים, כאילו מתפלל לפני כסא הכבוד, ששער השמים הוא שם, ופתח פתוח לשמוע תפלה, שנאמר וזה שער השמים (בראשית כ”ח).

“He was awestruck and said: How awe-inspiring is this place, this is none other than the house of God…”  From here it is said that anyone who prays in Jerusalem, it is as if he prayed in front of the throne of God, as the gate to the heavens is there, and an opening open to hear prayer, as it is said “and this is the gate of heaven.”

Beth El Post Jeroboam (8th century, to be more specific)

Amos 7:12-13  (The book of Amos, the 8th century prophet from Judah that spoke in the Northern Kingdom, is found in Trei-Asar – the 12 minor prophets)

Our section is the lines spoken by Amatziah the Kohen of Beth El to Amos.

What position was Beth El still enjoying in the 8th century?

Where was the loyalty of this priest placed?

For more information about Don Isaac Abarbanel:

Go to Next Class – Ahia: The Role of the Prophet