One of the best things about the Bible is that the lessons it teaches grow with you. When I was a teenager, I set out to understand Christianity as it is rather than the spiritually ambiguous thing that I had grown up with. The best way I knew how was to read the Bible since that was the holy text of the religion. What I found was not a list of do’s and don’ts but rather the story of the people of Israel. One of my favorite sections outlines the rule of Kings or Israel and what went wrong in their lives.
The one judgement that is repeated most often in the books of the Kings was a line, “but King _____ continued in the sins of his father and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” When I was younger, I did not understand what that meant but merely thought, “this king is a bad dude, I wonder what else he did.” The text would often tell of one or two terrible infractions and then move on to the next king. What I had failed to notice in those statements about the sins of their fathers was that they were all following in the sins of this man called Jeroboam, son of Nebat.
So… what did Jeroboam do that set up generation after generation of Israelites to sin a sin so bad that it led to the ultimate downfall of Israel?
King Jeroboam was the first king of Samaria, the Northern Tribes of Israel. While king, he did many things that would cause Samaria to fall out of favor with the Lord, including building temples to worship Baal and Asherah. This would probably have been enough to justify God’s punishment of his people, however the Lord often showed a great deal of mercy when dealing with this kind of sin. For example, Judah, the southern two tribes of Israel, was not destroyed until much later even though they too had alters devoted to the pagan gods of the Canaanites.
The sin that led Jeroboam’s people into destruction had to do with something he did at the start of his reign. In order to prevent Israel from worshiping the Lord YHWH in Jerusalem, he made a pair of golden calves and set them up on two mountains for the people to worship instead. This particular idolatry was more significant than the others because of something that had happened in Israel’s past.
In the days of Moses, the people of Israel were brought to the Lord at Mount Sinai and He appeared to them as a great and terrible fire, consuming the whole mountain. YHWH called Moses up from among the people to establish a covenant between YHWH and this nation but the covenant took a long time to prepare. When the people saw that Moses had left them there in the desert at the base of this burning mountain, they crafted a calf from gold and proclaimed it as their rescuer from Egypt… right there in front of the Lord and his burning mountain. They even set up a feast in the name of YHWH to worship this golden calf as if it was the Lord.
This was so outrageous that the Lord desired to destroy the people right there in front of His mountain. Moses interceded for them and turned back the Lord’s anger. However, as a punishment, Moses ground up the golden calf and made the people drink it causing many to fall ill and others to die.
So, why was God so angry? Why did He get so mad that He desired to destroy them? It’s not because they were worshiping another god, which is a problem in itself… what they were doing was worshiping something other than YHWH and calling it YHWH. They worshiped the calf as though it were YHWH. They attributed all of the actions of the Lord, the ten plagues against Egypt, the cloud and pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, all of it to a mere metal image they had made from their own jewelry. It’s not surprising that the Lord would think to destroy them.
Fast forward again to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. Not only had he set up the calves to worship, but the worship of these calves was to be a substitute for the worship of YHWH, stumbling the people for generations to come. They completely misidentified who their God was and turned from Him. 2 Kings 17 gives a full account of their sin and declares that they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves…”
So what does this have to do with us? We don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but we are not immune to this kind of substitutionary idolatry either. It’s easy to look at ourselves and say that we have done no such thing, yet Christian history is marred time and again with religious copies of the golden calves. By reading our own desires and wills into the words of the Bible, Christians have found ways to justify slavery, sexual abuse, gluttony, debauchery and all forms of hedonism.
One example could be pressuring someone to do something you want because you had a dream “from the Lord” about it. Another, might be divorcing someone because “the Lord wants you to pursue someone else.” On more than one occasion, I’ve declined helping someone in need because I “needed to focus on the Lord right now”.
Some of my friends have left the faith in pursuit of authentic worship of God. I’ve seen whole cults develop under the guise or “truly worshiping God” when in reality the Lord has been substituted with another.
When we do things like this we set stumbling blocks in front of ourselves and our children, keeping us from worshiping the Lord. When we worship other things and call them God, we are in danger of inciting the Lord against us, generation after generation.
The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is our Mountain. When we turn to Him, His fire reveals to us the darkness hidden in our ways. We must examine our hearts and break down the altars we have set up in the wrong places and turn our worship from ourselves and put it back on the Lord lest we find ourselves overcome by our enemies.
Reform takes time and our actions do have costs. Let our cost be what it takes to worship the Lord, not the ruin of our children and our children’s children.