Friday, July 5, 2013

Making Religion Serve Politics (1 Kings 12:25-33)

Before 1095 BC, Yahweh himself served Israel as its king. In that year, however, the people of Israel demanded a human king so that they could be like everyone else. Yahweh told Samuel his prophet to warn the people that a human king would only exploit and enslave them. When they still insisted, Yahweh granted them their wish (see 1 Samuel 8).

Their first king, Saul (1095-1050 BC), did not do well. During the rule of David (1055-1015), however, the people of Israel enjoyed their period of greatest military glory. During the reign of his son Solomon (1015-975), they enjoyed a king with an international reputation for wisdom, economic glory, and the construction of the first and only temple in all Olympia dedicated to Yahweh. For 80 years, then, rejecting Yahweh in favor of a human king seemed like the smarter decision.

But this illusion did not last. Even during Solomon’s last years, conditions within the kingdom worsened due to his increasing foolishness. With Solomon’s death in 975, the kingdom of Israel actually split in two. Only the people of David’s tribe of Judah, along with those of tiny Benjamin, remained loyal to Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The people of the other ten tribes rejected Rehoboam as their king and committed themselves to a former servant of Solomon named Jeroboam. Jeroboam built a new political capital for this new kingdom, still called Israel, in the hill country of the tribe of Ephraim where opposition to Davidic kings was strongest.

But Jeroboam knew he still had a religious problem. With the recent construction of the one temple dedicated to Yahweh in Jerusalem, Jeroboam worried, “If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifice in the house of [Yahweh] at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah” (1 Kings 12:27 New Revised Standard Version, here and following). Jeroboam worried that if his people kept traveling to Jerusalem to express their religious devotion to Yahweh, they might eventually change their political devotion to Rehoboam.

So the king took counsel (12:28a). He decided he would use the religion of his people as a means of attaining his political goals. He decided he would make changes in their religious practices that would strengthen their political loyalty to him.

So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. And this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel and before the other as far as Dan (12:28-30). This happened in the year 975.

First Jeroboam made two calves of gold and placed one in the very southern city of Bethel and the other in the very northern city of Dan. He then identified each golden calf with Yahweh the Liberator. But calves, or rather bulls, were a symbol of Jupiter. What Jeroboam was doing was subtly replacing Yahweh with Jupiter god of politics. As Yahweh would later tell him, “‘[Y]ou have done evil above all those who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and cast images, provoking me to anger, and have thrust me behind your back’” (1 Kings 14:9).

That’s not all he did. He also made houses on high places, and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not Levites…He went up to the altar he had made at Bethel on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in the month that he alone had devised; he appointed a festival for the people of Israel, and he went up to the altar to offer incense (1 Kings 12:31, 33).

The comprehensive sin of Jeroboam was this: he substituted Jupiter for Yahweh, had idols representing Jupiter installed at two national shrines of his own creation, had buildings constructed on high places considered sacred, appointed ministers to worshipers of Jupiter who were not Levites committed to Yahweh, and created religious holidays (holy days) different from those commanded by Yahweh.

This remains an accurate description of conventional Christianity today; that is, a Christianity that is Olympian in spirit and practice.

Without even knowing it, we Christians refer to the god we worship as Jesus but in truth we devote ourselves to the six gods of Olympianity--especially Jupiter god of politics.

Idols as statues, like the golden calves of Jeroboam, are visual representations of gods. But false gods may be visually represented in other ways. The Israelites copied their Olympian neighbors, for example, by using wooden poles to serve as a focal point for the power of Asherah (Venus). In our conventional Christian churches today, national flags serve the same function of representing a god different from Jesus in the space intended for the worship of Jesus. That different god, in truth, is Jupiter.

Jeroboam had buildings constructed on high places. The similar problem with our conventional Christianity, for many centuries, has been the construction of church buildings financed by political rulers. Tax-deductible contributions to the Church are simply another form of this support for the Church by the government. All of this support serves as just another claim by the government on our loyalty.

Jeroboam appointed people as priests, mediators, and ministers who had not been called to be so by Yahweh. This of course is the problem with state-supported seminary education as well as leaving the selection of candidates for ministry to state authorities or those approved by them.

Jeroboam created his own religious holidays (holy days). All nations have what are called “civic” calendars. These, in truth, are very religious Olympian calendars. All nations within Olympia have calendars with state-approved holy days. Holy days honoring Jupiter include Independence Day, days honoring presidents, prime ministers, or kings as well as lesser authorities like mothers and fathers, days set aside for patriots or flags, and even days said to be for thanksgiving but still declared to be so by state authority. Holy days honoring Mars, god of war, include all memorial days glorifying past wars. Even Christmas has become a holy day honoring Bacchus, god of consumption, despite its relationship to the birth of Jesus.

How might we respond to all of this excitement as prophetic witnesses to Jesus Christ? By having no national symbols like flags or photos of political leaders in the places where we gather to pray to Jesus or to study the Bible together.

As churches devoted to the one true god of freedom, truth, love, and vitality, we’ll have to skip applying to the government for tax-exempt status, building funds, or tuition assistance.

When it comes to Olympian holidays like Independence Day, we can still attend picnics. There’s no sin in being a citizen. The problem arises when we combine worship of Jesus with the celebration of such days or organize such a celebration as a church.

So, contrary to Jeroboam, Jesus calls all of us Christians to remember, in good Chalcedonian fashion, that we are subjects of the Kingdom of God as well as citizens of some worldly country and, as such, we are not to deny the one or the other, nor to confuse the two, and to pledge allegiance to Jesus alone.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.