Our Roots vs. the Golden Calf

“But you dream Crateros! Your simplicity long ended when you took Persian mistresses and children and you thickened your holdings with plunder and jewels… Because you have fallen in love with all the things in life that destroy men! Do you not see? And you, as well as I, know, that as the years decline, and the memories stale, and all your great victories fade, it will always be remembered, you left your king in Asia!”–Alexander film, 2004. 

“Yerevoam thought to himself, ‘Now the kingdom may well turn to the house of David. If these people still go up to offer sacrifices at the House of the LORD in Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn back to it’s master, king Rehavoam of Judah; they will kill me and go back to the king of Judah.’ So the king took counsel and made two golden calfs. He said to the people, ‘You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. This is your god, oh Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’ He set one up in Bethel and the other in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-29)

We read an interesting story in the book of Kings, that after King Solomon died, and his son Rehav’am came to power, that there was a rebellion against the Davidic kingdom, led by a man by the name of Yerev’am, from the tribe of Ephraim. Though civil war was to follow in later years, at the time, King Rehav’am listened to a prophet who warned him not to attack the ten northern tribes. In the end, the northern and southern kingdom lived side by side for centuries (Sometimes harmonious, sometimes at war and political games) until the north was conquered and wiped out and/or dispersed by the Assyrian empire in the year 732 BCE.

Though I’ve just written an extremely brief sum up of the history of the northern kingdom of Israel, the main question, as always, is what does this have to do with us in the modern times?

To find out, let’s have a look at King Yerev’am’s tactics in the way he consolidated his kingdom. We read that Yerev’am set up two golden calves in his most southern border city Beit El (Located in what is today a Jewish town in what is called the West Bank), and his most northern border city, Dan in the upper Golan Heights. Why? What exactly is the significance of statues of golden calves on both borders, and what is the symbolism of a calf in the first place?

This isn’t the first time we read of the descendants of Israel worshipping a calf. We all know the main story of the worshiping of the calf at Sinai, and there have been other instances lesser known. Yet, why a calf? The answer is interesting.

According to Maimonides in his work Guide to the Perplexed, “You must know that idolaters when worshiping idols do not believe that there is no God beside them; and that no idolater ever did assume that any image made of metal, stone, or wood had created the heavens and the earth, and governs them. Idolatry is founded on the idea that a particular form represents the agent between God and his creatures.” (Guide to the Perplexed Chap. 36)

Historians and archaeologists would agree on some level with Maimonides on this. People in those times used idols for visual symbolism–a “particular form.” Hence again, the question: Why a calf? The answer is that in the ancient Middle East, the calf or ox was a symbol of material prosperity and comfort. There have been depictions of the Canaanite deity Baal actually riding on a calf, because Baal was the storm god who brought rain for agricultural growth. Hence the symbol of Baal with a calf made perfect sense. Rain brings prosperity, growth and comfort.
Thus when we look at what Yerev’am was actually doing, it makes more sense within the historical context. In a kingdom like Northern Israel, with beautiful agriculture and prosperity, it was easy for Yerev’am to seduce the people into this, and for the rest of the time that the northern kingdom endured, idols representing material prosperity and convenience were worshiped instead of G-d.
Yerev’am knew exactly how to keep his people loyal to him: he established shrines of a deity of prosperity on both his northern borders and southern borders. Yet, the shrine that was more important of the two as the one at Beit El–which travelers would no doubt pass through, potentially on their way to Jerusalem– in order to distract them from worshipping G-d at the temple. Tragically, Yerevoam’s plan worked. Throughout the Northern kingdom’s history, he majority of people in the northern kingdom in essence chose prosperity and comfort over G-d. In this way, what was once a great unified kingdom under Solomon became fragmented. From this context it was choosing prosperity and comfort over G-d that created and maintained disunity between the two Israeli kingdoms, and maintained a permanent state of idolatry for the northern kingdom.
While I have so far noted the temptation of comfort and prosperity that Yerevoam offered to the people of the northern kingdom, the underlying implication that I wish to point out is the powerful unifying factor of the Temple Mount. Yerevoam was scared. He had seen first hand under the kingdom of Solomon the power that the Temple Mount had to bring people in together, and to know who they truly were. It was truly an amazing thing, and he knew that if he wanted to maintain his own kingdom, he would have to offer any possible distraction that he could to keep his people loyal to him, and not to turn away to Jerusalem and become united under the kingdom of David’s descendants. Though he succeeded, the lengths that he went to in order to keep his citizens loyal to him–to the point of seducing them to idolatry–shows how how desperate he was, and how powerful the Temple Mount was in maintaining a united Israel. It would seem that every dynasty that arose in the northern kingdom felt the same way. No king in northern Israel ever fully did “teshuvah” and turned to worshiping G-d. If they did, they would have had to travel to Jerusalem and pray at the Temple Mount. And this would have caused their subjects to question the legitimacy of the northern kingdom’s secession from the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem–apparently these northern kings knew it, and it would seem that they all passed this information along to their children. Again, the unifying power of the Temple Mount.
While obviously today Am Israel is in no danger of worshiping idols, I do believe that we are in danger of choosing prosperity and comfort over what’s right, and doing what’s right can be extremely difficult, if not dangerous at times. Yet, all too often that is what is asked of us. Indeed, this seems to be a history of ours. So many of our historical failures have been when we have run after “gold and jewels, because we have fallen in love with all the things in life that destroy men!” Indeed, our path to slavery in Egypt was through our reluctance to leave the land of Goshen, because it was the most fertile and rich area in ancient Egypt! Today, we should be most diligent of being careful that we do not find ourselves worshipping a god of convenience over commitment to what is right, no matter the cost of that diligence.
Indeed, we see the ultimate result happening in 732 BCE… One could say that even though Assyria had wiped out the northern kingdom, that even before Assyria ever invaded, that the northern kingdom had lost themselves. Lost who they were, their sense of their true, prophetic, spiritual, G-d-given mission on this earth. Before they died and were wiped out materially, they had already died and been wiped out spiritually.
Today, thank G-d we are getting indications of some peoples being from the lost ten tribes, but it has been 2,700 years of lost identity of our nation due to the choosing of the “gods” of convenience over Jerusalem! How many of us have said “Next year in Jerusalem” at the Passover Seder when have the money to make Aliyah one hundred times over, in this fantastic time in history when we finally have a country again after nearly two thousand years? Can we say that we are we are truly serious about what we believe in? Because for those who have the ability to make aliyah and don’t, that phrase almost sounds like a cheap joke over matza and wine.
Indeed, Aliyah by any means is not an easy thing, but for all my American Jewish friends, I would truly urge you to be courageous and access your inner warrior. Yes, we’ve had hard times. Yes, our people have suffered from a long journey in our historical memory. But courage and commitment to who we are as a nation in our time is not just an optional asset, it is an absolute imperative to survive! (Yes, we are a nation, not just a “religion.”)
If there is nothing else that the history of the loss of the great and powerful Northern Kingdom teaches us, it is this: The path to losing ourselves completely lies in our path to losing our identity. And our identity ultimately lies in Jerusalem.
May we not make the same mistake that the northern kingdom made in choosing ease over this fantastic truth.
About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Israeli Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He lives in Kiryat Arba/Hevron with his wife and daughter.
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