According to the biblical book of Kings, Jeroboam I, the first ruler of the newly seceded northern kingdom of Israel, established two sanctuaries to rival the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem: Dan, along his northern border, and Bethel, along his southern border not far from Jerusalem. He commissioned the construction of two golden calves and installed one at each shrine. He also ordained a new priesthood and established a pilgrimage festival on a date of his own choosing. These shrines are portrayed as active places of worship throughout the duration of the northern kingdom (
In the biblical account, these shrines provoke vehement censure (
Underlying the negative depiction of Jeroboam’s cult, however, scholars have found subtle details suggesting that Jeroboam’s cult was traditional and even Yahwistic in nature. His calves, many would argue, may be best understood as familiar Canaanite vehicles for the invisible deity enthroned above them—in this case, Yahweh—comparable to the cherubim in the southern cult of Judah. Jeroboam’s priesthood likely included Levites, as other texts assume (
These observations have led some scholars to suggest that the account as we have it in the book of Kings is later polemic (often associated with the so-called Deuteronomistic school) intended to malign Jeroboam—in practice a devout Yahwistic king—and to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the northern cult. Other scholars even argue that the narrative is an imaginative fiction written in the later Iron II, Neo-Babylonian, or Persian periods and so reflects later religious struggles; the writers painted a picture of the origins of the northern cult as syncretistic, if not idolatrous.
Archaeological evidence both complements and complicates our understanding of the historical reality portrayed in the texts. On the one hand, excavations at the site of Tel Dan suggest a high degree of convergence between the finds and the biblical accounts. Excavations there have revealed a large Iron II sacred precinct marked by temple-like architecture, cultic paraphernalia, the remains of what was likely a massive four-horned altar (based on comparative proportions, probably the largest in Israel), and animal-bone concentrations that suggest intensive sacrifice and sacred feasting. Further, many of the reconstructed practices of the Danite worshipers appear to be consistent with prescriptions found in biblical priestly texts. Excavations at the site of Betin (which many identify as ancient Bethel), on the other hand, have not yielded a major sanctuary comparable to that at Dan from this time and show only sparse evidence for activity at the site in the early Iron II and even less in the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. In both cases, however, archaeologists debate the date of certain strata and continue to conduct research at the sites.
- Biran, Avraham. Biblical Dan. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society/Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1994.
- Toews, Wesley I. Monarchy and Religious Institution in Israel Under Jeroboam I. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993.
- Gomes, Jules Francis. The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity. BZAW 368. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2006.