This chapter is a strange one, having much more of the folk mythic feel of Genesis or Judges than much of what we’ve been seeing lately. The main difference is that it’s a funny story (I mean, you know, if you go for wild animal maulings), but makes very little theological sense. Its also a very small story, involving Big Character Jeroboam, but without having any impact on his story arc. This all makes me think that it was likely a folk story local to Bethel, either originally involving Jeroboam or made to include him to situate it historically (and to provide the Deuteronomist with a frame for his propaganda).

The story begins with a prophet from Judah, referred to throughout this chapter as “a man of God.” He comes to Bethel – one of the two sites of Jeroboam’s golden calves – and declares that a Davidic king named Josiah will put an end to all this heresy. The fact that Josiah is named and that the story is recorded of course introduces something of a paradox, so it seems rather obvious that this part of the story, at the very least, was composed during or after Josiah’s reign. Even my New Bible Commentary, which generally rejects any kind of multi-document hypothesis or the idea that the stories might have been written down a very long time after the events they describe, seems unwilling to explicitly support any fudging theory. Still, they do at least list one:

Keil, seeking to get around this problem, suggests that the meaning of the name, ‘he whom Yahweh supports’, was the prophecy, and this was fulfilled afterwards in the name. His argument is less convincing when we apply it to the name Cyrus [the other specific name mentioned in an OT prophecy] (p.338)

As a sign that his prophecy is a true one, the man of God says that the Bethel shrine will shortly be destroyed and its ashes poured out (which I assume is a bad thing because the ashes, having been created through ritual, were sacred and couldn’t just be disposed of so easily).

Jeroboam isn’t much impressed with this party-pooper, he holds out his hand to call for the man of God’s arrest. Suddenly, his hand withers and becomes unusable. The text then tells us that the altar is destroyed, though it doesn’t specify whether Jeroboam, in a panic over his hand, commanded it to be done, or if it was some sort of miracle. The implication is the former.

The shrine destroyed, the ashes poured out, Jeroboam begs the man of God to intercede on his hand’s behalf with God. The man of God does, and the hand is restored. The business concluded, Jeroboam invites the man of God to stay for dinner. The man of God refuses, explaining that he was given specific instructions not to eat or drink on his mission, and not to leave the same way he came.

And so he toddles off into the sunset, going in a different direction.

The Israelite Prophet

Enter the second prophet, this time one of Israel. He hears of what had happened and rushes after the man of God to invite him over for dinner. This motives are never explained – he could be maliciously trying to trick the man of God into breaking his vow, or perhaps the invitation is simply extended to a colleague and fellow prophet. The man of God, of course, refuses, explaining the rules he’s been given by God.

Jeroboam's Sacrifice at Bethel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1656

Jeroboam’s Sacrifice at Bethel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1656

There’s no explanation for the rules, and they sound very much like the “makes no sense, sounds easy to follow, yet you just know he’s going to mess it up” rules that are so prevalent in folk mythology. The specific prohibition of eating and drinking is a fairly familiar one, being how Persephone was trapped part of the year in Hades and a well known rule for anyone journeying into Fairyland.

Once again, the man of God refuses. But then the prophet tells him that he’s received a vision himself – an angel told him that he must feed the man of God. This, the text tells us, was a lie, though again we’re given no reason for the prophet’s actions.

Convinced, the man of God eats and, in the middle of the meal, the prophet receives a true vision and berates the man of God for his disobedience. The man of God is then killed by a lion on his way home, and the prophet finds his uneaten corpse beside the lion and donkey. He buries the man of God, and he asks that he be buried in the same spot when he dies.

The prophet’s actions are baffling. The events during dinner show us that he was a true prophet, and giving the man of God a burial and requesting to be buried in the same place shows some measure of respect. Why, then, would he lie in order to entrap the man of God? And what does this story say about prophets and prophecy?

Jeroboam

At the very end of the chapter, we’re told that Jeroboam rebuilt the altar, so the entire chapter has had no bearing on the story whatsoever. We’re also told that these altars are “sin to the house of Jeroboam” (1 Kgs 13:34), and will eventually lead to its downfall. But what is the sin, really? It’s given as idolatry, but then Solomon should be an idolater for his own depictions of animals and cherubim in the Temple. In fact, it seems quite plausible that the golden calves were not meant to be God (or even representations of him), but rather place for God to sit, just like the cherubim on the ark.

The sin seems be only that Jeroboam allowed (and promoted) worship outside of Jerusalem. The reasoning, then, is not religious, but political. It’s about consolidating power, and Jeroboam’s acceptance of rural / popular faith was a threat to the urban, centralized religion Josiah would later promote.

That this story of God’s displeasure with Jeroboam is a late composition (or a late appropriation of a folk tradition) is evident both in the explicit naming of Josiah, and in the use of the word “Samaria” to refer to Israel (1 Kgs 13:32). This name, according to my study Bible, was not used “until after the kingdom fell in 721 B.C.” (p.436).