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The Sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel

The story of Jeroboam and the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel may tell us more about later religious struggles than about an actual reality.

Tel Dan Gate

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 (2Kgs 10:29, Amos 4:4, Amos 8:14) and, in the case of Bethel, afterward as well (2Kgs 17:24-28).

In the biblical account, these shrines provoke vehement censure (1Kgs 13:1-14:18), and “the sin(s) of Jeroboam” become paradigmatic for northern apostasy culminating in the fall of the kingdom (1Kgs 14:16, 1Kgs 16:31, 2Kgs 3:3). The narrative in the book of Kings also bears striking similarities to the account of Aaron’s construction of a golden calf in Exodus 32, highlighting the negative portrayal of Jeroboam’s religion. Later reflections preserved  in 1Kgs 12:32-33 and in the book of Chronicles, amplify this condemnation.

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 (Judg 18:30), and his alternative festival date of the fifteenth day of the eighth month (rather than the seventh month) may have traditional parallels (compare the one-month shift permitted in Num 9:11, echoed in 2Chr 30:2-3, for the Passover) or be related to an older agricultural calendar. His choice of the sites of Dan and Bethel, too, apparently reflected a sensitivity to honor venerable memories of a premonarchic past (in the case of Bethel, see Gen 12:8, Judg 20:26-28; for Dan, see Judg 17-18).

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.

  • Jonathan S. Greer

    Jonathan S. Greer is assistant professor of Old Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, MI, with research interests in the convergence of biblical texts, archaeology, and ancient Near Eastern studies. He is the staff zooarchaeologist for the Tel Dan project and has written several articles and a book (Dinner at Dan, Brill 2013) pertaining to the religion of Jeroboam and the northern kingdom.