Jeroboam I was not from the line of David. He was one of Solomon’s administrators, but through the prophet Ahijah, God compelled him to rebel, promising to give him a dynasty as lasting as David’s—so long as he obeyed God.
“If you do whatever I command you and walk in obedience to me and do what is right in my eyes by obeying my decrees and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you.” —1 Kings 11:38
His reign was supposed to humble David’s descendents (1 Kings 11:39) by splintering their kingdom, while still letting David’s line keep the city of Jerusalem, where God’s temple stood (2 Samuel 7). But instead of obeying God, Jeroboam led Israel astray into blatant rebellion against him. In fact, Jeroboam is remembered throughout the books of Kings as the one who made Israel sin (2 Kings 17:22). So rather than being blessed, his reign became a blot on Israel’s history, and his family was cursed. Near the end of Jeroboam’s rule, God spoke to him through Ahijah again, but this time, he delivered one of the strongest rebukes in the Bible:
“You have done more evil than all who lived before you.” —1 Kings 14:9
Between 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, there’s a lot we can gather about Jeroboam I. But there’s also some controversy about how he’s portrayed in the Bible. From the standpoint of the scribes who wrote and preserved the books of Kings and Chronicles, Jeroboam abandoned the Torah and set in motion the eventual fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians. But some Bible scholars argue Jeroboam’s contemporaries likely would have seen his indiscretions as a return to tradition.
Here’s what we know about Jeroboam I.
Facts about Jeroboam
Everything we know about Jeroboam comes from 1 Kings 11:26–14:20 and 2 Chronicles 9:29–13:20. The Septuagint contains some additional details (such as the claim that his mother was a prostitute), but scholars question or outright dismiss the reliability of these additions.
He was from the tribe of Ephraim
One of the few background details the Bible gives us about Jeroboam is that he was an Ephraimite. The tribe of Ephraim descended from Joseph’s son by the same name. When Israel split into two kingdoms, Jeroboam established his regal quarters in Shechem, a city in Ephraim’s territory (1 Kings 12:25). Later, the prophets sometimes referred to the entire kingdom as “Ephraim” (Jeremiah 31:9, Hosea 5:3).
He was one of Solomon’s officials
Angered that Solomon chose to follow other gods, Yahweh told him, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates” (1 Kings 11:11).
Jeroboam was this subordinate.
Solomon had laborers build terraces in Jerusalem and fill in a gap in the wall. Jeroboam was among them, and after Solomon “saw how well the young man did his work, he put him in charge of the whole labor force of the tribes of Joseph” (1 Kings 11:28). So the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh would have looked to Jeroboam as a leader and someone who could speak to the king on their behalf.
Jeroboam rebelled against the king
The very first thing the Bible says about Jeroboam is that he “rebelled against the king” (1 Kings 11:26), but the details of that initial act of rebellion are a little fuzzy. The narrative introduces Jeroboam after describing how two men (Haddad and Rezon) actively fought against Solomon, but then it explains how Jeroboam became one of Solomon’s officials and describes a prophecy which likely incited his rebellion.
As Jeroboam left Jerusalem to return home, he met the prophet Ahijah. Ahijah tore his own cloak into 12 pieces to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, and told Jeroboam to take 10 of the pieces, signifying that he would rule over 10 of the tribes. Through Ahijah, the Lord said:
“I will do this because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites, and have not walked in obedience to me, nor done what is right in my eyes, nor kept my decrees and laws as David, Solomon’s father, did.” —1 Kings 11:33
It’s unclear if this prophetic encounter triggered Jeroboam’s rebellion or if Solomon simply caught wind of it, but immediately after this prophecy, Solomon attempted to kill Jeroboam, and Jeroboam fled to Egypt (1 Kings 11:40).
The northern tribes declared Jeroboam their king
When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became king, and Jeroboam went with representatives of the northern tribes to ask Rehoboam to lighten the load of their labor, claiming Solomon had placed a heavy yoke on them. Ignoring his advisors and heeding the advice of his peers, Rehoboam doubled down, declaring:
“My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” —1 Kings 12:14
When Rehoboam sent someone to enforce this new, heavier burden, the Israelites stoned him to death. Fed up with the power-tripping kings from David’s line, the northern tribes declared Jeroboam their king, leaving Rehoboam to rule the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
As the new king, Jeroboam had some problems threatening his ability to rule: God made him king in order to draw the Israelites back to himself, but God’s dwelling place was in Jerusalem, and the Israelites were accustomed to offering sacrifices there. Israel’s identity and faith was tied to a city which was no longer part of their nation.
So he made some changes.
Jeroboam established a new capital
Being from the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam naturally sought to rule his kingdom from there. He fortified the city of Tirzah in Shechem and lived there, then built up the city of Peniel, which was in the territory belonging to the tribe of Manasseh. Scholars debate whether this meant Jeroboam established two capitals (one on each side of the Jordan River), but Shechem was his primary base of operations.
He promoted idolatry
Jeroboam worried that if the northern Israelites continued making sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, they would turn against him (1 Kings 12:26-27). So after seeking advice, he brought back a familiar form of worship: the good ol’ golden calf. (Because that went so well the first time, right? Exodus 32, anyone?)
To ensure everyone in the northern kingdom had access to a place of worship, Jeroboam made two golden calves, placing one in Bethel (at the south end of his kingdom) and one in Dan (at the north). Bethel was where Jacob once anointed a pillar and made a vow to God (Genesis 31:13), and the Danites had a line of idol-worshipping priests who traced their lineage back to either Moses or Manasseh (Judges 18:30–31). So these places already had deep religious significance to the Israelites.
The passages that discuss Jeroboam’s religious practices are pretty heavily biased, which has led scholars to hold mixed views about their authenticity:
“The account clearly serves the Deuteronomistic historian’s polemical purposes against Jeroboam and the N kingdom. Its anachronistic and propagandistic elements suggest to Hoffmann (1980: 59–73) and Van Seters (1983: 313–14) that the entire account is a late invention without any historical basis. Others maintain that the account reliably reports the essential cultic measures undertaken by Jeroboam, despite the polemical judgments about them (Evans 1983: 120; Zevit 1985: 60–61).” —Carl D. Evans, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
At the very least, it’s obvious that the author of Kings is uh, not a fan of Jeroboam. Which is why when Jeroboam selected a different day to celebrate the Festival of Ingathering, the author said it was on “a month of his own choosing,” when the truth may have been more complicated. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary suggests there was a less arbitrary reason for changing the day of the festival:
“This, again, reflects the pejorative judgment of the writer. Jeroboam’s action is better understood as a reversion to an old agrarian calendar followed in the N which had been altered when a “full-scale synchronization” of divergent calendars was instituted by David or Solomon (Talmon 1958: 56–57). Jeroboam’s choice of date for this festival was thus an integral part of his overall plan to restore traditional practices in the N.”
He appointed his own priests
1 Kings 12:31 and 2 Chronicles 11:13–17 tell us that as part of his plan to reduce dependence on Jerusalem, Jeroboam appointed his own priests, who weren’t Levites. (This would’ve been a big no-no.) Some scholars dispute this assertion as propaganda designed to discredit the Northern Kingdom. Others suggest he would’ve had to appoint his own priests because the Levite priests would’ve remained loyal to Rehoboam, who ruled over Jerusalem, which housed the temple—the central hub of the priesthood.
While there are a range of theories about who Jeroboam would’ve selected for the priesthood based on his intent to return Israel to older traditions, the chronicler claims he “appointed priests for the high places from all sorts of people. Anyone who wanted to become a priest he consecrated for the high places. This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth” (1 Kings 13:33).
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His descendants were wiped out
Jeroboam’s rise to power began with a promise from God. If he obeyed God, he would have a dynasty as enduring as David’s (1 Kings 11:38). But that’s not what happened. While Jeroboam may have seen his choices as a return to ancient Jewish traditions, they were at least in part motivated by his desire to retain power, and they amounted to a deviation from God’s commands.
Speaking to Jeroboam’s wife, the prophet Ahijah relays a sharp rebuke from God:
“I tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, but you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commands and followed me with all his heart, doing only what was right in my eyes. You have done more evil than all who lived before you. You have made for yourself other gods, idols made of metal; you have aroused my anger and turned your back on me.
Because of this, I am going to bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam. I will cut off from Jeroboam every last male in Israel—slave or free. I will burn up the house of Jeroboam as one burns dung, until it is all gone. Dogs will eat those belonging to Jeroboam who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country. The Lord has spoken!’” —1 Kings 14:8-11
The moment his wife set foot in the city of Tirzah (the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel), her son died. Years later, Jeroboam’s son Nadab became king, and Baasha (son of a different man named Ahijah) killed him, claimed the throne, and wiped out Jeroboam’s entire family (1 Kings 15:29).
Jeroboam’s sin led to the Jewish exile
In the same prophecy where Ahijah predicts the fall of Jeroboam’s house, he connects Jeroboam’s sin to the Assyrian exile which would come centuries later:
“The Lord will raise up for himself a king over Israel who will cut off the family of Jeroboam. Even now this is beginning to happen. And the Lord will strike Israel, so that it will be like a reed swaying in the water. He will uproot Israel from this good land that he gave to their ancestors and scatter them beyond the Euphrates River, because they aroused the Lord’s anger by making Asherah poles. And he will give Israel up because of the sins Jeroboam has committed and has caused Israel to commit.” —1 Kings 14:14-16
However, modern scholars believe the author of 1 Kings put words in Ahijah’s mouth. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary argues that:
“The account in its present form, however, has been reworked and expanded by the Deuteronomistic historian, who uses the prophet’s denunciation as the occasion to introduce the notion that because of Jeroboam’s great sins which he ‘led Israel to commit’ Yahweh would bring an end to the nation and scatter its people ‘beyond the Euphrates’ . . . The Deuteronomist’s literary framework, which is placed around the account of each king’s reign, offers a grand redactional scheme by means of which nearly all N kings are charged with the perpetuation of Jeroboam’s sins until all Israel had been seduced from allegiance to Yahweh (Mullen 1987). The end result was that Yahweh sent the nation into exile when it fell to the Assyrians (2 Kgs 17:21–23).”
As the author of 1 Kings compiled the various documents available to them into a cohesive narrative, they examined Israel’s history from a contemporary lens. To the author, Jeroboam wasn’t just yet another king who ignored God’s commandments. His reign was a pivotal moment that set Israel’s trajectory for centuries to come.
Every Jewish king was flawed. Even David sinned. But Jeroboam is the only person who the Bible says did more evil than every person who lived before him (1 Kings 14:9).
God intended to use King Jeroboam to save his people and lead them back to himself. His reign was meant to be a course-correction for the Jewish people. If he obeyed God, he would have a dynasty as enduring as David’s.
But in his effort to bring the Israelites back to God, Jeroboam embraced the wrong traditions and replaced the wrong habits.
There are clearly questions about what we truly know about King Jeroboam. His life was recorded and his story was told by people who loathed him. But while the account in 1 Kings saw tenth century events through a much later perspective, there’s still a lot we can learn from it:
“Even though this account of Jeroboam’s career has been shaped to conform to the later perspectives of its author, most scholars believe that critical investigation of this complex—evidently drawn from archival texts, historical reports, prophetic oracles, and legends, etc.—can yield reliable information about the 10th-century situation.” —The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
The author of Kings portrays Jeroboam as the anti-David. Kings of Judah were constantly compared to David, the gold standard of loyalty to God (1 Kings 11:6; 15:3; 2 Kings 14:3; 16:2; 18:3; 22:2). But kings of the Northern Kingdom were seen as perpetuating “the sin of Jeroboam”—the pinnacle of disobedience.
Jeroboam’s legacy is that he was the one “who caused Israel to sin.” And perhaps more than any other king, Jeroboam’s life demonstrated why God couldn’t trust humans to save humanity.