Archaeology, the Bible, and Jeroboam son of Nebat

by Luke Wayne
03/27/2020

While he may not be a household name, Jeroboam son of Nebat is one of the most frequently mentioned figures in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, and his sinful reign as king in Israel had disastrous consequences that ultimately led to the Assyrian exile. Even the division seen in the New Testament between Jews and Samaritans has its origins, in part, in the break between Judah and Israel in the days of Jeroboam. Thus, while an infamous figure, Jeroboam is nevertheless a historically important figure for most of the biblical narrative. It is not surprising, then, that Jeroboam's reign left archeological evidence behind that corroborates essential biblical details.

Jeroboam: A Brief History

To grasp the significance of the archeological evidence, it is important to understand the basic details of the Bible's account. Jeroboam, son of Nebat, was an officer under King Solomon, (1 Kings 11:28). When Solomon, influenced by his pagan wives, set up shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:7-8), God punished him by taking most of the kingdom away from Solomon's sons, (1 Kings 11:11-13). God then sent a prophet to Jeroboam and promised to make him king over the ten northern tribes in Israel, (1 Kings 11:30-35). God promised Jeroboam that if he remained faithful to God and kept God's commands, God would give him a lasting dynasty (1 Kings 11:38). Jeroboam, however, feared the people and did not trust God, and so he immediately turned from God's ways. This brings us to our key text:

"Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. Jeroboam said in his heart, 'Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.' So the king consulted, and made two golden calves, and he said to them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.' He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Now this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one as far as Dan," (1 Kings 12:25-30).

These sins took hold in Israel for generations and ultimately resulted in their punishment by exile into Assyria, (2 Kings 17:21-23). You can read about this in more detail in our article: What are the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat? What is important for our purposes here, however, is to note that Jeroboam's building projects, both urban and cultic, are the kind of things that are likely to leave behind archeological remains. While, at the time of this writing, much work remains to be done at several of the relevant sites, archeology has already made a number of important discoveries that line up with the biblical account.

Building at Shechem

The first of Jeroboam's projects mentioned in 1 Kings is the building up of Shechem. Thus, when we excavate Shechem, we should expect to see visible signs of expansion and fortification of the site during the time just after King Solomon's reign, when Jeroboam comes to power. Of course, to do this, we first have to find Shechem! Once in a while, archeologists might get lucky and find an inscription within the ruins of an ancient city that tells us what the name of that city is. Usually, however, matching the ruins in the ground with the city names we find in historical records takes a lot of work. Fortunately, however, in the case of Shechem, the Bible and other ancient documents give us sufficient details to figure it out.

The book of Joshua places Shechem next to mount Gerizim (Judges 9:6-7). The Samaritan version of the Torah, which contains added sectarian commands regarding worship at Mount Gerizim, likewise describes the mountain as "in front of Shechem," along with a number of other details describing the area.1 A Jewish (or Samaritan?) poet named Theodotus from the second-century B.C. situates Shechem in a "narrow pass" and "between two steep mountains,"2 and Josephus, a  Jewish historian of the first century AD, further clarifies that Shechem was between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.3 The fourth-century AD Christian historian Eusebius narrows our search even further. In his "Onomasticon," a work specifically written to help readers locate and explain biblical places, Eusebius situates Shechem in the vicinity of Neoplolis, a place still known to us today through the later Arabic as the modern "Nablus". Through these and many other such details, modern archeologists agree that the ruins found beneath the mound known today as "Tell Balata" are, in fact, the remains of ancient Shechem.

Once the location is identified, the rest (in this particular case) is fairly straightforward. There is a layer in these ruins that we can confidently date to the time of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, and we clearly see significant urban development at that time. There is plain, physical evidence that Shechem was, indeed, suddenly built up at exactly the time that the Bible says Jeroboam was doing so.4 Thus, the archeology of Shechem corroborates the claims of 1 Kings 12:25.

The Shrine at Dan

Of course, far more foundational to the biblical picture of Jeroboam is the cult of the golden calf that he developed to stifle worship at the temple in Jerusalem. According to Scripture, there were shrines to Jeroboam's calf-idols in Bethel and Dan. Has archeology turned up any evidence to support this central claim? As it turns out, yes!

In this case, our key location is far less of a riddle. The site of the ancient city of Dan has been identified with a strong degree of certainty. This is because an inscription was found at the site that bears the city's name. The inscription also turns out to be relevant for another reason. The writing on this stone, known as the "Zoilos inscription," records a vow made by a man named Zoilos (probably as part of a legal covenant/contract) in which he says: "To the god who is in Dan, Zoilos made a vow." This not only identifies that location as "Dan," but it also testifies to Dan as a cultic site associated with an otherwise unnamed god.

This actually coincides with what we see in Scripture as well. The prophet Amos, foretelling the coming Assyrian exile, explicitly condemns the shrines at both Bethel and Dan, saying of the latter that those "Who say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’" will "fall and not rise again," (Amos 8:14). Thus, the practice of swearing by the calf in Dan simply as "the god in Dan" or "your god, O Dan," without attributing a specific name is exactly what the Bible would lead us to expect. This inscription alone confirms the location and supports the biblical narrative.

That this is the correct location for biblical Dan is further confirmed by the site's geography and character. Biblically, the land where the city sits is called "very good," (Judges 18:9) and is said to be "a place where there is no lack of anything," (Judges 18:10). Josephus also informs us that the city was located at what he calls "the fountains of the lesser Jordan."5 The site archeologists have discovered fits this perfectly. It lies among a series of natural springs that give rise to a tributary of the Jordan river, and this makes the land quite green and fertile, just as the biblical and historical language describes.

So, knowing that we are at the right site, do we find solid evidence of the cult of Jeroboam's calf? Indeed, we do! While the calf itself, being made of gold, did not survive the region's subsequent conquerors, archeologists have found the shrine itself. The platform where the idols would have rested, the site of the altar, the steps that the priest would ascend to make offerings on it, all of these things have survived (and are pictured above at the head of this article). You can travel there and see it for yourself. I have done so! That's how I got the picture! Everything is exactly as the accounts in Scripture would lead us to expect. The archeology simply confirms what the Bible already taught us was true.

Jeroboam by Name?

One last discovery worth noting is a decorative seal that was unearthed in the city of Megiddo. The "Megiddo seal," or "Seal of Shema," has the words inscribed on it, "Belonging to Shema, Minister of Jeroboam." Thus, this seal verifies that Israel did, indeed, have a king named Jeroboam. We should not, however, rush to the conclusion that this was Jeroboam, son of Nebat, with whom we are here most concerned. The Bible tells us of two different kings named Jeroboam, the second one being much later. Due to the writing style, most scholars identify the Megiddo seal with the later "Jeroboam II" (known in scripture as Jeroboam, son of Joash), though a minority of scholars do argue from the stratigraphy of the find and some circumstantial evidence related other nearby seals that the Shema seal is actually much older and does refer to "Jeroboam I," (i.e., Jeroboam, son of Nebat.)6 We need not be dogmatic here. Either way, scholars unanimously agree that the Seal refers to one of the two biblical Jeroboams, and thus provides further support to the overall narrative of the biblical books of Kings.

Conclusion

In its account of the life of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, the Bible reports certain kinds of things which can plausibly leave behind archeological remains (such as the building up of cities or the construction of notable shrines). Matching written records to ruins in the ground is not always an exact science, but in the case of Jeroboam, we have actually found a number of specific places and objects that correspond closely with what the Bible says. We don't need this kind of evidence to believe the Bible. God's word was true long before we dug up the shrine at Dan and, if those ruins should ever erode away, the Bible will still be trustworthy without them. Yet, because the Bible is true, we ought to expect to find physical remains of this sort, and it is no surprise that we so often do!

 

 

  • 1. John Bowman, Samaritan Documents Relating to their History, Religion, and Live (Pickwick Publications, 1977) 24
  • 2. Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, The Keepers: An Introduction to the History and Culture of the Samaritans (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002) 31
  • 3. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, Section 44
  • 4. Edward F. Campbell Jr., "Shechem" in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Volume 4 (Simon & Schuster, 1993) 1345–1354
  • 5. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 8, Chapter 8, Section 4
  • 6. Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004) 133-139