Dialogue: Is the Mass Similar to Jeroboam’s Idolatry?

Dialogue: Is the Mass Similar to Jeroboam’s Idolatry? February 16, 2018
It’s not images per se that God expressly forbids in worship, but graven images (Jeroboam)


Pastor Tim Gallant (Presbyterian), was responding to certain comments of mine in my post, “Reply to Pastor Steve Schlissel’s Reflections on ‘Romanism.'” His words (initially written in the thread, “What Thinkest Thou?” on the Reformed Catholicism blog) will be in blue:

* * * * *

If only the Hebrew prophets could have recognized that the really important thing about Jeroboam’s calves was that he intended Yahweh to be worshipped through them, they clearly would never have objected. No, sorry, Dave, the issue in question is not “seeing into the heart of the worshipper.” I suggest that the parallels of Scripture point to two things: 

(1) Rome, like the northern kingdom, is in many fundamental respects, one people of God with Protestants; and 

(2) Rome’s worship needs serious reformation at a very fundamental level, and sharing in those aspects of worship peculiar to it (and I am thinking specifically of the idolatry issue here) would 
be sinful — just as the children of Judah were not to worship before Jeroboam’s calves.

Of course, I will also add that (1) so does much of modern Protestantism’s worship require some pretty radical reformation, as well; and (2) we all have a long way to go in terms of obeying the ninth commandment. 

Again, you (as so many Protestants do) fundamentally misunderstand the crucial distinctions between Catholic eucharistic adoration and ancient idolatry and Baal-worship. You falsely portray the situation with Jeroboam, not even accurately representing what happened there. As a pastor who knows his Bible, you should know far better than this. As it is, a lowly Catholic has to correct you from the Bible.

Ahijah spoke the word of the Lord concerning Jeroboam’s sin:

1 Kings 14:9 (RSV) . . . you have done evil above all that were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and molten images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.


1 Kings 12:28, 32 So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” . . .

. . . and he offered sacrifices upon the altar; so he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made.

Note: this is not intending “Yahweh to be worshiped through” the graven images, as you claim, but rather (according to God Himself, Who knows all things) “other gods.” Jeroboam himself refers to “gods”: a rank polytheism and idolatry indeed. We know that he sacrificed to these stupid molten images. It couldn’t be more clear than it is. Yet you represent it as his thinking that he was worshiping Yahweh.

Secondly, this is truly idolatry according to the Commandments, since another God is involved. Anti-Catholics may claim that Catholics are worshiping other gods in the Mass, but no documentation whatever can be produced for this spurious charge. It is produced simply because classic Calvinism is unbiblically iconoclastic, which runs blatantly contrary to the Tradition of ancient Catholicism and Nicaea II.

Thirdly, it was our Lord Jesus Himself who held up bread in His hands and said “this is My body” and told His disciples to do the same in memory of Him. If we merely follow His model for worship, how in the world is that “idolatry”, let alone worship of other gods??!! Granted, folks interpret the Eucharist differently, but even Luther held to Real Presence, and Calvin in some sense, too. So how can the adoption of transubstantiation somehow move Catholics into the realm of outright idolatry and “Baal-worship”?

Fourth, if Jesus is “really present” then He ought to be “really worshiped”! If He isn’t “really present,” then He cannot be worshiped as “really present”! This is not rocket science. But some Protestants want to have it both ways: a “real presence” without a “real worship” which is appropriate if our Lord Jesus is really there. It is a ludicrous contention from beginning to end.

Fifth, if any use of any representation whatsoever of God is to be condemned as idolatrous, then Jesus was an idolater, since He said of ostensible bread, “this is my body.” That being absurd, the position collapses in a reductio ad absurdum.

Sixth, all these high places and shrines and altars set up in places other than at the Temple were condemned by God and the Law. So they were in violation of clear divine commandments and will, in addition to being idolatrous already (again, quite different from the celebration of the Eucharist that Jesus commanded as the central act of Christian worship).

The New Bible Dictionary (edited by J. D. Douglas, 1962), in its article on Jeroboam, noted:

They threatened true religion by encouraging a syncretism of Yahweh worship with the fertility cult of Baal and thus drew a prophetic rebuke. (p. 614)

Likewise, in its article on “Idolatry”:

[I]t is a most significant thing that when Israel turned to idolatry it was always necessary to borrow the outward trappings from the pagan environment . . . The golden calves made by Jeroboam (1 Ki 12:28) were well-known Canaanite symbols, and in the same way, whenever the kings of Israel and Judah lapsed into idolatry, it was by means of borrowing and syncretism. (p. 552)

I rest my case. See my similar paper, “Is the Mass Equivalent to OT Golden Calf Worship?” 

Baal worship? 

Well, yes, at least partially, according to the New Bible Dictionary, which is not exactly an organ of Catholic propaganda. Commentators and ancient near east scholars think it is a mixed bag. You don’t accept the reasoning of this reputable Protestant scholarly source, so I will give you another one: The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, revised edition, edited by Allen C. Myers, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987 (from Bibjbelse Encyclopedie, Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1975, edited by W. H. Gispen et al), “Jeroboam,” p. 568:

. . . Jeroboam erected golden calves at Bethel and Dan for Israel’s worship ([1 Ki] 12:26-30); although not meant as idols but as pedestals for Yahweh, the calves were soon enmeshed in a syncretistic blend with Baalism, the symbol of which was the bull (cf. Hos. 8:5-6; 13:2; see GOLDEN CALF).

The “pedestals for Yahweh” theme was also mentioned in the New Bible Dictionary, citing the celebrated biblical archaeologist William F. Albright. Moving over to the other article referenced, we find:

The text [i.e., regarding Aaron and the Golden Calf] does not state whether the intent was to make an image of Yahweh . . . The people proclaimed it to be the god who brought Israel out of Egypt (cf. Neh. 9:18; Ps. 106:19-23) . . .

During the divided monarchy Jeroboam I of Israel (ca. 922-901 B.C.) placed a calf in each of the traditional sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel (1 Kgs. 12:26-33) as part of the plan to legitimize his rule. While he may actually have intended to foster worship of Yahweh, Jeroboam’s actions were denounced as pagan (v. 30; 2 Kgs. 10:29; 17:16; 2 Chr. 13:8 . . . The calf worship mentioned in the mid-eighth century oracles of the prophet Hosea (Hos. 8:5-6; 10:5-6; 13:2) may allude to these or similar abuses or may refer more generally to increased syncretism in Israelite religion. (p. 430)

Albright, in his discussion of the bulls of Jeroboam (referenced above), noted:

So Jeroboam may well have been harking back to early Israelite traditional practice when he made the “golden calves.” It is hardly necessary to point out that it was a dangerous revival, since the taurine associations of Baal, lord of heaven, were too closely bound up with the fertility cult in its more insidious aspects to be safe. The cherubim, being mythical animals, served to enhance the majesty of Yahweh, “who rides on a cherub” (II Sam. 22:11) or “who thrones on the cherubim” (II Kings 19:15, etc.), but the young bulls of Bethel and Dan could only debase His cult. (From the Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd edition, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957, 301)

Thus, ironically, in helping to establish your point that it was indeed Yahweh who was consciously being worshiped through images (albeit those closely associated with pagan and heathen idolatry), it is shown that the notion of images “under” God as a pedestal is orthodox and biblical and not contrary to monotheism, for this was the imagery of the temple and the ark of the covenant (the cherubim in proximity to the invisible one and only God, Who is a Spirit).

Therefore, it is not image per se which is expressly forbidden, but graven images, which is a sub-class and a particular forbidden manifestation. The Golden Calves and bulls were graven images and idols precisely because they were associated with pagan polytheistic and idolatrous belief-systems, even though they may have been regarded as “pedestals” by some or many. The cherubim of the Temple and the ark, on the other hand, were not so associated, and in fact, were commanded by God.

The brilliant biblical scholar F. F. Bruce draws a similar comparison and contrast (I found this after I wrote the above analysis):

. . . golden images of bull-calves were installed, to serve as the visible pedestal for the invisible throne of Yahweh. This . . . represented a dangerous assimilation to Canaanite religious practice (although among the Canaanites a visiblerepresentation of the divinity was supported by the animal).

It may be asked whether there was any difference in principle between the use of bull-calf images to support Yahweh’s invisible presence and the use of cherubs for the same purpose in the holy of holies at Jerusalem. The answer probably is that the cherubs were symbolical beings (representing originally the storm-winds) and their images were therefore not “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” [note: Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8], whereas the bull-calf images were all too closely associated with Canaanite fertility ritual. It appears from the ritual texts of Ugarit that El, the supreme God of the Canaanite pantheon, was on occasion actually hypostatized as a bull (shor), and known as Shor-El.  (Israel and the Nations, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1963; reprinted 1981, 40-41)

So in the act of condemning Jeroboam’s idolatry, we mustn’t go too far and condemn all images. This is neither biblical nor the teaching of historic Christianity (Council of II Nicaea in 787). To condemn all such imagery whatsoever would be to eliminate orthodox, divinely-revealed Temple symbology and worship. That proves too much; therefore, this so-called “Reformed” argument collapses even before we get to illogical and absurdly forced comparisons of any of this to the Catholic Mass.

It equates any image with graven images. The latter are forbidden in the Commandments, not the first. Jeroboam’s imagery and practices were expressly forbidden by God; the Eucharist and the Real Presence were expressly instigated and demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Himself and reiterated in strong terms by the Apostle Paul.

You’re the one not making necessary distinctions. I suggest you re-read the narrative of Kings a lot more closely. Jeroboam’s “sin” is treated in radically different fashion from Baalism. 

Well, sure, there can be differences in degree and nature of sin and disobedience, but that doesn’t affect my overall argument, that I have carefully constructed, using all non-Catholic scholarly sources, as is my usual custom. What you neglect to see, however, is the association with Baalism. All the scholars above believe this, but you do not, for some reason. Why do they mention Baal at all if there is no connection at all here?

Joseph P. Free, in his Archaeology and Bible History (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, revised edition of 1969, 180-181) is inclined to take an even more negative view towards Jeroboam’s idols:

The archaeological discoveries in Egypt, however, show the presence of bovine worship there. The sacred bull was an object of worship in Egypt, its tomb being found at Memphis during the last century. The sacred cow was the symbol of the goddess Hathor. In the light of this evidence, it is more likely that Jeroboam became acquainted with bovine worship when he fled to Egypt while Solomon was yet alive (1 Kings 11:40, 12:2), and upon his return to Palestine introduced the worship of that which he had observed in Egypt. The German Egyptologist, Steindorff, as well as the American Old Testament scholar, George L. Robinson, both reflect what we believe to be the correct view, that is, that Jeroboam was inclined toward setting up bovine worship from what he observed in Egypt.

I am more inclined to agree with Albright’s and Bruce’s and the Bible Dictionaries‘ explanation myself. I find them to be more plausible, knowing what relatively little I do about the subject.

“Elohim” is plural in form, and thus can be translated either “God” or “gods.” Yes, God does treat this as idolatry, because He does not acknowledge that He is worshipped through this. So no surprise that He says that Jeroboam has gone after “other gods.” But Jeroboam’s own statement that these calves have to do with the Elohim who brought Israel up from Egypt makes it very clear that in his mind, he has not changed gods. 

I agree, yet there are associations with pagan polytheism and idolatry that cannot be gotten over.

It is clear that the plural verb is at most dependent upon the fact that he has two calves, not two gods (otherwise, he would have two calves in each place of worship, rather than one); more likely, it is simply due to the plural construction of Elohim, since the plural is also used in Ex 32, and it is clear that Aaron made only one calf. Jeroboam and all his people knew that it was Yahweh who brought Israel out of Egypt, and indeed he himself knew that it was a prophet of Yahweh who promised the kingdom to him. His employment of the calves was explicitly a cultic-political move (see 1 Kg 12.27), not a self-conscious exchange of deities. 

As shown above, I agree in part, but you still have to adequately explain the two passages above that I cited. God Himself stated that Jeroboam made “other gods” (1 Kings 14:9). Why didn’t God simply say something like, “you have made images of Me that I do not allow“? What more is needed? If God reveals in Holy Scripture and directly to the person involved that he has made “other gods,” then isn’t that sufficient? Sure, there are complexities here, but we shouldn’t overlook the basic data that we have.

Furthermore, we are informed that he was “sacrificing to the calves that he had made” (1 Ki 12:32). Why doesn’t the text say, “sacrificing to Yahweh through the images of Yahweh that he had made”?

Furthermore, on your explanation, it is inexplicable why God treats Baalism in a radically different fashion from Jeroboam’s sin. Ahab does “more evil than all before him” – why? because he explicitly adopts another god, Baal. Meanwhile, on your view, Jehu slaughters all the priests of Baal (on Yahweh’s orders) and then self-consciously worships gods other than Yahweh, since he maintains the system of worship of Jeroboam (2 Kg 10.28ff). Frankly, I find that very hard to believe. Your handling of the passages has an initial plausibility but simply will not stand up. 

But I made no such argument. I know you think this reductio follows from my argument, but it does not, necessarily. Sinful practices develop over time and get worse. Jeroboam’s worship was syncretistic, whereas Ahab took it to the next level. So his sin was worse. But that doesn’t get Jeroboam off the hook. Nor does any of this prove that the Mass is an instance of the same sort of idolatry: whether pure and gross, or syncretistic. I’ve backed myself up with scholars (and some of the very best at that). You have simply given your own opinion. It is, I’m sure, based on scholarly interpretations at some point, too, but I don’t know what those might be unless and until you present to me the documentation.

The Jeroboam issue (and likely Aaron’s calf, as well) has to do with the false worship of the true God. In Deut 12.29ff, God says that Israel is not only not to follow the gods of the Canaanites, but they are not to worship Yahweh in the way the Canaanites worship their gods (Dt 12.31). That is the point at issue with Jeroboam, and because it is so, He does not account Jeroboam’s worship as true worship. 

I agree again, but there are other factors to consider (that you neglect), as recounted above.

Yes, He calls them other gods – for much the same reason that Protestants have historically identified Roman Catholic worship as idolatrous. Most of us are well aware that RC self-understanding is not that you conceive yourselves as worshipping other gods. The issue (on Protestant and E.O. division of the commandments) is 2nd commandment, not 1st commandment. 

The issue is also the nature of idolatry, correctly understood, and what is forbidden by God in terms of images (i.e., what is a graven image). I think I have made a bit of a deeper analysis than you have, here.

As for “this is My body,” I’m sure you know that the arguments against your position are much better than you present. 

I’ve dealt with those at length elsewhere. I cannot adequately get into that in this context, as it is ultimately a separate issue.

None of the disciples worshipped the bread. 

Of course not; nor do any Catholics. That is not at issue. We are worshiping our Lord Jesus Christ.

It would have been unthinkable for them to suppose that the substance of Jesus’ body had moved from the Person speaking to them to the bread that He was holding in His hand. No Jew on earth would have misunderstood what He said, and that is why we [have] no biblical record of worship of the elements. 

We do not contend that they could or should have understood everything at that extraordinary moment. But this was merely one of many very difficult things they had to understand — only made possible by the help of the Holy Spirit (including the Resurrection itself, which no one shows any indication of comprehending, until after it happened, despite repeated predictions from Jesus).

As for “worship of the elements” in Scripture (or what we would call eucharistic adoration), there is indeed explicit biblical warrant, from St. Paul:

1 Corinthians 10:16 (RSV) The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (read 10:14-22 for the context)

1 Corinthians 11: 27-30 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (read 11:23-26 for the context)

James Cardinal Gibbons comments on these passages:

Could St. Paul express more clearly his belief in the Real Presence than he has done here? . . . He who receives a Sacrament unworthily shall be guilty of the sin of high treason, and of shedding the blood of his Lord in vain. But how could he be guilty of a crime so enormous if he had taken in the Eucharist only a particle of bread and wine? Would a man be accused of homicide . . . if he were to offer violence to the statue or painting of the governor? Certainly not. In like manner, St. Paul would not . . . declare a man guilty of trampling on the blood of his Savior by drinking in an unworthy manner a little wine in memory of him. (The Faith of Our Fathers, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, revised edition, 1917, 242-243)

Martin Luther explains the Real Presence very well, yet fails to realize that if Jesus is reallypresent, then it follows straightforwardly that He can be really worshiped. It’s not rocket science. If He is truly there, he can be worshiped, just as He was when He walked the earth as a man. And that is all there is to eucharistic adoration. But be that as it may, Luther is brilliant, as far as he is willing to go, regarding this topic:

[T]his word of Luke and Paul is clearer than sunlight and more overpowering than thunder. First, no one can deny that he speaks of the cup, since he says, “This is the cup.” Secondly, he calls it the cup of the new testament. This is overwhelming, for it could not be a new testament by means and on account of wine alone. (Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; Luther’s Works, vol. 40, 217)

He thinks one does not see that out of the word of Christ he makes a pure commandment and law which accomplishes nothing more than to tell and bid us to remember and acknowledge him. Furthermore, he makes this acknowledgment nothing else than a work that we do, while we receive nothing else than bread and wine. (Ibid., LW, vol. 40, 206)

Commenting on 1 Corinthians 10:16. Luther writes, forcefully:

. . . The bread which is broken or distributed piece by piece is the participation in the body of Christ. It is, it is, it is, he says, the participation in the body of Christ. Wherein does the participation in the body of Christ consist? It cannot be anything else than that as each takes a part of the broken bread he takes therewith the body of Christ . . . (Ibid.; LW, 40, 178)

Finally, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, in an explicitly eucharistic passage, uses language suggesting that he sees the Eucharist as a sacrifice involving an altar (hence priesthood, hence the Sacrifice of the Mass): He mentions the “altar” of the Old Covenant in 10:18 and makes a direct analogy with the altar of the New Covenant in 10:21: “You cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

In my opinion, all of this suggests explicit New Testament reference to eucharistic adoration, because that notion cannot be separated from Real (or, Substantial) Presence, which is clearly taught in the New Testament.


(originally 8-7-04)

Photo credit: Jeroboam Offering Sacrifice for the Idol (1752), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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