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  • Bible Passages

"I Jeroboam Erected this Altar"

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

by John W. Moore


When I first gazed upon what was discovered at Tel el-Qadi in the spring of 1998 my fellow students and I were in awe of what seemed to be testimony to the historicity and reliability of the biblical text. Located at the base of Mount Hermon in the northern territory of Israel, this historic place is home to some of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Beside the discovery of the well-known Tel-Dan stela of the 9th century B.C which mentions some of the Kings of Israel and the “house of David”, there sits at the northern top of the tel [1] the remains of a large altar, sacred service buildings, and a carefully designed raised platform that has all the marks of a temple like facility.

Sacred Precinct and Altar at Dan

Eerily similar to what existed in Jerusalem during the period of Solomon’s reign and beyond, the size of the altar, which ultimately developed at the site, was enormous. Its size was deduced from a huge well-preserved piece of stone in the shape of a horn that had obviously come from the corner of the now destroyed altar. This sacred precinct, along with the many other cultic items used in worship found at other places on the the tel [2] testify to various religious practices embraced by those who inhabited the lush environment located so near to the headwaters of the Jordan river. But, what were these cultic items doing there, and what could one determine by the discovery of the temenos (or sacred precinct) located near the crest of this ancient city? In 1 Kings 12:25-33 the Bible offers an answer.

Cultic Standing Stones Discovered at Dan

In approximately 931 B.C, after a period of economic hardship and dispute, Jeroboam and the northern tribes seceded from Judah and Benjamin and instituted a new religious holiday and priesthood. The Bible says that Jeroboam established temples on high places, made two calves of gold for worship, and built sacrificial altars at Dan in the north and Bethel to the south. The object of this worship and the sins of Jeroboam became the scorn of every faithful prophet and the measuring stick used to label disobedience to God (c.f. 1 Kings 16:2; 2 Kings 3:3; 17:21-22, etc.). However, were the discoveries made at Tel el-Qadi (mentioned above) the actual sacred implements and buildings identified in 1 Kings 12?


To date, nothing has been discovered with an inscription saying, “I Jeroboam erected this altar.” Seldom did biblical characters leave their signature on a city or structure for posterity to know who built or established it. So, as with many material remains of antiquity, we are left with the question of whether or not there is a strong parallel and verisimilitude between the archaeological record and the Bible. In the case of Tel el-Qadi and the account of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12, I suggest the parallel is extremely strong and that archaeologists have in all probability found remnants of the altar of Jeroboam. Consider the following:


1. Tel el-Qadi is Biblical Dan. The biblical description of Judges 18:7 fits the geographical characteristics belonging to Tel el-Qadi. Likewise, a discovery of a third century Greek votive inscription found near the sacred precinct identifies this place as Dan. [3]


2. A sacred area/platform or temenos at Dan of one half-acre in size was discovered. The lead archaeologist at Tel Dan between 1966-1993, Dr. Avraham Biran, identified three phases of a platform with its earliest phase going back to the time of Jeroboam in the late tenth century B.C.[4]. He also found “the remains of incense burners, a decorated incense stand, the heads of two male figurines, and a bowl decorated with a sign resembling a trident. The bowl contained fragmentary bones of sheep, goats and gazelles which had probably been sacrificed at the sanctuary.”[5]


3. Ample proof exists that the entire area at Tel Dan was an important Israelite cultic center. Evidence of incense offerings, votive offerings involving figurines, and some kind of water purification or libation rituals, and five standing stones at the gate entrance of the city (suggesting that were they probably cultic in nature). [6]

High Place Service Rooms where Sacred Implements were Discovered

4. The location of Dan is an ideal location to attract worshippers. The lush and temperate climate of Dan, along with the large and impressive sacred precinct would no doubt have attracted people far beyond the walls of Dan, which of course was Jeroboam’s intent (1 Kings 12:29-20).


Nevertheless, not all agree and once again we find an archaeologist disagreeing with another fellow archaeologist. Dr. Eran Arie from the University of Haifa says the following: “Since the site had been abandoned during the Iron IIa, Jeroboam I could not have erected a golden calf in the city and this biblical tradition should probably be understood against the background of the early 8th century BCE.” [7] . Arie arrived at his position after years of research and digging at the site, and yet he still disagrees with the respected and celebrated archaeologist Avrahim Biram. While as a casual observer I am inclined to place my confidence in the archaeological conclusions derived by Dr. Biran, but some do not, and are now being influenced by the conclusions and implications of Arie’s position. Take for example an article posted by Paul Davidson who makes some interesting and compelling insights about the use of calf worship in ancient Israel, but who nevertheless quotes from archaeologists who clearly believe that the story of Jeroboam as revealed in I Kings 12 is “anachronistic and propagandistic that we must suspect it of being a complete fabrication”[8]. So, how does a bible-believing Christian answer these kind of attacks on the reliability of scripture?

Jerusalem Givati Excavation where 1st Temple Period Ivory was Discovered

In my 25 years of study, exploring, and learning from archaeologists, I can tell you some things that are important to note before becoming alarmed over the conclusions of the critics (and I must say also, before we likewise proffer information that might be advantageous to our cause).


First, always remember that archaeologists are subject to biases and prejudices of their own, and that they certainly don’t always agree with each other. While the evidence is often indisputable [9], the interpretation of the evidence is often debated. With almost every archaeological site I have visited in Israel, I can generally find at least two archaeologists with dissenting views about something at the site. Second, archaeology has limitations. Most tels are only partially excavated and the evidence is nearly always fragmentary and incomplete. Many artifacts and remains are yet to be discovered. Consider for example the belief that archaeologists had reached bedrock at the Millo (2 Samuel 5:9) in Jerusalem, and that nothing else was to be discovered which might suggest the reality of a Davidic palace as revealed in 2 Samuel 5. The discoveries of Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar, however, changed this when in the early 2000’s she discovered a palatial like structure at the very location where previous archaeologists had said nothing else was to be discovered at the site believing they had dug to bedrock [10]. Third, it must be remembered that the absence of evidence does not prove an assertion. For example, there was once a popular assertion that the Bible’s reference to ivory being used by Jerusalemites during the first temple period (1 Kings 10:18; Amos 3:15, etc.) was a mere embellishment or conflation, simply because none had ever been discovered in Jerusalem. The recent discovery of ivory from the first temple period at the Givati parking lot excavation in Jerusalem has dispelled this false assertion and proven once again the dangers of embracing the “absence of evidence” approach [11]. It must always be remembered that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.


When it comes down to it, we might indeed find ourselves debating the merits of a given artifact or site of antiquity and discuss whether or not it proves some aspect of the Bible’s reliability. But, what to me is exceedingly obvious is that of all the religious books in the world which demands a moral acquiescence of its adherents there is none superior to the Bible. In terms of its moral code, marks of divine inspiration, and historical reliability the Bible stands far and above any book that has ever been composed. We do not have to have an inscription which reads “I Jeroboam have erected this altar,” but we do have to have a reason for what we believe (1 Peter 3:15). There are many, many reasons to believe the Bible, and a careful examination of its pages will demonstrate an unmatched parallel with the facts of history. The discoveries at Tel Dan

Steps leading up to Altar at Dan

reveal such a parallel and whether you believe the existence of the altar discovered at tel Dan is in fact the altar belonging to Jeroboam, is immaterial. What is significant is that there are many other reasons for believing the Bible to be reliable and accurate. The city of Dan has been discovered, an altar is there, and vast amounts of other evidence exists in many other places to help the reader to see that the events recorded in scripture occurred within a real historical context and in real geographical setting. The skeptics have continued to hammer away at the bible with their critical blows in an attempt to break apart and dismantle its message, and yet it continues to stand the test of time. Generations have defended it. Great men and women have lived by it, and many intelligent and reasoned men and women of history have believed it. You can too.

Endnotes [1] An artificial mound with the destruction layers of ancient cities; one on top of the other. [2] Other items discovered include raised standing stones, incense altar, votive libations site, incese shovel, sacrificial bones, [3] Laughlin, John C. H. “The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan,” Biblical Archaeology Review 7, no. 5 (1981): 20–37. [4] Biran, Avraham. Biblical Dan. Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem 1994. 159-234. [5] Laughlin., p. 28. [6] Biran., p. 245. [7] Arie, Eran, “Reconsidering the Iron Age II Strata at Tel Dan: Archaeological and Historical Implications”, Tel Aviv 35: 6–64 (2008). [8] https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2016/04/10behold-your-gods-o-israel-the-golden-calves-of-aaron-and-jeroboam. (Davidson quotes from Thomas Romer and Israel Finkelstein). [9] I say often because at times the provenance of some artifacts are disputed. Ancient artifacts means money and sadly some have become quite proficient in creating forgeries being passed off as legitimate. [10] See The Palace of King David: Excavations at the Summit of the City of David by Eilat Mazar. (Pub: Shoham Academic Research). [11] https://www.timesofisrael.com/were-first-temple-jerusalemites-living-in-lap-of-luxury-rare-ivory-finds-offer-clue/

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