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Religious Symbols and Political Exploitation: A Biblical reflection

Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Apr 17th 2020

Religious symbols have recently been increasingly appearing in the political arena. Often God is exploited, improperly invoked as testifying for a political party or as a label to promote a party. The subject is certainly topical, but the problem has ancient roots. That is why the Hebrew-Christian scriptures themselves contain antibodies against any instrumentalization of the divine.

If, on the one hand, the Lord is the God of a particular people, Israel, on the other hand, the sacred text is aware that God is “holy” (cf. Exod 15:11; Isa 6:3; Hos 11:9), “set apart,” that is, “distinct” from the world.[1] The Lord says through the prophet: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isa 55:8). This God who is so close to his people that he intervened to free them from the slavery of Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land is also Other than Israel. An eloquent sign of this is the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God that cannot be pronounced.[2]

This prohibition protects God’s otherness, because it is not possible to grasp the mystery of the Lord by calling Him by name.[3] This divine transcendence and equally divine immanence is recalled by the Prophet Isaiah: “Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 12:6). Holy God makes himself present in the history of a particular community, Israel, which he chose from among all the nations of the earth (cf. Deut 14:2).

The ark of the covenant or of the alliance is a sign of this concrete presence of God in the midst of his people in a dynamic that prefigures the incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us (cf. Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). What is Israel’s relationship with the God who walks beside it? Will it be able to respect God’s otherness, or will it try to make this God an idol? What happens when the Lord of hosts is improperly pushed onto the battlefield?

In biblical history the power entrusted to sovereigns gives them great responsibility, because their actions can lead many to death or life. What happens when he who is put in charge of the people uses God for his own gain? In this regard, the case of Jeroboam, King of Israel, is emblematic.

Can the Lord of hosts be brought onto the battlefield?

At the beginning of the First Book of Samuel there is a cycle of stories that see the ark as the protagonist of the narrative (1 Sam 4:1b-7:1). This sacred vessel, which contains the tablets of the Law, was the place of the meeting between the Lord and his servant Moses (cf. Exod 25:10-22; 37:1-9). However, the ark is not only a religious object; in the course of the narrative it shows itself endowed with its own will and life.

In the account of 1 Sam 4, Israel is forced to battle the Philistines and is resoundingly defeated.[4] In the face of this humiliation, the elders of the people do not have time to ask themselves about the causes before identifying a solution that seems all too hasty: “When the people returned to the camp, the elders of Israel asked themselves, ‘Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies’” (1 Sam 4:3).

The initial intuition that it was the Lord who struck Israel through the hand of the Philistines is not given further consideration. The leaders of the people do not consider their disobedience to God as the cause of defeat. There is no awareness of their own sins and responsibilities. But the reader knows that the leadership of Israel is mistaken (cf. 1 Sam 2-3).

The elders do not question the causes that led to defeat, but put in place the easiest and most immediate solution, that is, to force the hand of the Lord, pushing him onto the battlefield.[5] In a certain sense the ark becomes a mere instrument, no longer a sign of the living God’s presence, but a talisman to be used as a definitive weapon against an enemy that appears unbeatable. Yet will forcing the Lord to go to war against the Philistines ensure the people’s longed-for revenge?

Those who come to Shiloh find the ark together with the sons of Eli, priest and judge of Israel (1 Sam 4:18): “So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” (1 Sam 4:4).

It is no coincidence that the ark is connected to Eli’s children here. This element, which connects 1 Sam 4 to what has been narrated in the previous chapters, makes explicit the identity of those who are primarily responsible for the sin that led Israel to defeat. For the children of Eli are corrupt and perverse and have already been rejected by the Lord (1 Sam 2:12-36; 3:11-14). Unfortunately, instead of eradicating evil from Israel, the people choose the more comfortable way, that is to bend the sacred to their own purposes. However, God is not an idol that can be manipulated by people and will not allow himself to be led where the Israelites wish.

In the books of Samuel, for the first time God is called “Lord of hosts,” meaning the armies of Israel or the heavenly hosts.[6] Furthermore, in 1 Sam 4:4 reference is made to the appearance of the ark, which seems to be surmounted by two golden cherubs. The empty space between the two represents the place of God’s presence and the encounter between the Lord and Moses (Exod 25:18-22). However, “the Lord of armies sitting among the cherubim” will prove to be too great a burden for Israel to carry into the midst of the clash with the Philistines.

The narrative continues, revealing to the reader the triumphant reception of the ark on the battlefield: “When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded” (1 Sam 4:5).

The hyperbolic expressions used by the narrator fully describe the strength of a cry that is both a war cry and a cry of joy and exultation,[7] perhaps premature and reckless. Now that God has been forced to take the field, Israel suddenly regains confidence, while for the enemies there seems to be no more hope: “When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, ‘What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?’ When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, ‘Gods have come into the camp!’” (1 Sam 4:6-7a).

The narrative tension grows with the fear of the Philistines at the presence of God in the midst of Israel. The reader enters into the terrified point of view of the enemies of Israel, who call the Israelites “Jews”[8] and identify the presence of God with the generic Elohim, which in this case can be translated by the plural “gods,” in accordance not only with the polytheism of the Ancient Near East, but also with the verses that follow.[9]

The Philistines’ reflection on the new situation that has arisen in the adversaries’ camp continues: “They also said, ‘Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of calamity.[10] Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves[11] to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight!’” (1 Sam 4:7b-9).

The Philistines express their lament before the presence, on the battlefield, of the gods of Israel. They invoke the history of Exodus and the blows suffered by the Egyptians. As Walter Brueggemann recalls: “The Philistines are presented as excellent interpreters of the history and faith of Israel; […] even these uncircumcised strangers can discern the strange power that acts in the life of Israel, an immensely dangerous, strange power.”[12] Yet, unlike in the Book of Exodus, the reader does not see the collapse of Israel’s adversaries here. In fact, all expectations are overturned when the Philistines not only do not break down and do not surrender, but, encouraging each other, they find new energy to react, so as not to end up defeated and subjugated. To the reader’s surprise this time it will not be the enemy of Israel that will be struck, as in Egypt, but the people of the Lord will suffer a crushing defeat: “So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (1 Sam 4:10-11).

The Israelites suffer a heavy reversal. Not only do they experience great loss of life on the battlefield, but the ark, a sign of God’s presence among the people, “is captured.” The theological passive underlines how God himself is the author of all this.[13] The victory of the Philistines is allowed by God because of the sins of Israel. Eli’s corrupt sons lose their lives in battle, and thus the prophecy uttered in 1 Sam 2:34 is fulfilled. The Lord, therefore, cannot be reduced to an idol made by man for profit and benefit (cf. Isa 44:10). The living God is free and shows his lordship by distancing himself from the ranks of Israel, escaping from the grip of the people who want to exploit him and bend him to their own ends and to their own gain.

Jeroboam and religion at the service of a state

At a crucial moment in biblical history, Jeroboam appeared, a sovereign whose action is characterized by a strong mixture of religion and politics. The faith of the people is strengthened by the king, and religion becomes a tool to implement a political project. All this will have a cascading effect, influencing Israel’s history in the long term. The “sin” of Jeroboam spans the generations and the various dynasties that will alternate on the throne of the northern kingdom until the Assyrian conquest (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23).[14]

The events that see Jeroboam as protagonist take place during four chapters of the First Book of Kings (1 Kings 11-14). The future king of Israel is introduced into the narrative in a positive light as a valiant warrior (cf. 1 Kings 11:28). He is esteemed by Solomon, who chooses him as superintendent of the forced labor working on Joseph’s house near the city of David (cf. 1 Kings 11:28). Later, Jeroboam seems to be promoted and legitimized as a new king by the intervention of the prophet Ahijah (cf. 1 Kings 11:29-39) and the arrogant and senseless attitude of Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor, who would cause the political rupture between North and South (cf. 1 Kings 12:1-19).

However, the reader’s perception of this sovereign will soon change radically and take on a negative turn. In fact, in a decisive inner monologue the king of Israel will condense his fears and anxieties, which will push him toward a schism between Israel and Judah that is not only political but also religious. The words that Jeroboam addresses to himself shed light on the motivations that lead him to manipulate the religious element to secure power[15]: “Then Jeroboam said to himself, ‘Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David. If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah’” (1 Kings 12:26-27).

The king realizes that he can lose the kingdom and be killed if the people continue to go up to Jerusalem to worship, because in this way Israel will continue to feel bound to Judah. Jeroboam feels himself in danger, therefore he acts in the light of fear and bends religion to his political needs: “So the king took counsel and made two golden calves and said to the people:, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt’” (1 Kings 12:28).

Jeroboam plans to keep the Israelites away from Judah by setting up two golden calves, one in Bethel and the other in Dan. He lies to the people about God, presenting the two calves as the gods who freed Israel from the slavery of Egypt.[16] The biblical narrator gives a clear judgment on the king’s action: “But this became a sin” (1 Kings 12:30).

The manipulation of God for political purposes becomes an idolatry that will involve the whole of Israel, distancing it from the Lord not only in the present, but also in the future. As leader, Jeroboam is gravely responsible for his actions, which will have serious repercussions on many. Moreover, he persists in his work of distorting the faith of the people by building temples on the heights, commissioning a non-Levitic priesthood and establishing a new feast (cf. 1 Kings 12:28-33). In this way he further differentiates the cult from that of Judah: “He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he alone had devised[17]; he appointed a festival for the people of Israel, and he went up to the altar to offer incense” (1 Kings 12:33).

Jeroboam acts as a mediator of the sacred to consolidate his power. He uses the symbols of religion as he pleases, deceiving Israel. In fact, by controlling the religious element, he holds the mass of the people in his hands, tying them to himself rather than to God. From the king’s heart, from his interiority and from his intentions springs evil, which not only he commits, but which he also makes his kingdom commit. The transgression not only concerns the person of Jeroboam, but extends to all Israel, “it becomes a sin,” because the actions of the sovereign guide the people toward evil.[18]

Instead of making his contribution to heal the divisions between the two kingdoms, Jeroboam throws salt on the still open wounds. By acting in this way, he arouses further conflict between Israel and Judah. Through religion and the instrumentalization of God, he places new fences and barriers, which divide the Lord’s people even more deeply. The religious schism isolates the kingdom of Jeroboam and prevents communication between Judah and Israel. Religion thus enslaved fuels conflicts and misunderstandings, and breaks the unity of the people, pushing them toward the catastrophe of exile.


The account of the ark (1 Sam 4:1-11) and that of the religious “reform” of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:26-33) offer an interesting insight into how the Bible warns against any abuse of the sacred. The elders of Israel consider God in a magical way. In fact, they lead the ark to the battlefield, believing that this gesture, savoring of superstition, is enough to guarantee their success. They will discover, however, at great cost that God is not an amulet, but the Living One and the Lord of history.

Jeroboam is a king who does not act for the good of the kingdom of Israel, but is moved by fear and concern about losing his power. This is why he operates irresponsibly, leading all the people toward idolatry through his cultic reform. In an attempt to consolidate his faltering kingdom, religion is thus enslaved to the interests of the sovereign.

These stories present themselves as a warning, for the reader of yesterday and today, not to reduce the mystery of God to a mere idolatrous instrument for one’s own partisan interests. Scripture warns political leaders, elders and kings, not to manipulate the religious element in order to achieve consensus or success. Through the biblical stories the whole believing community is urged not to reduce religion to superstition and magic, but to establish the right relationship with a living God who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 04 art. 2, 0420: 10.32009/22072446.0420.2

[1].    For an in-depth examination of the Semitic root Q-D-SH which is the basis of the word “Holy,” see L. Koehler – W. Baumgartner (eds), The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, II, Leiden – New York – Köln, Brill, 2001, 1072-1075.

[2].    Cf. G. Odasso, “Nome,” in R. Penna – G. Perego – G. Ravasi (eds), Temi teologici della Bibbia, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2010, 898-908.

[3].    The tetragrammaton YHWH is generally translated by the term “Lord” both in ancient (LXX, Vulgate, Peshitta) and in modern versions.

[4].    The Philistines are one of the so-called “peoples of the sea”, who, coming from the Aegean, clashed with Egypt and settled in the land of Canaan between the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. (cf. T. Dothan, “Philistines,” in D. N. Freedman [ed.], The Anchor Bible Dictionary, V, New York, Doubleday, 1992, 326-333).

[5].    On other occasions it is said that the ark travels with the people in the desert (cf. Num 10:35-36), or that its presence is fundamental in battle, as is the case for the conquest of Jericho (cf. Josh 6).

[6] .    The expression occurs for the first time in 1 Sam 1:3. For an exhaustive discussion of the meaning of the expression “Lord of hosts,” see M. Gargiulo, Samuele. Introduzione, traduzione and commento, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2016, 46.

[7] .   Cf. H. Ringgren, “rw‘,” Grande lessico dell’Antico Testamento, VIII, Brescia, Paideia, 2008, 319-323.

[8].    In the Bible the word “Jews” is generally used by foreigners to refer to the people of Israel (cf. M. Gargiulo, Samuele…, op. cit., 76).

[9].    Cf. R. Alter, The David Story. A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1999, 23.

[10] Some translations use the expression “every plague in the desert,” by which they refer to the calamities that God sent upon Egypt. But here it is difficult to consider the plagues of Egypt taking place in the desert. Instead, the expression “every strike” can refer to the dramatic defeat suffered by the Egyptians during the passage through the Red Sea, a defeat that the Book of Exodus places in the desert (cf. Exod 13:18,20; 14:3.11-12)

[11] Reference to the fact that the Israelites were subjected to the Philistines is found in the Book of Judges. The people of Judah, in fact, turn to Samson with a question that presumes Philistine dominance: “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us?” (Judg 15:11).

[12].   W. Brueggemann, I and II Samuele, Turin, Claudiana, 2005, 43.

[13].   Cf. K. Bodner, 1 Samuel. A Narrative Commentary, Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009, 46.

[14].   In offering his own interpretation of the fall of the kingdom of Israel, the biblical narrator makes a direct reference to the sin of Jeroboam: “For when Israel was torn from the house of David and Jeroboam, son of Nebat, proclaimed King, he drove Israel from following the Lord and made it commit a great sin” (2 Kings 17:21).

[15].   Cf. R. D. Nelson, I e II Re, Turin, Claudiana, 2010, 94; J. T. Walsh, 1 Kings, Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1996, 171.

[16].   There is here an explicit reference to Exod 32 and the tale of the golden calf.

[17] The Greek version translates “the month that he had chosen from his heart,” recalling the monologue that Jeroboam had held with himself (cf. 1 Kings 12:26-27). In the Bible the heart is the organ of interiority where discernment and judgement take place (for more on this theme cf. E. Bianchin, “Cuore,” in R. Penna – G. Perego – G. Ravasi (eds), Temi teologici della Bibbia, op. cit., 288-294.

[18].   See J.T. Walsh, 1 Kings…, op. cit., 174.

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