One thing that stands out clearly when you visit the nation of Israel is the diversity of the terrain. Not all acres of land in the Holy Land are created equal. For instance, the Mediterranean coastlands are lush and beautiful, while the Judean Desert is desolate and barren. Even though the country is small, it has many different regions.
One of the most striking regions of the country is the far north. While the south is almost completely devoid of water or plant life, the north has raging streams, mountains that receive snowfall, and abundant farm land. The section of Israel that most resembled the land of “milk and honey” to me was this land in the north.
In the past, as I read my Old Testament, I would often skip over the distribution of land to the different tribes of Israel, thinking that they all just got “some land.” After visiting Israel, however, I no longer thought of this land distribution in such a flippant manner. In my opinion, the tribe of Naphtali got much better land than the tribe of Judah. Think of it this way . . . one got Aspen, Colorado, while the other got Death Valley, California.
Though Naphtali got a beautiful and bountiful section of land, they also got some real challenges. Every major invasion of Israel came from the north, so they were the most exposed tribe to enemy attack. Also, it seems that the wealth of the northern tribes (like Dan) made them more susceptible to having a weakened faith in God, and a propensity to follow other gods.
While visiting the ancient city of Dan (in Naphtali), in the far northern reaches of Israel, we saw archaeological evidence of what happened in this province nearly 3000 years ago. The events are described in 1 Kings 12. After the death of Solomon, the nation of Israel broke into two Kingdoms . . . the north and the south. While the Southern Kingdom of Judah maintained their fidelity to God longer, the Northern Kingdom of Israel quickly slide into apostasy. In 1 Kings 12, we see that King Jeroboam wanted to establish a new center of worship OUTSIDE the Temple in Jerusalem. Jeroboam apparently did not want any from his Northern Kingdom to visit Jerusalem (in the Southern Kingdom) for worship. So, Jeroboam built places of worship at Bethel and Dan (inside the Northern Kingdom) and commanded his people to worship at these locations. Listen to what Jeroboam said/did in 1 Kings 12:28-30: “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 set one in Bethel and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.”
Seeing the altar that once held a Golden Calf in Dan, I was reminded of the fickle nature of humanity. As Tim Keller says, “Our hearts are idol factories.” It is way too easy for us to attribute to something worthless the awesome, loving acts of our worthy God. For the nation of Israel to think that the god who brought them out of Egypt was the lifeless statue of a golden calf, is hard for me to fathom.
Though it is easy for us (with the perspective of history) to see the foolishness of bowing before a Golden Calf, we all have the ability to exalt the common and forget the Creator. Naturalism puts Nature on the altar and asks us to bow down before its textbooks . . . forgetting the God who created nature in the process. Humanism puts us on the altar and asks us to bow in pursuit of achievements . . . forgetting whose image we were created in. Materialism puts stuff on the altar and asks us to bow before “newer/bigger/better” . . . forgetting that we enter the world with nothing, and take nothing with us.
As Americans, we live in a land like Dan. A good deal of the world’s information (and entertainment) comes through our land . . . making us susceptible to the Enemy’s attack. Couple that with our affluence and cultural propensity to seek after created things, and we have the makings for our own false golden altars. Let us learn from the negative example of Jeroboam and not build high places where we bow before gods of our own making. Let us instead have One Lord (Jesus Christ) in our life and worship Him with all our heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength.