Sacrifice (Zebach) and Jeroboam: Lessons about Unity for the Church

Jeroboam, son of Nebat, was the first monarch of the Northern Kingdom after the national division that took place among the Israelites (1 Kings 12). In the Southern Kingdom, whose capital was Jerusalem, the throne belonged to Rehoboam, son of Solomon. Jeroboam, however, understood that the Israelites’ journey from the north to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the temple would threaten his kingdom. So, soon after securing power, he decided to divert the Israelites from “sacrificing” (zebach in Hebrew) at Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26–31). What does this prohibition from King Jeroboam tell us about the danger of diverting from and the potential of a centralized giving system?

Central Place of Worship

In ancient Israel, the people were asked to sacrifice animals in one single place of worship to be appointed by God. The pagans, however, worshipped in a decentralized way and offered sacrifices in different places, as they saw fit. As a means of preventing idolatry, the Law stipulated that, when the people would enter the Promised Land, they should offer a sacrifice (zebach) only in the place chosen by God (Deuteronomy 12:5, 6, 11; Leviticus 17:1–9). Although there are other words for sacrifices and offerings in the Bible, the term zebach is used frequently to indicate that the sacrifice of worship could only be made in a place appointed by God.

The term zebach applies to various sacrifices, such as thanksgiving, vow, voluntary offering (Leviticus 7:12–16), Passover offering (Exodus 34:25), and sin offering (Numbers 15:24–27), which were offerings and sacrifices suitable for worship. Nevertheless, these offerings would only be accepted if offered at the place indicated by God.

The choice of a single site for the zebach, however, had a broader significance. Being the only authorized place of the zebach as they entered Canaan, it would be a serious offense to offer sacrifices anywhere else (Joshua 22:23–29). Initially, the right place to offer the zebach was Shiloh, and later on, the temple at Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7:13; 1 Kings 3:2; 8:17–19, 44, 48; Isaiah 18:7; Jeremiah 3:17). Therefore, the worship represented by the sacrifice should be centralized.

Other practices were linked to the place chosen for the sacrifice. When the Lord repeated the command of zebach (Deuteronomy 12:11), He emphasized that tithes, offerings, vows, and other offerings were also to be delivered only in the place appointed for zebach, and nowhere else (Deuteronomy. 12:2–11).

This determination was later reaffirmed concerning the temple (2 Chronicles 7:12), the place where the storehouse was located, which was the center for receiving tithes and offerings, and the place where the Levites ministered (Deuteronomy 12:11; 2 Chronicles 31:10–21; Malachi 3:8–10).

Without Levites, there would be no zebach, because the sanctuary service in which the sacrifice was offered was only functional by the work of the Levites (Numbers 18:2–5, 22, 23), who were supported only by the tithe, which, in turn, was to be delivered only where the zebach was offered (Numbers 18:21–24; Deuteronomy 12:11).

Drifting from God’s Instructions

Jeroboam’s order (1 Kings 12:27) stood in opposition to the instruction for an exclusive place for sacrifice, as mentioned in Deuteronomy 12:5, 6, 11. To avoid national reunification, and to fulfill his political project, Jeroboam dared to contradict the prophetic revelation of the zebach law, so he established a competing worship and sacrificial system.

In 1 Kings 12:27, the expression “offer sacrifices” refers to the requirement of divine law not to worship (sacrifice) in different places, as idolaters did (Deuteronomy 12:1–6).

However, in resistance to Jeroboam, those of the people who chose to be faithful “came to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord God of their fathers” (2 Chronicles 11:16).* Their participation evidently included all the acts of worship mentioned above. Therefore, to sacrifice was to worship according to the teachings and requirements of the temple, which inevitably included tithes and offerings, as worship in Israel included a set of centralized and integrated procedures.

By deduction, as Jeroboam prevented the northern tribes from offering the zebach in Jerusalem—the only place indicated by God—he was also diverting the tithes and offerings that should have been delivered there. As the payment of the priests and Levites was centralized and coordinated by the storehouse, the Levites expelled by Jeroboam returned to the temple in Jerusalem because they were faithful and knew that they were registered there to receive their portions (2 Chronicles 11:13–17).

In the biblical account (1 Kings 12:26–28), Jeroboam rejected God’s plan. He decentralized worship, erecting two large shrines, as well as several smaller altars and temples on the mountains, or “high places.”

Implications for Today

Adopting the zebach law implied accepting the legitimacy of the sanctuary as the only place of worship. This included acknowledging the role and ministry that God had designated for His spiritual leaders: “For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Furthermore, it involved bringing tithes and offerings to the storehouse, thus contributing to spiritual and national unity.

Therefore, the law that determined the place of zebach suggests some spiritual lessons for us today:

  1. The importance of theological unity. A single center of worship prevented idolatry. In the place chosen for the zebach, the teachings were based on the Law and the prophets.
  2. This doctrinal unity was guaranteed by the Levites and priests, who were supported by the tithes and offerings to minister in the place appointed for the zebach. Thus, doctrinal unity and faithfulness in tithes and offerings were united in the act of worship in the place chosen by God for the zebach.
  3. Jeroboam’s fear is only justified as one understands that the unity of the people of Israel depended on the system of worship, and transgressing the law of the appointed place for the zebach was the way to dismantle the unified system of worship established by God.
  4. Furthermore, sacrificing in Jerusalem implied national reunification through the regular meetings of worship appointed by God. Jeroboam himself declares that he intended to prevent national reunification by turning the people away from the place appointed for the zebach, as directed by the Law (Deuteronomy 12:6, 11; 1 Kings 12:27).

Therefore, preventing sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem had far-reaching implications for the apostasy and continuation of the rift between the northern people of Israel and the tribe of Judah.

The biblical account of the splitting of the Israelite nation fostered by Jeroboam and followed by his attack on the zebach principle offers valuable lessons for the church today. It indicates the doctrinal importance and organizational system of the church as means of the wider unity of the denomination throughout the world. That unity needs a single, united, committed ministry maintained through the storehouse.

Although worship today does not require a single, fixed place, the spiritual lesson of theological, administrative financial unity brought by the teachings of the place of zebach and the storehouse remains.

The success of the church today, as in Old Testament days, depends on being in every way united administratively, financially, ministerial, doctrinally, and spiritually, as the commandment of a single place for zebach teaches us.

* All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Demóstenes Neves da Silva

Dr. Demóstenes Neves da Silva (Doctor in Psychology, Master in Family and Theology) is a retired professor of Faculdade Adventista da Bahia, Brazil, where he worked as professor and coordinator of the Theology course during 22 of the 35 years of his ministry.