Bethel, meaning “House of God”, is a place name that frequently appears in the Old Testament. It was first mentioned in the Book of Genesis after God had called Abram. “From [Shechem] he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.” (Genesis 12:8) Unfortunately, the true location of Bethel has been lost.
Some early Christian writers, such as Jerome and Eusebius of Caesarea, described Bethel as a small village, twelve miles north of the city of Jerusalem. Many modern scholars have identified the village Beitin as Bethel, although others suggest the Palestinian city El-Bireh. This is 15 miles north of Jerusalem. Since 1967, Bethel has been associated with Beit El, an Israeli settlement adjacent to Beitin.
Bethel, wherever it may be, appears in twelve books of the Old Testament. As we read in Genesis 12, which is also referenced in chapter 13, Bethel is a place close to where Abram pitched his tent on the way to and from Egypt. It is next mentioned in Genesis 28 when Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau. “He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.” (Genesis 28:19) While resting here, Jacob dreamt of a ladder stretching between Heaven and Earth; at the top stands God, who promises Jacob the land of Canaan. On waking, Jacob renames the place Bethel (House of God), although it is never revealed why the name had changed to Luz, or whether it is the same place as the Bethel mentioned earlier in the book.
Later, God instructed Jacob to return to Bethel, where he built an altar to God “who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” (Genesis 35:3) Not long after Jacob and his family left Bethel, Rachel gave birth to his final son, Benjamin. Unfortunately, the birth was not without complications and Rachel passed away shortly after.
Bethel is mentioned a few times in the Book of Joshua, which confirms its location to be the same village Abram camped near. “Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, ‘Go up and spy out the region.’ So the men went up and spied out Ai.” (Joshua 7:2) Joshua 12 reveals that Bethel had a king, although we do not learn his name and, in Joshua 18, it is revealed that Bethel was located in the land allocated to the tribe of Benjamin. This is also recorded in 1 Chronicles.
Before the Israelites arrived, Bethel was inhabited by Canaanites. According to Judges 1, however, the tribes of Joseph killed the Canaanites. “Now the tribes of Joseph attacked Bethel, and the Lord was with them.” (Judges 1:22) Unfortunately, the Israelites went on to do evil things and the Lord had them sold into slavery under King Jabin of Canaan. At this time, Israel was being led by a woman named Deborah who held her court “between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim.” (Judges 4:5) Under Deborah’s command, the Israelites managed to defeat King Jabin.
In Judges 20, the Israelites went to Bethel to ask God whether they should fight against the Benjamites. “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord.” (Judges 20:26) In this instance, Bethel is living up to the meaning of its name, the House of the Lord. Rather than calling on God from their hometowns, the Israelites travelled to Bethel to seek God out. Bethel was an important religious place at the time and the Ark of the Covenant was kept there. In the following chapter, the Israelites returned to Bethel asking how the tribe of Benjamin could survive since all their women had perished. The Israelites could not give their daughters as wives to the remaining male Benjamites due to an oath they had previously made. The solution was for the tribe of Benjamin to take their wives from “Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” (Judges 21:19)
The prophet Samuel went on yearly visits “from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places.” (1 Samuel 7:16) He also instructed Saul, before he was made king, to visit Bethel. “Three men going up to worship God at Bethel will meet you there.” (1 Samuel 10:3) It is inferred that there was a Philistine garrison near Bethel because “Saul chose three thousand men from Israel; two thousand were with him at Mikmash and in the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan at Gibeah in Benjamin.” (1 Samuel 13:2) The army attacked the Philistine outposts from these locations.
In 931 BCE, following the death of King Solomon, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. This king of the northern kingdom was Jeroboam, Solomon’s superintendent. Fearing his people would prefer the ruler and faith of the southern kingdom, Jeroboam made two golden calves and told his people they were the gods who brought them out of Egypt. “One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:29) By tricking the Israelites into worshipping these idols, Jeroboam ensured his people stayed within his kingdom. The Israelites would not be fooled forever, as predicted by a man who had travelled “from Judah to Bethel” (1 Kings 13:1) who cried, “A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you … The altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out.” (13:2-3) The sacrifice of the priests is written in 1 Kings 10 during the reign of King Jehu (842-815 BC); however, the altar was not fully destroyed until the reign of King Josiah of Judah (640-609 BC). “Just as he had done at Bethel, Josiah removed all the shrines at the high places that the kings of Israel had built in the towns of Samaria and that had aroused the Lord’s anger. “ (2 Kings 23:19)
The Lord had previously spoken through the prophet Amos (c.750 BC) who warned the Israelites that “On the day I punish Israel for her sins, I will destroy the altars of Bethel; the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground.” (Amos 3:14) Bethel had become a place of sin. God tried to encourage the Israelites to “Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel.” (Amos 5:4-5)
In the Book of Hosea, Bethel is referred to as “Beth Aven,” which means “house of wickedness”. The prophet Hosea repeated Amos’ warning: “So will it happen to you, Bethel, because your wickedness is great. When that day dawns, the king of Israel will be completely destroyed.” Hosea also remembered the great things of Bethel’s past, for instance, Jacob’s dream: “He found him at Bethel and talked with him there.” (Hosea 12:4) By the time the prophet Jeremiah was writing in the 6thcentury BC, Bethel had received its fate. Jeremiah states, “Israel was ashamed when they trusted in Bethel.” This shows that the Israelites had repented of their sins. Zechariah, writing in around 520 BC, reveals that Bethel once again became the “House of God”. “The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat the Lord by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, ‘Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?’” (Zechariah 7:2-3)
During the reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (605-562), the Israelites were enslaved. After Cyrus the Great conquered the empire in 539 BC, the exiles were allowed to return from Babylon. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah record the number of male Israelites that returned to each city. There is, however, a discrepancy in numbers; Ezra records that 223 men returned to Bethel and Ai but Nehemiah claims it was 123. Nehemiah also records that it was the descendants from the tribe of Benjamin that reclaimed Bethel and its settlements.
Although not recorded in the Bible, Bethel was inhabited during the time of the Maccabees (167-37 BC) and built up by Bacchidies, a Hellenistic general and friend of the Syrian-Greek King Demetrius. The last written historical record of Bethel tells us the emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) captured the town, but after that, it fell into obscurity.
If the proposed town of Beitin really were the location of Bethel, the events of the Bible would have occurred there during the Iron Age. Before then, during the Bronze Age, the Canaanites lived in the era, evidenced by the remains of tombs and houses to the north and south of the town. It was around 1750 BC when the village of Bethel was elevated to the status of a town.
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon