Bethel (Genesis 35)

Illustration: Israel, Samaria, aerial view of terraces between Bethel and Shiloh

The holy site of Bethel played an important role in the lives of Abraham and Jacob/Israel, as well as in later Israelite history. Abraham built an altar between Bethel and Ai (Genesis 12:8), and Jacob, en route to Haran while fleeing from Esau, experienced a vivid dream at Bethel (28:10-17). Before moving on, he set up a commemorative stone at the spot. In addition to serving as places of remembrance, such stones occasionally marked burial sites (35:20).

Biblical scholars have long debated Bethel’s precise location. Most have placed it at modern Tell Beitin, 13 km north of Jerusalem, but El Bireh, a few km farther south, has also been suggested. Clearly Bethel was located within the area north of Jerusalem now referred to as the West Bank.

Tell Beitin, which shows signs of occupation beginning with the Chalcolithic period, was continuously occupied during the Middle Bronze Age I and II, until the city was destroyed around 1550 B.C. A late Bronze Age city located on the same site, dating from the fourteenth century B.C., boasted high-quality houses, streets with flagstone pavements, and sewers. There is evidence of its destruction at the end of the Bronze Age, and a later, Iron Age I settlement at the location reflects an impoverished community. This city continued to exist through the Iron Age, but no remains of Jeroboam’s temple – which the Babylonian army destroyed in 586 B.C. – have been found here.

According to Onomasticon, written by Eusebius (A.D. 269-339) and revised by Jerome (A.D. 345-419), Bethel was located at the twelfth Roman milestone on the eastern side of the road leading north to Neapolis (called Shechem in the Old Testament; modern Nablus). In this ancient manuscript Tell Beitin is described as being located at the fourteenth milestone, indicating that, if Eusebius’ information was correct, it could not have been Bethel. Bethel may, then, have been situated a little to the south , at modern El Bireh, near the city om Ramallah. No excavation has been done at El Bireh, a town currently occupied by Palestinians.

During the period of Israel’s monarchy, Bethel (“House of God”) came to be embroiled in a controversy. Associations with its sacred history and monuments led the people to transform it into a centre of idolatrous worship.

Jeroboam I, for example, took advantage of the holy traditions associated with Bethel and, against God’s will, set up a shrine there to serve as an alternative worship site to Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 12:26-30). As a result the prophets sverely censured worship at Bethel. Hosea (Hosea 4:15, 5:8, 10:5) went so far as to refer to Bethel as Beth Aven, a disparaging pun meaning “house of wickedness”. Such texts indicate that there was a debate during ancient times over whether Bethel was a sacred site or a centre of apostasy.

The name Bethel was at the centre of debate in another context. Bethel appears as a god’s name in a seventh-century B.C. Assyrian treaty and in some texts from Elephantine, located in southern Egypt. Based upon these discoveries, some scholars have argued that the word Bethel is used in the Old Testament as a divine name rather than as a place-name. Most interpreters remain unconvinced of the validity of this theory, since it appears quite evident that the Biblical Bethel was a specific place. In fact, certain Biblical texts seem to attest that Bethel in its early days was a city formerly known as Luz (mentioned in Genesis 28:19, 35:6, 48:3) but renamed by Jacob (Judges 1:23).

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