Bethel in the Old Testament
Bethel is town near the place where Abraham halted and offered sacrifice on his way south from Shechem.
Identification and Description
It lay West of Ai (Gen 12:8). It is named as on the northern border of Benjamin (the southern of Ephraim, Josh 16:2), at the top of the ascent from the Jordan valley by way of Ai (Josh 18:13). It lay South of Shiloh (Jdg 21:19). Eusebius, Onomasticon places it 12 Roman miles from Jerusalem, on the road to Neapolis.
It is represented by the modern Beitin, a village of some 400 inhabitants, which stands on a knoll East of the road to Nablus. There are four springs which yield supplies of good water.
In ancient times these were supplemented by a reservoir hewn in the rock South of the town. The surrounding country is bleak and barren, the hills being marked by a succession of stony terraces, which may have suggested the form of the ladder in Jacob's famous dream.
The town was originally called Luz (Gen 28:19, etc.). When Jacob came hither on his way to Paddan-aram we are told that he lighted upon "the place" (Gen 28:11. Hebrew). The Hebrew Heb: maqom, like the cognate Arabic Heb: maqam, denotes a sacred place or sanctuary. The Heb: maqom was doubtless that at which Abraham had sacrificed, East of the town. In the morning Jacob set up "for a pillar" the stone which had served as his pillow (Gen 28:18;, Heb: matstsebhah), poured oil upon it and called the name of the place Bethel, "house of God"; that is, of God whose epiphany was for him associated with the pillar.
This spot became a center of great interest, lending growing importance to the town. In process of time the name Luz disappeared, giving place to that of the adjoining sanctuary, town and sanctuary being identified. Jacob revisited the place on his return from Paddan-aram; here Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under "the oak" (Gen 35:6 f). Probably on rising ground East of Bethel Abraham and Lot stood to view the uninviting highlands and the rich lands of the Jordan valley (Gen 13:9 ff).
Bethel was a royal city of the Canaanites (Josh 12:16). It appears to have been captured by Joshua (8:7), and it was allotted to Benjamin (Josh 18:22). In Jdg 1:22 ff it is represented as held by Canaanites, from whom the house of Joseph took it by treachery (compare 1 Ch 7:28). Hither the ark was brought from Gilgal (Jdg 2:1, Septuagint). Israel came to Bethel to consult the Divine oracle (Jdg 20:18), and it became an important center of worship (1 Sam 10:3). The home of the prophetess Deborah was not far off (Jdg 4:5). Samuel visited Bethel on circuit, judging Israel (1 Sam 7:16).
With the disruption of the kingdom came Bethel's greatest period of splendor and significance. To counteract the influence of Jerusalem as the national religious center Jeroboam embarked on the policy which won for him the unenviable reputation of having "made Israel to sin." Here he erected a temple, set up an image, the golden calf, and established an imposing ritual. It became the royal sanctuary and the religious center of his kingdom (1 Ki 12:29 ff; Am 7:13).
He placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made (1 Ki 12:32). To Bethel came the man of God from Judah who pronounced doom against Jeroboam (1 Ki 13), and who, having been seduced from duty by an aged prophet in Bethel, was slain by a lion. According to the prophets Amos and Hosea the splendid idolatries of Bethel were accompanied by terrible moral and religious degradation. Against the place they launched the most scathing denunciations, declaring the vengeance such things must entail (Am 3:14; 4:4; 5:11 m; 9:1; Hos 4:15; 5:8; 10:5,8,23).
With the latter the name Bethel gives place in mockery to Beth-aven. Bethel shared in the downfall of Samaria wrought by the Assyrians; and according to an old tradition, Shalmaneser possessed himself of the golden calf (compare Jer 48:13). The priest, sent by the Assyrians to teach the people whom they had settled in the land how to serve Yahweh, dwelt in Bethel (2 Ki 17:28). King Josiah completed the demolition of the sanctuary at Bethel, destroying all the instruments of idolatry, and harr ying the tombs of the idolaters. The monument of the man of God from Judah he allowed to stand (2 Ki 23:4,25).
The men of Bethel were among those who returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel (Ezr 2:28; Neh 7:32), and it is mentioned as reoccupied by the Benjamites (Neh 11:31). Zechariah (7:2) records the sending of certain men from Jerusalem in the 4th year of King Darius to inquire regarding particular religious practices. Bethel was one of the towns fortified by Bacchides in the time of the Maccabees (1 Macc 9:50; Ant, XIII, i, 3). It is named again as a small town which, along with Ephraim, was taken by Vespasian as he approached Jerusalem (BJ, IV, ix, 9).
(2) A city in Judah which in 1 Sam 30:27 is called Bethel; in Josh 19:4 Bethul; and in 1 Ch 4:30 Bethuel. The site has not been identified. In Josh 15:30 Septuagint gives Baithel in Judah, where the Hebrew has Heb: Kecil--probably a scribal error.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).