(behth' uhl; house of God) 1. Bethel was important in the Old Testament for both geographic and religious reasons. Because of its abundant springs, the area was fertile and attractive to settlements as early as 3200 B.C., and first supported a city around the time of Abraham. Today the village of Beitin rests on much of the ruins of Bethel. Located at the intersection of the main north-south road through the hill country and the main road from Jericho to the coastal plain, Bethel saw much domestic and international travel. Bethel became a prominent border town between tribes and the two kingdoms later. Religiously, Bethel served as a sanctuary during the times of the patriarchs, judges, and the divided kingdom, hence was second only to Jerusalem as a religious center.
Entering Canaan, Abraham built an altar at Bethel, calling “upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8), and returned here after his time in Egypt (Genesis 13:3). His grandson, Jacob, spent the night here on his way to Syria to find a wife. In a dream the Lord confirmed the Abrahamic covenant, and Jacob responded by renaming this locale which was previously called Luz, “Bethel” (“house of God”;
Genesis 28:10-22). Probably the name “Bethel” is referred to but out of chronological sequence in the earlier Abraham passages. When he returned with his large family, Jacob came to Bethel again to hear the Lord's confirmation of the covenant and his name was changed to “Israel.” Here again Jacob set up a stone monument (Genesis 35:1-16;
Hosea 12:4-5). Extensive fortification of Bethel came after this patriarchal period.
At the time of the conquest, Bethel and Ai were taken together (Joshua 7:2;
Joshua 12:9,Joshua 12:16), but the definitive defeat of Bethel is recounted later in
Judges 1:22-26. It was a Benjamite border town initially (Joshua 16:1-2;
Joshua 18:13,Joshua 18:22). Later it was a part of the Northern Kingdom (1 Chronicles 7:28), only briefly annexed to Judah by Abijah (2 Chronicles 13:19).
The ark of the covenant was kept in Bethel during a period of the judges (Judges 20:27), so the tribes converged there upon Benjamin to avenge the moral atrocity at Gibeah (Judges 20:18-28), offering sacrifices and seeking the Lord's direction (Judges 21:1-4). Bethel also was a place where both Deborah (Judges 4:5) and Samuel (1 Samuel 7:16) judged the civil and religious affairs of the Israelites in the area. Bethel was evidently vulnerable at the time of the judges, since archaeology shows it to have been destroyed several times in this period.
David considered the city significant enough to send it gifts during his flight as a fugitive from Saul, hoping to establish a friendship of diplomatic value in the future (1 Samuel 30:27). When he eventually named Jerusalem his capital, Bethel grew and prospered.
Whereas Bethel had been a place of orthodox worship from Abraham to the judges, Jeroboam I made it a religious center of his innovative, apostate religion of the Northern Kingdom. He erected a golden calf both here and in Dan with non-Levitic priests and an illegitimate feast to compete with the celebrations and religion of Jerusalem, ten and a half miles to the south in Judah (1 Kings 12:29-33). Bethel was the prominent site over Dan. There an anonymous prophet from Judah found and rebuked Jeroboam I and brought destruction to the king's altar (1 Kings 13:1-10). Another anonymous prophet from Bethel entrapped the first prophet into disobedience. Because of his disobedience, the Lord caused a lion to kill the first prophet (1 Kings 13:11-25).
Other true prophets seem to have been attached to Bethel even during the time of northern apostasy, since Elijah encountered a group of them there as he traveled (2 Kings 2:2-3). Amos was sent to Bethel to rebuke the kingdom of Jeroboam II in the eighth century (Amos 7:10-13) since it was the center of northern idolatry and a royal residence. He met the resistance of Amaziah, the priest, who vainly ordered him to leave the city. In addition to Amos' prophetic charges against those who sacrificed there (Amos 4:4), he predicted the destruction of Bethel and its false altars (Amos 3:14,
Amos 5:5-6), as did Hosea (Hosea 10:14-15). Hosea seems to have played with the name of Bethel (“city of God”), by referring to it as “Beth-aven” (“city of a false [god],”
The religious significance of Bethel is confirmed also by Assyria's appointment of a priest to this city to teach the new residents of the north who displaced the Israelites (2 Kings 17:28). Later, Josiah desecrated another false altar of Bethel during his reforms (2 Kings 23:4-19) and perhaps annexed the city to his Southern Kingdom.
Bethel was destroyed in the sixth century during the Exile; however, some returned there when released by the Persians (Ezra 2:28;
Since it was a late first century Roman garrison town, it was probably a city of importance at the time of Christ. 2. Another city variously spelled Bethul (Joshua 19:4), Bethuel (1 Chronicles 4:30), and Bethel (1 Samuel 30:27). This may be modern khirbet el Qaryatein north of Arad.
Daniel C. Fredericks