Bethel—Genesis 28:10

Bethel, whose name means “house of God,” served as a significant city in Israel, often as a site of special altars and worship. It first appears in the Bible in Genesis 12:8 when Abraham leaves his country and pitches his tent between Bethel in the west and Ai in the east. He later returns to it and to the altar he had previously built (Gen. 13:3). Bethel’s previous name was “Luz,” but when Jacob fled from Esau, spent a night here, and received the dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, he re-named the place “Bethel” (Gen. 28:10-22). Later God commanded that he erect an altar there (Gen. 35:1, 6). The Ark of the Covenant rested at Bethel for a time (Judg. 20:27).

Although the Old Testament mentions Bethel more times than any other city except Jerusalem, we do not know much about it. Located about more than miles north of Jerusalem in the hill country, it sat on the border of the later southern and northern kingdoms. The division of the land after Israel entered Canaan gave Bethel to the tribe of Benjamin (Josh. 18:11-13), but the city also marked the southern border of Ephraim (Josh. 16:1, 2). After Israel split into southern and northern kingdoms, Bethel, as the southernmost city of the Northern Kingdom, stood as a counterpart of Dan, its northernmost city. Jereboam established his worship centers at these borders, placing golden images of calves in both Dan and Bethel, setting up high places with non-levitical priests, and offering sacrifices on the altars in Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-33). Josiah tore Bethel’s altars down during his reforms (2 Kings 23:15) and buried there the ashes of the idolatrous objects removed from the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 23:4).

Located in the hill country, Bethel was south of Shiloh and Shechem with a road connecting them. Another major highway ran between Bethel and Jericho and the Jordan (see 2 Kings 2), and across the western hills to the Shephelah. Its strategic location made it an important city to both northern and southern Israel. Bethel also sits on a water divide, where eastern waterways flow to the Jordan and western ones drain to the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists have had trouble exactly placing Bethel but believe that it may have been on the site of modern Beitin. The presence of Beitin, however, does not allow for very much archaeological exploration, so the placement may be tentative. Assuming that Beitin is really Bethel, Bethel would have had a wall around it about the time Israel was in Egypt. Also, from this time, the archaeologist James L. Kelso found a stone temple layered with ashes as evidence of a destruction. The city lay in ruins during some of the time Israel was in Egypt, and when rebuilt just before Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, was inferior to its past glory.

Bethel was also conquered twice in the early Iron Age, once by the Canaanites and the other fitting the time of the conquest of Israel in Judges 1:22-26. While archaeologists find early Israelite pottery in this layer, Canaanite pottery is absent. When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, it left Bethel untouched.

All the above reflects the assumption that Bethel lay on the site of the modern Beitin. Scholars and archaeologists are divided about its exact location, so until there is more evidence, Bethel’s exact site must at this time remain open.


Arnold and Williamson, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, 116-118.