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Bethel seems to have been a Canaanite city originally, and after the conquest by Joshua was given to the tribe of Benjamin (Josh.18.21-Josh.18.22). Joseph’s descendants, under the guidance of the Lord, went up against Bethel and took it (Judg.1.22-Judg.1.26). It remained on the southern border of Ephraim. During the period of the judges, because of the wickedness of the tribe of Ephraim, the Israelites marched against them. They stopped at Bethel to ascertain God’s will (Judg.20.18). The ark was kept there at this time (Judg.20.26-Judg.20.28). Samuel went to this city from time to time to conduct business and to worship (1Sam.7.16; 1Sam.10.3).

Bethel is mentioned in the apocryphal books as being fortified by Bacchides (1Macc.9.50).

Modern Beitin, Bethel was excavated by Albright and Kelso intermittently from 1934 to 1961. City walls from the Middle Bronze Age (2200 to 1550 b.c.), the time of the patriarchs, were found. In the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200) there were well-built houses here with much imported pottery. In the thirteenth century a destruction layer of ashes and burned bricks testifies to its demise that some attribute to Joshua.

2. Another city mentioned in southern Judah (1Sam.30.27) is also called Bethel. Joshua refers to it as Bethul (Josh.19.4). It is noted again as “Bethuel” (1Chr.4.30). This site has not yet been identified.——HZC

BETHEL bĕth’ əl (בֵּֽית־אֵ֤ל; Βαιθήλ, and οἰ̂κος θεου̂, lit. house of God).


A town on the great N-S watershed road of Pal. twelve m. N of Jerusalem designated as the modern village of Beitin. The Heb. name, Bethel, has been preserved in the Arab. “Beitin” by the normal shift of consonants. The presence of excellent springs of water near the top of the ridge of hills made the site desirable from early days. Bethel also occupied a key point on the E-W route from Trans-Jordan W by way of Jericho to the Mediterranean either by way of the Valley of Ajalon or via Gophna to the Plain of Sharon and the sea. These circumstances are a partial explanation for the fact that Bethel is mentioned in Scripture more often than any city except Jerusalem.

The bare mountain top at Bethel served as a worship center through the millennia. The Canaanite deity El gave his name to this site. The god Baal, who normally replaced El in the Canaanite pantheon, was unable to dislodge the name of El in Bethel. So this location continued to be known as Bethel, serving as a worship center for nomads. Even Abraham (Gen 12:8) and Jacob (28:19) used the name Bethel. Another name for the site in the time of the patriarchs according to Genesis 28:19 was Luz. This name may be derived from Laudh meaning “place of refuge.” When Jacob reached the site on his way to Padan-aram, the Genesis account says “he came to a certain [Holy] place” (28:11). Bethel originally may have been the sanctuary on the ridge E of the town, whereas the town itself may have been designated as “Luz.” Genesis 28:19 speaks of Bethel as a maqom, a “sanctuary place,” and Luz as an ir, “town.” In the boundary descriptions of Ephraim and Benjamin in Joshua 16:2 Bethel and Luz are mentioned as adjacent sites.

History before Jeroboam I.

The earliest archeological evidence for the occupation of the high place at Bethel is a chalcolithic water jar from 3500 b.c. The lack of structures dating from that period suggests that Bethel was an open-air sanctuary in that age. During the late chalcolithic period (c. 3200 b.c.) Bethel was occupied, as indicated by ceramic evidence found around the high place and S of the sanctuary area. Ai then replaced Bethel as the major town of the area. A second occupation of Bethel was about 2400-2200 b.c. Later that town was abandoned and not reoccupied until the 19th cent. This marked the beginning of an almost continuous occupation of the site. A temple was built immediately above the high place and a town was constructed S of it. A strong defensive wall system may not have been constructed until the 18th or 17th centuries.

It was early in this Middle Bronze period that the accounts of the patriarchs as presented in Genesis fit well into the archeological history of Bethel. The quality of the architectural evidence indicates that Abraham and Jacob found a well-developed town when they visited the site. While Jacob might think of the town as Luz, a place where he could find refuge from his twin brother Esau as he fled toward the E, the Genesis account also reports that Jacob played on the generic name for God which was El. He set up a stone, poured oil upon it, and called the name of the place, “house of God,” Bethel, for God had spoken to him in a dream the night before (Gen 28:1-22). The Canaanite might mean one thing by the name, Bethel, but Jacob meant another. To him the spot was not only the house of God but “this is the gate of heaven” (28:17). Jacob revisited Bethel and renewed his covenant with God on his return from Padan-aram.

The absence of Late Bronze I material at Bethel suggests that the site was destroyed about 1550 b.c. by the Egyp. drive against the Hyksos who were thrown out of Egypt and Pal.

In the Late Bronze II period (14th and 13th centuries) the city was rebuilt and extended. The quality of the houses was superior to those of the earlier periods. A sewer system, the only one the town ever had, was constructed in this era. The only industry located by the archeologists was an olive oil press. The plentiful evidence of burning which indicates the end of this period in the history of the site suggests that the city was prosperous when the Israelites invaded the region. While both Jericho and Ai present problems relating to the conquest of Joshua, breached walls, ash and brick debris to the depth of 1.75 meters and destroyed houses witness to the destruction of Bethel in the 13th cent. b.c., c. 1240-1235 b.c.

Captured by Joshua (Josh 8:7) the town was allotted to Benjamin. After the civil war against Benjamin the town became a part of Ephraim. It was on the border between the two tribes. The importance of Bethel is revealed in the Judges passage (21:19) which speaks of a “Bethel to Shechem” highway and locates Shiloh as a site which is N of Bethel. The Ark which was the center of Israel’s life was located at Bethel for a period of time right after the conquest. The divine oracle was consulted at Bethel (Judg 20:18) and Deborah, the prophetess, lived near Bethel (Judg 4:5). Samuel made Bethel one of the locations of his court as he moved around the circuit judging Israel (1 Sam 7:16).

While Bethel is not mentioned by name in the OT under either David or Solomon, archeological evidence shows that the city was prosperous in that period. Building arts improved, pottery art took on new techniques and forms, and the Israelite control of iron created new opportunities in agriculture.

History after Jeroboam I.

Following the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians, Bethel also suffered destruction. The shrine was revived later so as to offer a religious center for the imported populations settled in the area by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:27-33). When Josiah moved N after the fall of Assyria he did not destroy Bethel, only its temple; nor was the town destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 b.c. when they destroyed Jerusalem. Bethel was evidently regarded as a part of the administrative region of Samaria and therefore was not in revolt against Judah. The presence of Babylonian colonists in the Samarian region is noted in 2 Kings 17:24, 30. Bethel was destroyed by a great fire either in 553 b.c. or 521 b.c. This destruction may have been the work of Nabonidus of Babylon or of the Persians in the period just before Darius.

History after the Exile.

During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Bethel was a village of a few crude walls built from material taken from the old city wall. The census records under both Ezra and Nehemiah show that Bethel had only a small population (Ezra 2:28). Bethel is listed as the northernmost town of the Benjamites (Neh 12:31ff.). There is no mention made of the involvement of the people of Bethel in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Literary references to Bethel in the early Hel. period are missing. Archeological evidence, however, clearly supports the fact that good houses, quality pottery and thriving trade marked the period immediately prior to the Maccabean era. In 1 Maccabees 9:50 and the Antiquities of Josephus, XIII. i. 3, reference is made to the fact that Bethel was one of the towns fortified by Bacchides. The city flourished under the Maccabees, with houses even outside the city walls. In the early Rom. period either Pompey or Vespasian broke down the NE gate and leveled part of the N wall. No other evidence of destruction has been noted but Rom. construction took place, a house being built over the leveled N wall.

There is no specific reference to Bethel in the NT, but Christ must have gone through the city on His trips since it is on the main road from Shechem to Jerusalem. The town increased in population in the 1st cent. a.d. Vespasian captured Bethel just before he left Pal. to become emperor of Rome. Josephus (Wars. IV. ix. 9) mentions that Vespasian established a Rom. garrison at Bethel. So great was the increase of population at Bethel in this period that cisterns were introduced for the first time. The four springs had been adequate for the population until the Rom. occupation. The authorities found it necessary to build large community cisterns close to the largest spring so that they could be filled in the winter.

Eusebius refers to Bethel as a large village in the 4th cent. a.d. It continued to be a holy place. On a ridge E of Bethel, an important Byzantine church was built, perhaps marking an identification of the locale of Jacob’s dream. Another church was built about the 6th cent. This sought to commemorate the site of Abraham’s sanctuary. Near the great spring within the city a third Byzantine church was constructed with possible related monastic structures. Meanwhile about a.d. 500 Bethel erected a new city wall as a defense against the current Samaritan revolts. The city reached its greatest extent and prosperity in the Byzantine period. Only a little Islamic material was found. No explanation for the sudden disappearance of the city is known. The site was unoccupied until about a cent. ago. See Archeology.


W. F. Albright, “First Month of Excavation at Bethel,” BASOR, 55 (Sept., 1934), 24, 25; W. F. Albright, “The Kyle Memorial Excavation at Bethel,” BASOR, 56 (Dec., 1934), 1-15; J. L. Kelso, Excavation at New Testament Jericho, AASOR, Vol. 29, 30 (1955); W. F. Albright and J. L. Kelso, The Excavation of Bethel, AASOR, Vol. 39 (1968).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(beth-’el; Baithel and oikos theou, literally, "house of God"):

(1) A town near the place where Abraham halted and offered sacrifice on his way south from Shechem.

1. Identification and Description:

It lay West of Ai (Ge 12:8). It is named as on the northern border of Benjamin (the southern of Ephraim, Jos 16:2), at the top of the ascent from the Jordan valley by way of Ai (Jos 18:13). It lay South of Shiloh (Jud 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.

2. The Sanctuary:

The town was originally called Luz (Ge 28:19, etc.). When Jacob came hither on his way to Paddan-aram we are told that he lighted upon "the place" (Ge 28:11. Hebrew). The Hebrew maqom, like the cognate Arabic maqam, denotes a sacred place or sanctuary. The 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 (Ge 28:18; see Pillar, 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" (Ge 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 (Ge 13:9 ff).

3. History:

(2) A city in Judah which in 1Sa 30:27 is called Bethel; in Jos 19:4 Bethul; and in 1Ch 4:30 Bethuel. The site has not been identified. In Jos 15:30 Septuagint gives Baithel in Judah, where the Hebrew has Kecil--probably a scribal error.

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