International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
beth'-el (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 (Genesis 12:8). It is named as on the northern border of Benjamin (the southern of Ephraim, Joshua 16:2), at the top of the ascent from the Jordan valley by way of Ai (Joshua 18:13). It lay South of Shiloh (Judges 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 (Genesis 28:19, etc.). When Jacob came hither on his way to Paddan-aram we are told that he lighted upon "the place" (Genesis 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 (Genesis 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" (Genesis 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 (Genesis 13:9).
Bethel was a royal city of the Canaanites (Joshua 12:16). It appears to have been captured by Joshua (8:7), and it was allotted to Benjamin (Joshua 18:22). In Judges 1:22 it is represented as held by Canaanites, from whom the house of Joseph took it by treachery (compare 1 Chronicles 7:28). Hither the ark was brought from Gilgal (Judges 2:1, Septuagint). Israel came to Bethel to consult the Divine oracle (Judges 20:18), and it became an important center of worship (1 Samuel 10:3). The home of the prophetess Deborah was not far off (Judges 4:5). Samuel visited Bethel on circuit, judging Israel (1 Samuel 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 Kings 12:29 Amos 7:13). He placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made (1 Kings 12:32). To Bethel came the man of God from Judah who pronounced doom against Jeroboam (1 Kings 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 (Amos 3:14; Amos 4:4; Amos 5:11 m; Amos 9:1 Hosea 4:15; Hosea 5:8; Hosea 10:5, 8, 15). 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 Jeremiah 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 Kings 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 Kings 23:4, 25). The men of Bethel were among those who returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:28 Nehemiah 7:32), and it is mentioned as reoccupied by the Benjamites (Nehemiah 11:31). Zechariah (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 Maccabees 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 Samuel 30:27 is called Bethel; in Joshua 19:4 Bethul; and in 1 Chronicles 4:30 Bethuel. The site has not been identified. In Joshua 15:30 Septuagint gives Baithel in Judah, where the Hebrew has Kecil-probably a scribal error.
(har beth-'el; Baithel louza (1 Samuel 13:2, the Revised Version (British and American) "the mount of Bethel"; Joshua 16:1)): The hill which stretches from the North of the town to Tell `Acur. The road to Shechem lies along the ridge. An army in possession of these heights easily commanded the route from north to south.