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Bethel (meaning House of God)was a city in Israel located north of Jerusalem in the Tribe of Benjamin on the border of Ephraim. Originally named Luz, Bethel was the site of Jacob’s vision of angels climbing a staircase. After Jacob experienced this vision, Bethel was known as a special place of revelation and served as a place where people sought Yahweh in the years prior to the temple. It was often known in association with nearby Ai located east of Bethel.

During the conquest of Canaan, several battles occurred near Bethel and it was ruled by a king. The Ark of the Covenant was housed in Bethel during the period of the Judges.[1] One of the judges, Deborah, was based in the vicinity of Bethel and Samuel visited Bethel on a yearly circuit. During Elijah's time, a guild of prophets resided there, and Bethel was one of the stops Elijah and Elisha made before Elijah was taken up into Heaven in the fiery chariot.

When the Kingdom divided under Jeroboam, a golden calf idol was set up. Bethel grew to become a major center of pagan worship and was condemned by Hosea and Amos.


Early History[]

Bethel was originally known as Luz. From the earliest known record of Luz or Bethel, it was associated with nearby Ai. Little is known about its early history. Abraham is noted to have briefly lived between Bethel and Ai as he was following God’s call to the promised land[2]. When Abraham and Lot did not have enough room for both of their flocks, they briefly stopped in the same area Abraham had set up camp earlier[3]. In its first appearance in the Bible, the narrator of Genesis refers to the town as Bethel, but mentions it was originally called Luz. More than likely, Bethel and Luz were not the exact same place, but two very close areas.

Jacob’s Place of Praise[]

The Staircase at Bethel[]

When Isaac sent Jacob to his uncle Laban in the region of Paddan-aram to find a wife and flee Esau , Jacob camped near Luz in between the towns of Beersheba and Haran. Jacob used a rock as his pillow for the night and as he slept, he experienced a remarkable dream. In his dream, Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a staircase between Heaven and Earth. Yahweh was present above the staircase and declared to Jacob the future blessing of land and offspring- the same blessing given to his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac before him.[4].

Upon waking up, Jacob created a memorial using his rock pillow as the base. He anointed the altar with oil and declared the place in which he had slept Bethel- the “House of God”. Jacob made a vow to God, stating that if he returned to his father’s house with “peace”, the pillar would be God’s “house”- a place of worship for Yahweh.

The God of Bethel[]

Years later after marrying two wives and having children, God fulfilled Jacob’s request and allowed him to return home to his father’s land. In a divine message to Jacob, God revealed himself as El-Bethel, the God of Bethel, and told Jacob to return home to his father’s land. After reminding Jacob of his vow, God answered his request [5]

Some time later God called him and told him to return to Bethel. Removing the idols of foreign gods from his household, Jacob went with his family to Bethel. Under the protection of God, Jacob and his family safely journeyed to Bethel some time after his family had offended the people of Shechem. Upon arriving, he erected and altar and called the place El-Bethel, naming it after the God who had revealed himself to Jacob in Bethel.

While residing in Bethel, Rebecca’s nurse Deborah passed away. Her body was buried under an oak at a lower elevation from Bethel. In memory of Deborah, this tree was named Allon-bacuth- the Oak of Weeping.

At Bethel, God reminded Jacob of his covenant with his ancestors. He renamed him to to Israel and Jacob erected a pillar and anointed it.

Days of Conquest[]

Battle of Ai[]

During the conquest of Canaanite land by the Israelite forces led by Joshua, neighboring Ai was attacked. God told Joshua to send his soldiers against Ai and its king. The warriors of Israel prepared to ambush the warriors of Ai in between Bethel and Ai. During this time, Bethel was ruled by a King. It probably had been like its fellow Canaanite cities- a city-state ruled by a monarch since before the days of Abraham.

When Bethel saw that is close neighbor was under attack, they sent all of their forces (with no soldiers not pursuing Israel) to aid the warriors of Ai. Alas, Yahweh delivered Ai into Israel’s hands. It is likely that during this battle Bethel and its king were also defeated.

During the allotment of cities to the Israelite tribes, Bethel was allotted to Benjamin. After the completion of the conquest, Bethel was to belong to Benjamin.

Capture by Israel[]

The text of Joshua never explicitly states that the Israelites captured Bethel at the time of Ai’s destruction. Only the defeat of Bethel’s king is mentioned in a list of defeated kings. The King of Bethel may have been defeated in the Battle of Ai, but the city itself was not conquered. The Book of Judges mentions that the combined marshal forces of Ephraim and Manasseh- the House of Joseph marched against Bethel. At the time of the battle of Bethel, it was still known as Luz. Oddly, Benjamin is not mentioned to be involved in the capture of the city- yet it was to be Benjamin’s town. When Joseph went against the city, they sent spies to scout the area. The spies met a man exiting the city and offered to treat him fairly if he cooperated by showing them a way into the city. The man cooperated and the forces of Joseph attacked the city. The man and his family were spared, but many lives were lost in the town of Bethel. [6].

Military Base Against Benjamin[]

The Ark at Bethel[]

In the days prior the looming civil war between Benjamin and Israel (not long after Bethel's capture)- the Ark of the Covenant was housed at Bethel. Phineas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron served as the High Priest there.[7] For that particular time, God had chosen the city of Bethel to be the manifestation of his presence and a place where people could seek him.  After the town of Gibeah had taken up after Sodom (homosexual mob rape), the people of Israel assembled at Mizpah.

Inquiring in Bethel[]

Realizing war was inevitable with Benjamin if they did not allow justice to be brought to Gibeah, some Israelites were sent to Bethel to inquire of God before the Ark. While the tribes of Israel assembled their combined militias to fight against Benjamin, an assembly at Bethel asked the LORD which tribe should launch the assault. Yahweh told the people of Israel that the army of Judah was to go first and attack Benjamin[8]. After the first day of battle, the Israelites mourned fighting the Benjamins but inquired of God again. After drawing the battle lines on Gibeah the next day, the Israelites went up to Bethel and fasted in mourning the next day. Later Yahweh promised Gibeah would be defeated the following day.

As Israel assaulted Gibeah the next day, men of Benjamin attempted to route around the Israelites on the highways heading towards Gibeah and Benjamin, the site of attack and the military planning center respectively. The will of God was so important to the people of Israel that they had established their marshal base around God's Ark.

Returning from the battle of Gibeah, Israel realized that as a consequence of the campaign Benjamin had been nearly eradicated. Therefore, at Bethel the people mourned the loss of so many Benjamites[9].

Samuel's Circuit[]

Near the end of the era of judges, Bethel was known to the people of Israel as a place to receive God's revelation. For a reason not given by the biblical text, people would travel to Bethel to approach God- like when Saul encountered pilgrims traveling to Bethel[10]. When Samuel was the judge of Israel he ran a yearly circuit in Bethel along with Gilgal, Mizpah and Ramah.[11] For the areas surrounding Bethel, people would come to the city to seek Samuel's judgement in cases against each other that family heads could not resolve in the manner prescribed by Jethro to Moses.

Idolatry in Bethel[]

The High Places Established[]

Shortly after the split of Israel into the northern and southern kingdom, Jeroboam decided to create two Golden Calves to create an alternative worship site from the Yahwistic temple of Jerusalem.


  1. Judges 20:26 (Link)
  2. Gen 12:8 (Link)
  3. Gen 13:3 (Link)
  4. Gen 28:11-15 (Link)
  5. Gen 31:13 (Link)
  6. Judges 1:22-25 (Link)
  7. Jdg 20:27-28 (Link)
  8. Jdg 20:18 (Link)
  9. Jdg 21:1 (Link)
  10. 1 Sam 10:3 (Link)
  11. 1 Sam 7:15 (Link)