What is the History and Importance of Bethel in the Bible?

Here is a spiritual conundrum posed by loganfields2:

Could you please explain to me in one of your posts the history of, and the importance of Bethel in the Bible! I would greatly appreciate it!

Thanks for the question, loganfields2.

The Old Testament town of Bethel (formerly named Luz) was one of the first places in the Bible where the Hebrew people met with God. The most famous of these encounters was Jacob’s dream of a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, and the Lord standing above it (Genesis 28:10–22).

Because this and several other early encounters with God happened at Bethel, it signifies our first beginnings of knowledge and understanding about God, heaven, and spiritual truth. And since this early knowledge of heavenly things comes in the first stages of our spiritual journey, when we are more earthly-minded than spiritual, Bethel represents a rather external and pragmatic sense of what God and spirit are all about.

One hint at this significance is that in the original Hebrew, Bethel means “house of God.” A house of God is an earthly, physical place (such as a church or temple) that is seen as the dwelling place of God. God cannot really be contained in a physical building or location (see 1 Kings 8:27), but we earth-bound humans often need something solid and physical to remind us of the presence of God, heaven, and spirit.

Before we dig deeper into the history and importance of Bethel, let’s get a visual on where it is located. Here is a map showing the position of Bethel in the Holy Land. It is west and a little north of Jericho, the first city that the Israelites conquered when they entered the Holy Land (Joshua 6). It is north of Jerusalem, which became the spiritual and political center of Israel.

Map showing the position of the Biblical town of Bethel in relation to Jericho and Jerusalem

Bethel in relation to Jericho and Jerusalem

(Map courtesy of www.israel-a-history-of.com)

Bethel: A place for the Hebrews’ early encounters with God

Bethel is mentioned in over sixty verses in the Bible, representing over thirty distinct stories and prophecies, all of them in the Old Testament. Of course, we can’t cover them all in this article. So here is a list of some of the most important events that took place in Bethel:

  • Near Bethel, Abraham built one of the first altars mentioned in the Bible, and there he “invoked the name of the Lord.” (Genesis 12:8)
  • After Abraham had fled to Egypt to escape a famine in the Holy Land, he returned to the same place near Bethel, and once again invoked the name of the Lord. (Genesis 13:1–4)
  • When Jacob was fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, he stopped for the night at Bethel. That is where he first encountered God, in a dream in which he saw a stairway to heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending on it, and the Lord standing above it. (Genesis 28:10–22)
  • After Jacob’s return to the Holy Land, Bethel was the second place where he and his family settled. There he set up an altar to God, and God spoke to him. (Genesis 35:1–15)
  • ­Upon first entering the Holy Land, after conquering Jericho, Joshua and the Israelites next conquered Ai and Bethel. (Joshua 8:10–17; 12:7-9, 16)
  • Bethel was one of the first places in the Holy Land where the ark of the covenant of God was set up, and where the priests offered sacrifices and inquired of God. (Judges 20:18, 26–28; 21:2)
  • When the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah, its first king, Jereboam, set up golden calves in Bethel and Dan. He had the people worship there instead of going to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple where the ark was. (1 Kings 12:25–33)
  • After Assyria conquered and exiled the northern kingdom of Israel, the king of Assyria sent one of the captured Israelite priests back to Bethel to teach the people from other nations who had been resettled in Israel how to worship “the god of the land.” However, they continued to worship their own gods as well. (2 Kings 17:24–41)
  • Because Bethel had become corrupted by the worship of idols and other gods, several of the prophets railed against it. See, for example, Jeremiah 48:13; Hosea 10:15; Amos 3:13–4:4; 5:1–6.

If we put together all of these key stories about Bethel, here is the picture that emerges:

Bethel served the ancient Hebrews as an early point of communication with God, and of entry into the Holy Land—even if not always the first. As the religious, cultural, and political life of the Israelites increasingly focused on Jerusalem, Bethel faded in significance. However, when the northern kingdom of Israel seceded, Bethel became one of two major centers of idol worship in the north. This corruption sealed its fate in the Bible story. By the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethel had completely faded away as a place of importance. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament.

Bethel: Making a deal with God

Just as Bethel took on importance in the early history of the ancient Hebrews and of the Israelite nation as a point of connection with God and heaven, so it takes on a similar spiritual significance for us early in our spiritual growth.

And just as in the course of the Bible story Bethel faded away as a point of connection with God and heaven, so the type of connection with God represented by Bethel must fade away for us as we become more spiritually mature.

Jacob's Ladder: Original Artwork by Carolyn Judson, © 2005 by New Christian Era Ministries, used by permission

Jacob’s Ladder (copyrighted image)

To illustrate the character of the connection with God and heaven represented by Bethel, let’s look at just one brief vignette, from the famous story of “Jacob’s Ladder.” After Jacob had that amazing dream of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it, and God standing above, he made this vow to God:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you. (Genesis 28:20–22)

Do you see what Jacob is doing here? He’s making a deal with God! In essence Jacob is saying to God, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

At the time Jacob had his first encounter with God, his life was a mess. He had just royally infuriated both his older twin brother Esau and his elderly father by tricking his father into giving him the all-important blessing of the first-born. Esau was planning to kill him as soon as their father died. Only the intervention of his mother Rebekah saved him from that fate. But in order to avoid death, he had to flee his home and everything he was familiar with, and go to a distant land to live with relatives he had never met. (For more on this story, see the article “Dan Gheesling: Judas, Jesus, . . . or Jacob?”)

With his life in chaos, Jacob finally began his relationship with God.

Isn’t that how we often start in our relationship with God, too?

When life is good, who needs God?

But when our life is a mess, and things are looking bleak, then we might start thinking, “Maybe I need God in my life after all.”

What’s the first thing we do?

In effect, we say to God, “If you’ll straighten out my life for me and give me what I need to get through this mess, then you can be my God. I’ll worship you and devote my life to you.”

In other words, like Jacob, we make a deal with God.

From deal-making to unconditional love and service

As a start on our spiritual journey, making a deal with God is not such a bad thing. It’s a heckuva lot better than ignoring God completely!

But its sort of . . . conditional.

We’re saying to God, “I’ll believe in you and serve you, but only if you do the things I want you to do for me.”

That’s sort of like saying to your fiancé, “I’ll love you and commit my life to you, but only if you agree to provide half the household income, do the dishes, and mow the lawn.” What self-respecting person would agree to marry someone who said that?

Well . . . God does want to get a foot in the door of our life, so God actually will agree to a certain amount of deal-making early on in our spiritual journey. But that kind of quid pro quo attitude won’t carry us very far.

Sooner or later, we must turn our life over to God with no conditions or prerequisites. God will bless us in many ways we hadn’t even imagined! But exactly how God will bless us is up to God to decide. The things we want for ourselves may not be what’s best for us in the long run. God may not always give us what we want, but God will give us what is best for us.

When we are ready to commit ourselves to loving and serving God unconditionally, then, as with the ancient Israelites, the rather superficial, deal-making relationship with God represented by Bethel will gradually fade away from our life, having done its job of getting us started on the pathway toward God.

In addition to being a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader, this is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”

See also: What is the Meaning and Significance of Gilgal in the Bible?


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Bible Re-Viewed
56 comments on “What is the History and Importance of Bethel in the Bible?
  1. loganfields2 says:

    Thank you for answering so thoroughly. It was very insightful and interesting to learn about.

    • Lee says:

      Hi loganfields2,

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks again for the original question! I’m glad you enjoyed this response.

    • Pastor shivambu mb says:

      Thanks pastor for explaining about bethel, I was wondering why God’s anger was upon Jeroboam when he erect golden calf at bethel holy place,place of transformation, house of God,thanks pastor may God keeps you

    • Uju Wealth Kaine says:

      I’m really grateful for the time you took to explain the meaning of Bethel and its implications. Can I then say that Bethel is the beginning of a Christians experience and that one is expected to advance to and conquer Bethel, so as to enter a deeper and more selfless relationship with God?

    • Sam Foreman says:

      Revisiting Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho, to recrossing Jordan to infinity and beyond, I was delighted to find your content, tone and style through a map search. A coincidence to those still i the wilderness, to me another small sign of God’s providence, proof of the truth of romans 2:28. You would have a similar piece on Jericho’s history and importance? Swedenborg has been granted a gifted translator, on loan as it were from God’s staff of gifted teachers and communicators.

  2. danavan says:

    I liked ur explanation,have u ever looked at st.john1:51? When I researched it I ended up at Jacobs dream and I found something that he said interesting…..this must be the house of God…this must be the gate of heaven….i don’t think Jacob made an error here and I believe just as how bethel was termed as the house of God its the same today but only differently I may be wrong but I can’t help but feel Jesus was getting across some spiritual message to us on the power of the church it being the gate of heaven and it having the glory God over it.what do u think?

    • Lee says:

      Hi danavan,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, John 1:51 does seem to be a fairly clear reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Jesus was, of course, steeped in the Scriptures–which for him were what we call the Old Testament. In the course of his teaching and his life, he suffused those Scriptures with a higher meaning than had been generally perceived before.

      I would say, however, that in Christianity, ultimately it is Christ himself who is the “house of God.” This, I think, is the message of “angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51 – emphasis added).

      While Christian churches can serve to introduce people to Christ and teach people about Christ, we now have a direct relationship with God in Jesus Christ. We no longer need to approach God through the human intermediaries of priests and churches.

      That, anyway, is some of what I see in John 1:51 and its reference to the story of Jacob’s dream.

    • Sam Foreman says:

      I do not know, Danavan, if old links are revisited, as was Bethel by Abram and Jacob (and perhaps a few other worshippers over the years). But I have always thought the emphasis in Jesus’s words to [apparently] dreamy,eyed, philosophizing, Messiah-hoping Nathaniel was on the YOU. Not WHAT Nathaniel was going to see, but that HE TOO was going to have several eye-opening, mind-arresting, life-changing events besides that one under the fig tree, and this first personal encounter with the Master, the Messiah. Not to mention the ironic humor of those early evangelistic disciples excitedly telling
      family and friends, WE found HIM !!! So true: the words in stone over the entry to the church read “Whosover Will” And the words on the brass placard on the Lord’s Table read: You did not chose me; I chose you.” I think you are right, and I think Jesus gave them food for the journey when he spoke of the power of the church to the twelve, when he said, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Does the ‘it refer to “faith” or “church”. I suggest the answer is “Yes”, to both of them together.
      The church, the gate of heaven, juxtaposed against the gates of hell. Gates can only prevail if and when they are opened, and are not generally thought of an offensive weapon. Oh come to the Father through Jesus the Son, to God be the glory….
      Thank you Danavan. Your comments to Lee two years ago have sparked a message, sermon, that might be ready for delivery in a month or two.

  3. Great explanation. It was very helpful to understand more about Bethel and its place in the Bible.


  5. logan.fields2 says:

    So this old thing is still gettin’ read quite often huh?

  6. Mark says:

    would Bethel the place be consider a place that was not desirable to the eye or a rocky place and A I pleasing Gen 13:10 ” And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where,”

    • Lee says:

      Hi Mark,

      There is some debate about exactly where Bethel was. However, it was definitely in the central, mountainous region of the Holy Land, where there are many rocky outcroppings. It was located on a key road north from Jerusalem. The proposed sites do have one or more springs that could supply a town with water. Bethel is presented in the Bible as a key, centrally located city from which Joshua’s conquest of the Holy Land could press north and south. It may well have been located in a bottleneck that people traveling through the center of the land were obliged to pass through when going south to north or north to south.

      The plain of Jordan would, of course, be well-watered, as river valleys almost always are. Other rivers and streams flow through the valley on their way to the Jordan. The land itself is also more level. So it would have looked quite inviting to Lot for his livestock as compared to the steeper, rockier highlands.

  7. Janice says:

    :Your research and comments helped me find answers to significant questions that came to me as I was reading my Bible. Thank you for all of your hard work and may God bless you!

  8. DELE ADELEKE says:

    Nice,insightful and inspiring

  9. Belay Guta says:

    Simply excellent! Your article, Marks comments from John and your responses have given me much more insight than I would have ever thought.

  10. DANIEL says:

    Very helpful.should we still hold the idea of bethel as a place of christian hope today?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Thank you. Bethel is a place of new beginnings. In that sense, it still has a role in Christian hope and life today. We all have to start somewhere, and Bethel is a good place to start. However, when we’ve traveled farther along in our journey with God, we can leave Bethel behind, and move on to greater things.

  11. Samson Samuel says:

    I’m so blessed with your write up. It has given me more understanding on what God has laid in my heart.

  12. Lanre David says:

    Very helpful, God bless you

  13. Precious Benjamin says:

    Hi Lee, thanks for the eye opener explainations about bethel, God bless u. Please i will want u to explain this part for me. “And just as in the course of the Bible story Bethel faded away as a point of connection with God and heaven, so the type of connection with God represented by Bethel must fade away for us as we become more spiritually mature”. Thanks.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Precious Benjamin,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      As explained in the article, spiritually Bethel represents a state of mind in which we agree to believe in God and follow God, but only if we see benefit in it for ourselves. For example, we may say to God, “I’ll follow you, but only if you give me the house, or car, or healing, or mate, that I’m looking for.”

      As we become more spiritually mature, we must leave behind that way of thinking, and travel toward believing in God not for how it benefits us, but because we want to live a good, loving, and thoughtful life of service to God and to our fellow human beings.

      Does that help?

  14. Nhat Tran says:

    Hi Lee,
    WOW this was a pleasure to read, I can’t help but wonder WHY was there a stairway from earth to heaven? and in Gen 28:15 God said “…I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” it seems like God is saying one day he will make a bridge between earth and heaven, like a stairway so we can go to heaven. so what I’m trying to ask is could this be an allegorical story of redemption? Jesus Christ’s death will be our stairway to heaven?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Nhat Tran,

      Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the article!

      For Jacob, the dream of a stairway to heaven was an experience of the presence of God and the angels, and a promise, right at the time that he was being exiled from his home, that he would one day return.

      For us, it is a spiritual assurance that God and the angels are present with us here and now, even at our darkest times, and that we will one day return to live in the spiritual land that is our true home. In the Bible, the Land of Canaan or the Holy Land symbolizes spiritual life, as compared to the surrounding lands, which symbolize a more materialistic focus in life.

      There will not be a literal stairway to heaven that we can climb from earth to heaven. Instead, there is a spiritual stairway that shows us the way to leave behind a merely materialistic life and become spiritual in our goals and focus in life.

      And yes, I believe that Jesus Christ becomes that stairway for us, not just by his death, but by his life and his presence with us–as suggested in John 1:51:

      And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

  15. Colleen says:

    Thank you , for the in sight .

  16. Georgia Estes says:

    Jesus…the stairway to heaven.

  17. Isaac says:

    Lee, thanks for offering your research and spirit-led wisdom here. I have a related question for you: when you said at some point it is necessary to leave your Bethel behind, do you think that means physically as well (not just spiritually)? I have a physical place that I’ve always regarded as my Bethel — which I’ve deemed to be a good thing (a place of encountering God and experiencing deep intimacy with Him). But your article implies that your Bethel is a place to eventually leave behind. Can you leave behind your Bethel spiritually (growing and maturing) but stay there physically? Can you explain more?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Isaac,

      Thanks for stopping by. Good question!

      My main point in the article on leaving Bethel behind was about our spiritual life. We may start out bargaining with God the way Jacob did in Bethel. But as we grow in the Lord, we have to leave behind that attitude of “what do I get out of it,” and instead follow the Lord simply because it’s the right thing to do, and in time because it’s what we love to do.

      Where we are physically here on earth may or may not have a connection with our inner, spiritual life. Some people live in the some physical place all their lives, and continue to grow in their spiritual life and their walk with God. Others get stuck in a physical place, and need to move away from it in order to break their old habits and associations.

      About the physical place that you think of as your Bethel, it all depends on whether you can continue to grow spiritually while encountering God at that place. If so, then the place itself will be transformed from Bethel to Shiloh to Jerusalem for you, just as the tabernacle of God moved from one town to another until Jerusalem was established as the place of worship and of meeting God for the Israelites.

      However, if you find at some point in your life that your physical Bethel is holding you back in your spiritual journey and your walk with the Lord, then you may need to leave it behind and find a new place where you can especially feel the presence of God.

      • Isaac says:

        Lee, I have another related question for you. When you stated in this response that our Bethel can be “transformed…to Shiloh to Jerusalem,” would you mind explaining more what that means for us spiritually? I’m incredibly interested in knowing how to move from Bethel to Shiloh in my spiritual journey and any scriptures/research/insight would be greatly appreciated!

        • Lee says:

          Hi Isaac,

          That is a very good question, which deserves a full post of its own! However, I’ll give you a shorter (sort of!) version here.

          Each of these places–Bethel, Shiloh, and Jerusalem–was a site for the Tabernacle, one following the other, after the Israelites entered the Holy Land to conquer it. The final place for the Tabernacle (actually, a replacement Tabernacle built by David) was in Jerusalem–where the Temple was later built by his son Solomon. (The Tabernacle may also have been set up in a few other places in the Holy Land.)

          This means that each of these places represent the focus of our spiritual life and worship as we go through our journey of spiritual rebirth, or regeneration.

          As stated in the article itself, Bethel represents an early stage in our Christian life in which we bargain with God, seeking to get a good deal for ourselves in return for our faith in God and our obedience to God’s commandments. Bethel also represents a time of spiritual battles and struggles, since the Tabernacle was in Bethel during the time of the initial conquest of the Holy Land. So in our spiritual life it represents a time of major battles and struggles to leave behind our old, selfish and worldly ways of life and focus our lives on God and spirit instead.

          Shiloh was the location of the Tabernacle after the initial conquest of the Holy Land, during the time of Samuel. There were still some conflicts during this time, but for the most part the Israelites lived a more peaceful and settled life during the time the Tabernacle was in Shiloh. This is reflected in the meaning of “Shiloh” in Hebrew, which is “tranquility, rest.” So having the Tabernacle in Shiloh represents a time in our spiritual journey, or rebirth, when we have overcome many of the major bad habits (sins) and obstacles that had blocked us from living a Christian and spiritual life, and have settled into that life. We still have our struggles, but we are now solidly settled into a Christian life.

          And yet, the time period during which the Tabernacle was in Shiloh was also a rather disorganized and decentralized period in the history of the Israelites. There was no central authority, and no cohesiveness as a nation. The twelve tribes lived in their own areas, administered their own affairs, and generally faced the various local enemies on their own. So this time in our spiritual development also represents a time when, although we have become active Christians, we are not very organized about it. We just sort of face issues and conflicts whenever and wherever they crop up, in a reactionary manner. We don’t have any clear focus and direction to our life.

          Jerusalem, where the Tabernacle was later established by David, and where Solomon built the Temple, represents the next stage in our spiritual journey of rebirth. The name “Jerusalem” also incorporates the sense of peace conveyed by the name “Shiloh.” So this is also a settled state of Christian life. And yet, Jerusalem, as the capital established by King David, represents a much more focused form of Christian life. Under Saul, the first king of Israel, and especially under David, who finished the job of conquering the Holy Land, the Israelites were unified under a single leader, with a clear and unified goal.

          Having the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, in Jerusalem, then, represents a stage in our spiritual journey in which we have set clear spiritual goals for ourselves, and are pursuing those goals in a proactive, not reactionary, way. Our life has purpose and direction. We are here to accomplish God’s purpose for our life, which we see clearly laid out ahead of us.

          We may or may not see farther down the road that God is leading us on. But we know what task God has given us now, and we are intent on accomplishing that task. To put it in distinctly Christian terms, we have a clear and comprehensive idea of the teachings of Jesus as they apply to our lives (this is the meaning of Jerusalem spiritually), and we have focused our lives on learning and living by those teachings in a very specific way.

          I hope these brief thumbnails help you on your own spiritual journey!

        • Levi says:

          You’ve been generous with your response once again, Lee. Thank you so much for offering your wisdom and research. I look forward to digging deeper into what you’ve shared!

      • Isaac says:

        Grateful for your response and your continued study of the scriptures. Thanks Lee!

  18. steve says:

    Nice thoughts on Bethel!

  19. oluwafemi michael says:

    nice teaching, more grace.

  20. fran says:

    Thank you Lee for your narrative regarding the city of Bethel. That is so alarming to know this location is no longer significant.

    • Lee says:

      Hi fran,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Perhaps Bethel’s physical location is no longer significant. But its meaning for our spiritual life does have continuing significance as long as we are in a “Bethel” state.

  21. davi guimaraes says:

    not sure if you’ll see this, but what do you about churches named bethel? either way, very insightful read! thanks

    • Lee says:

      Hi davi,

      Thank you.

      I think that Bethel is a fine name for a church. We’ve all got to start somewhere spiritually. If a church helps us to get started on our Christian and spiritual journey, it’s doing its job, isn’t it?

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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Earlier Posts
Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly, Fryeburg, Maine, August 2012

Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly


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