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?

About

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
24 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.

  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.

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

  4. VERY USEFUL.GOD BLESS YOU.

  5. 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.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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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