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Monday, April 27 2009

Bethel, an Ancient Israelite Shrine

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Bethel, an Ancient Israelite Shrine
By Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin

Although it is often thought that ancient Israelites had only one temple at Jerusalem, the Bible describes a number of other sites as centers of worship for ancient Israelites.  One of the most important and interesting of these is Bethel, (Hebrew bêt 'el = "house of God" or "house [of the god] El"; Greek, baithel).  Located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, Bethel functioned as an important patriarchal and early Israelite shrine, generally associated with the modern archaeological sites of either Tell Beitin or el-Bireh

As with many other ancient temples, the importance of Bethel began in response to a theophany.  Yahweh (KJV "the Lord") appeared there to Abraham, who in response built an altar on a hill to the east of Bethel (Gen 12.7-8), to which he later returned in order to "call upon the name of Yahweh" (Gen 13.3-4). 

Abraham's grandson Jacob also camped at this site (Gen 28.10-22), where he had an oracular dream in which he saw a vision of the Lord at a ziggurat-like celestial temple, with angel-priests ascending and descending on the stairway (KJV "ladder") into heaven.  In response to this vision Jacob declared, "this is none other that the abode of God (Hebrew beth-el) and that is the gate (Hebrew shacar) of heaven" (Gen 28.17).  Thereafter he raised a stone as a pillar (Hebrew masseba) as a marker of the theophany, which he anointed with oil.  Returning to Bethel later in life, he had another vision of God, whom he called "El ("God") of Beth-El ("the house of El/God") (Gen 35.7,15; cf. Gen 31.13). 

In early pre-monarchical Israel (ca. 1200-1000 BC), Bethel was temporarily the main sanctuary for the Israelites, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the days of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron (Judg 20.26-28).  The prophetess Deborah likewise pronounced her oracles under a palm-tree near Bethel (Judg 4.5).  The prophet Samuel visited Bethel on his judgment circuit (1 Sam 7.16), during which time it apparently remained a sanctioned place of pilgrimage and sacrifice (1 Sam 10.3). 

After the division of the kingdom of Israel (ca. 931 BC), Jeroboam I placed one of two golden calves-commemorating the golden calves worshipped in the wilderness-at Bethel.  Thereafter, the temple of Bethel remained a major center of northern Israelite cult and pilgrimage with its own non-Levitical priests (1 Kg 12.29-33; 2 Chr 13.8-9).  As such, the temple at Bethel was occasionally condemned by Israelite prophets (1 Kgs 13.1-10), and its destruction prophesied (Hosea 10.15; Amos 3.14).  On the other hand, Elisha was associated with the "sons of the prophets" who were located at Bethel (2 Kg 2).  King Josiah eventually destroyed and profaned the shrine at Bethel (2 Kg 23.15-19), ending its use as an Israelite temple.  Archaeologically little has been discovered associated with any Israelite shrine or cultic activity at Bethel

Bethel is also found as either a god and/or a euphemism for the name of a god in both pagan Aramaic and some fifth century BC Jewish texts from Elephantine in Egypt.  As such, the Canaanite god Bethel (= "[the god of] the house of god") appears in Hellenistic times as Biatylos, and is associated with the veneration of sacred stones known as baitylia, which some scholars speculate may be linked with Jacob's sacred stone which he called "bethel" (Gen 28.17).

During the Middle Ages Jacob's vision of the stairway to heaven at Bethel became a potent symbol for the mystical ascent of the soul into the presence of God, especially in the work of John Climacus, a monk at Mt. Sinai (John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent [Paulist Press, 1982]).

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