Updated: Jan 2
Bethel (or Beth-El) is the mythical site that Jacob called the "house of God" (Genesis 28:17) after he had dreamt there of a ladder to heaven where angels were ascending and descending on it. Because this site was loaded with Biblical stories, it has early attracted the interest of Protestants archaeologists who were eager to find its location and prove the Bible right. The first one was the famous Robinson (the same who discovered the "Robinson arch" of the Temple Mount) in 1838. He based his opinion on the Bible text to try to locate the site in Samaria, and noted the village of Beitin which seems to have a name close to Bethel. Excavations were later organised in the area in 1927 by Albright, and more after him until 1960. But nothing was found in the close vicinity of Beitin that could fit with what was known of the Biblical narrative, where Bethel was of great importance for 2000 years and is mentioned more than 100 times ! A tower called Burj-Beitin was located on a hill near the Arab village, but it wasn't dated from the Biblical times. On the official map drawn by the PEF (Palestine Exploration Fund) in 1880, we can notice names such as Beitin, Burj-Beitin, even el-Tell (the site assumed to be the Biblical Ai that Joshua destroyed), but we can also notice another site called "Sheikh Abdullah Tomb": in Arabic, Abdullah means "servant of God".
The situation remained the same, with its question marks, during all the mandatory period. Then, when the State of Israel was declared in 1948, Jordan invaded and occupied the regions of Judea and Samaria, as well as the Old City of Jerusalem. It renamed them the "West Bank", with the intent to annex them one day. But these plans fell apart with the Six-Days War when Israel retook these territories from the Jordan occupier (these territories were part of the British Mandate given for the creation of two states, one Jewish and on Arab, from local populations). From that moment, the Biblical sites located in Judea and Samaria (which were the regions mostly referred to in the Bible) regained archeological interest, this time from Israeli and International teams. That's how, in 1968, an Israeli geographer, Zeev Vilnay, had the idea to go near the tomb of Sheikh Abdullah thinking that, if the Arabs from Beitin were used to pilgrim there, there must be a reason kept by ancient tradition. And, by wandering throughout the site, it became obvious to him that it was the site of Biblical Bethel. Why? For no less than 6 reasons which, combined together, give certainty about this identification:
(1) on the site, there is a maqam, i.e. a mausoleum indicating a holy site (without being a mosque). And this maqam dates from the Early Muslim period (before the Crusades); and, on the same site, a Crusader Order (of Prémontré) also built a chapel, thus increasing by Christian faith that this place was holy. At a later Muslim period, the chapel was used as an entrance hall to the maqam, and a tomb was added inside it. The presence of such tomb of a local Sheikh also concurs to the holiness of the place.
(2) Many ancient trees exist on site. However it is well known that trees were cut in the land of Israel over many generations and that, in particular, none of them were left after WW-I because the Turks had cut what was left to feed their locomotives to carry soldiers and weapons to the South against the British front in Egypt. But, when locals would say that such or such tree(s) were holy, the Turks would not touched them. Consequently, the presence of an ancient tree on a site is always a sign that the tree and the site are holy. In Bethel, there is a particular ancient oak tree (a Boissier oak, called אלון תולע in Hebrew), from a specie local to the region: it can generally be found in Upper Galilee, or in the higher grounds of Samaria like this one. This oak tree has been assessed to be over 1000 years old, making it the oldest oak of this specie in Israel. Such tree would regenerate from time to time from the same roots. It is under such oak tree that Deborah, the nurse of Rebecca wife of Isaac, was buried in Bethel (Genesis 35:8).
(3) The site is located near the highest peak of Samaria, mount Baal-Hatzor, and therefore is located on the so-called "Road of the Patriarchs" that crossed the Land of Israel on a north-south axis across the high peaks of Judea and Samaria. Therefore, when a Patriach used to walk this land on this axis, he would necessarily pass through this site, Bethel.
(4) The obvious similarity of the names Bethel and Beitin is another proof, as Robinson had thought except that he looked for the site on the wrong side of the Arab village. This village was established in the 19th century by immigrants who came from Jordan of today. In 1863, the explorer Victor Guerin had counted 400 inhabitants (about 50 houses). In 1945, near the end of the British Mandate, the population was of 690 inhabitants.
(5) All around the site of Bethel, on the slopes of the hill, are located over 100 tombs dated from the Second Temple mostly, but also some dated from the First Temple. It is known that Jews, like often in other faiths, wished to be buried next to a holy person or a holy site, such as on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and around Jerusalem ingeneral. This presence of tombs is also a proof of the holiness of this site.
(6) One particular section of the site is made of flat rocks, surrounded by a thick stone wall, as it was done in the First Temple era (thus the Biblical period) and, moreover, this area is of 100 x 50 cubits: this matches exactly the size of a Jewish sanctuary such as in the Biblical Shiloh where the Tabernacle was located for over 200 years. At the end of this area, there is also an erected area made of unhewn stones that would correspond to a "high place" where sacrifices would have been performed, just outside the sanctuary as it was done in Shiloh and in the Temple of Jerusalem. This discovery is crucial because it is known, from the Biblical narrative, that Jeroboam king of Israel (a kingdom later called Samaria) built a tabernacle in Bethel where he placed a golden calf, as he did in Tel Dan, at the northern end of his kingdom.
BIBLICAL HISTORY OF BETHEL
Since 2000 years before Common Era, the site of Bethel has been used without interruption and until nowadays. It had started at the Canaanite period, where a thick stone wall was erected in the Bronze period and later destroyed by Pharaoh Thutmoses III (he is so-called the Napoleon of Egypt) when he conquered the land of Canaan from the hands of the Hittites around 1500 BCE. According to the Bible, the Canaanite city was called Luz (Genesis 28:19) but it may also correspond to the ruins found near the Arab village of Beitin. This land was later conquered by Joshua and given to the tribe of Ephraim (Joshua's own tribe) son of Joseph (Joshua 16:1). Bethel was located at the border with the territory of Benjamin (Joshua 18:13).
It was in Bethel that the Ark of the Covenant was located, before the civil war between the tribe of Benjamin against all the other tribes. The latter reunited in Bethel, in presence of the Ark and of the high priest Pinchas (Judges 20:26-28), before crossing the border and entering the territory of Benjamin. So, evidently, when the land of the 12 tribes was divided, with Judah and Benjamin for the kingdom of Judah and its king Rehoboam, and with the other 10 tribes for the kingdom of Israel with its king Jeroboam, Bethel also became the border between the two knigdoms. It is at that time that Jeroboam decided to prevent its people to do the multi-annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in ennemy territory, and rather erected a pagan temple (with a golden calf) in Bethel as the alternative to Jerusalem. By doing so, he just copied what the tribe of Dan, in the very northern part of its kingdom, had already built, except that Jeroboam deposited a golden calf there too (I Kings 12:28-29). These two sanctuaries were therefore conveniently located at the two extreme sides of Jeroboam's kingdom, one at the northern border (Tel Dan) and one at the southern border (Bethel).
One question remains: why did Jeroboam choose the site of Bethel to establish its temple? It was a problematic location, exposed to potential attacks from the kingdom of Judah. And there were other sites in his kingdom that would be appropriate for such sanctuary, such as Shiloh where the Ark was located for over 200 years. The only obvious answer is that Bethel meant "the house of God", a name given by the patriarch Jacob who also called it "the Gate of Heaven". It is in Bethel that God talked to Jacob in a dream and promised him a numerous descendance (Genesis 28:13-14). Therefore, it is in Bethel that the so-called Jewish People really started, from the initial family tribe of Jacob who would later be renamed by an angel of God as "Israel". All these details were obviously known by the people of Jeroboam in their times, and it made of Bethel a suitable location for a (pagan) tabernacle, even more so than the location of Shiloh who was arbitrarily chosen by Joshua. Yet, because of the location's inconvenience to be a border and thus to have his enemy at the gate, Jeroboam built around the site a defence wall and towers, the ruins of which are still visible today. But it was at Bethel that Amos the Prophet came to prophexise its destruction (Amos 3:14). This prophecy was executed by Josiah, king of Judah, after the northern kingdom of Samaria fell under the Assyrian empire (722 BCE). Josiah then came to Bethel and destroyed Jeroboam's sanctuary, stone after stone, and even removed all the bones of people buried around it to burn them (II Kings 23). Later it was the turn of the kingdom of Judah to be destroyed, this time by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, until Jews were allowed by Cyrus the Mede to return to their country and rebuild their temple. The last chapters of the Bible talk about the return to Sion (=Jerusalem) and the re-establisment of Jews in Bethel (Nehemiah 7:32).
The main Biblical narrative about Jacob and Jeroboam stoppes here but there have been other Biblical events in Bethel and its area. For example, it is on the neighbouring mount Ball-Hatzor that God promised to Abraham the land he had in front of his eyes (Genesis 12:8). It is at the same place that Abraham had to part away from his nephew Lot (Genesis 13:3-5, as confirmed in the Genesis Apocryphon found in the Dead Sea Scrolls). It is also near Bethel that Deborah the Prophetess was sitting under a plam-tree (Judges 4:4-5): another Deborah and another tree, both related to Bethel ! It is also on the slopes of mount Baal-Hatzor that Absalom, the rebellious son of King David, trapped his half brothers (except Solomon) and killed them in revenge of the rape of his sister Tamar (II Kings 13:23). And the site also keeps other legends such as the actual bed of stones where Jacob fell asleep.
During the war of the Maccabees against the Seleucid rule (one of the kingdoms established after the death of Alexander the Great), the Jewish heroe Judas the Maccabean was killed in battle on the slopes of mount Baal-Hatzor in 160 BCE against the Hellenistic army led by Bacchides (Book I of the Maccabees, chap. 9). Then Bacchides fortifies Bethel because it is located on the main north-south road. Later, Vespasian, the Roman general sent to crush the Jewish Revolt, conquiered the regions of Galilee and Samaria, and ended his campaign with the capture of Bethel in 69 CE before starting the siege of Jerusalem (Josephus, War of the Jews, 4:545). After capturing Jerusalem and destroying its Temple, his son Titus also installed a garrison in Bethel because of its strategic location (Midrash Rabbah, Lamentations I 16:45).
In the Byzantine period, Bethel is mentioned in multiple sources (Eusebius of Caesarea, the Pilgrim from Bordeaux, St Jeronimus, Theodosius, etc.). On the famous Madaba map (about 540 CE), Bethel is also mentioned as "Λούζα η και Bεθηλ" which means "Luzza which is also Bethel".
Then, as earlier mentioned, after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land (7th century CE), a maqam was built on the site of Bethel, facing the traditional site of Jacob's Dream. The place of this dream can still be seen today, and is a rather strange sight. Then, during the Crusader period, a religious order built a chapel. It was the Order of Prémontré, founded in 1120 in Laon, France, under the regula of St Augustine. At the time, Bethel and its area belonged to the lordship of Ibelin ("Ibelin" derived its name from the Jewish town of "Yabneh"). Why a chapel there? Because the Muslims told the Crusaders that this was the sacred place of Jacob's Dream for both Jews and Muslims. Now it was Christian's too.
Still during the Crusades period, according to a known legend, the stone of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey came from Bethel. This stone was previously used as the royal seat for the Scottish kings but, after the conquest of Scotland by Edward I, the stone ended up under the chair of the English kings. And this until 1996 when the stone was solemnly returned to Scotland: it is now exhibited in Edinburgh Castle.
The site of Bethel is really loaded with history, Biblical and Modern. Access to the site is free (for now) but is barely signposted or documented. For an interesting visit, I can only advise to arrange it with a Licensed Tour Guide so that you won't miss the important and interesting elements of this mythical site.
Private Tour Guide, Israel