A place where God acted and men failed
We first read of the city of Bethel when Abraham entered the land of Canaan from Mesopotamia.. This town, sometimes known as Luz, has been identified as Tel Beitin according to A.R.Millard It was a 'high place', evidently a place of some note even before the days of Patriarchs, where ancient peoples had worshipped. Gen.12.8 notes that Abram's altar was built east of Bethel, and it was 19 km north of Salem (later to be called Jerusalem).
The place was called Luz when Jacob stopped the night there on his way to Haran and he calls the place 'the house of God' ‑ Bethel. This was the occasion of the wonderful dream when he saw angels ascending and descending to and from the throne of God. (Gen.28.10) When Yahweh appeared to Jacob while he and his wives were still lodging on his father-in-law's farm, He identified himself as the 'God of Bethel'. (Gen.31.13)
When Jacob finally entered Canaan he did not go straight to Bethel but made a detour via Shechem. There he became entangled with Hamor's tribe until the violence of Simeon and Levi caused the whole patriarchal family to make anew start, leave and make tracks for Bethel. At Bethel, the family mourned the loss of Deborah who had been Rebekah's 'nurse', although the reader may be left wondering how that elderly lady became part of Jacob's household. (Gen. 35.8) Maybe, after Rebekah's death, Deborah was transferred to Esau's tribe in Edom and when the brothers were reunited at the ford across the Jabbok stream, this faithful servant of the family, once more changed her abode.
In the time of the Judges Bethel was a place where the people sought the Lord as when dealing with the Benjamites (Jud.20,21). Evidently this was one of the temporary resting places of the ark. As that phase of Israel's history drew to a close Bethel was one of the stopping places on Samuel's circuit where he would help to settle disputes and sort out legal problems among the people of Israel. (1 Sam.7.16, 10.3)
Sadly, this place of wonderful memories became one of the two major shrines of the northern kingdom when Israel was split after Solomon's death. Jeroboam established his rival religion and set up idol worship there. It was in the territory of Benjamin near the border between Judah and Israel and possibly the rival king hoped to attract Israelites from both kingdoms to indulge in cultic practices of false worship and he met with some success.
There is a fascinating story in 1 Kings 13.1,2 concerning a 'man of God' and an old prophet. The man of God testified against the idolatry of Bethel and said that in days to come the altar would be broken down and the human ashes would be turned out. And so it came to pass some 100 years later during the reign of good king Josiah, when reform swept Judah, that the king gave orders for the high places to be broken down and the idolatrous practices to be stopped. (2 Kings 23.15).
This was not the final end of Bethel. There is mention of the town in the days of the return from Babylon. (Neh.11.31) It was somewhat restored in the period of the Maccabees, but destroyed and then rebuilt during the Roman occupation. But the great days of the patriarchs had gone and no place or people can flout God's law and principles of worship and expect to survive. Bethel had been the scene where their ancestors had met God, but this was long ago. As for Jerusalem, it too, like Bethel, became a city of disobedience and false spiritual pride.
It was at Sychar, a few miles north of Bethel, that Jesus spoke the most wonderful sermon to a congregation of one. He spoke to a woman … not a high born, wealthy lady of the pure stock of Israel but to a Samaritan woman who had a habit of changing husbands. She came from Shechem ‑ of all places. No self respecting, highly spiritual Pharisee would have given her a second look. Jesus spoke of the Father who is looking for those who worship in spirit and reality, not in a special place or according to some wonderful formula. The Pharisees had the Law of Moses and the holy temple in which to worship but these things did not prevent destruction of Jerusalem or the whole Jewish nation. The lesson applies throughout history until today. No ancient altar, no historic loyalties, no sectarian umbrella or time honoured intellectual dogma can bring salvation. That comes to those who as children of God, seek to emulate the spirit of the Living God. Such have a personal and living experience of the Father.
- Philip Dodderidge