When Abraham entered Canaan, one of his main camping places was near Bethel, in the hill country west of the lower Jordan. There he built an altar, and there he later returned after a time in Egypt (Gen 12:8; 13:3). In those days the town was known by its Canaanite name, Luz. It was renamed Bethel (i.e. ‘house of God’) by Jacob, after he had a remarkable dream that made him feel he was in the dwelling place of God. From that time on, God was, to Jacob, ‘the God of Bethel’. Many years later he returned to Bethel to fulfil vows he made on the night of his dream (Gen 28:11-22; 31:13; 35:6-7). Bethel, along with other towns and villages of central Canaan, fell to Israel at the time of Joshua’s conquest. When Canaan was divided among Israel’s tribes, Bethel was on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin. It was allotted to Benjamin, but was occupied by Ephraim (Josh 8:9; 16:1; 18:11-13,21-22; Judg 1:23; 1 Chron 7:20,28; for map see BENJAMIN). For a brief period after the conquest, the ark of the covenant was kept at Bethel (Judg 20:18,27-28). Bethel was an important religious and administrative centre in the time of Samuel and a school for prophets was established there.

The school was still functioning in the time of Elijah and Elisha (1 Sam 7:16; 10:3; 2 Kings 2:3,23). When the Israelite kingdom split into two, Jeroboam, king of the breakaway northern kingdom, set up golden idols at Dan and Bethel, the northern and southern border towns of his kingdom. The idolatry of Bethel, which God’s prophets repeatedly denounced, was the reason why the altar and the town were eventually destroyed (1 Kings 12:28-33; 13:1-3; 2 Kings 23:15-20; Jer 48:13; Amos 3:14; 4:4; 5:5; 7:10- 13). With the rebuilding of Israel after the captivity, Bethel again became a settlement (Neh 11:31). It still existed in the time of Christ, though it is not mentioned in the New Testament.

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