Bethel—A City of Good and Bad
SOME cities become famous—or notorious—for events that take place within them. Bethel, however, is unusual in that it became known for both good and bad. The patriarch Jacob named the city Bethel, which means “House of God.” But a thousand years later, the prophet Hosea called the city the “House of Hurtfulness.” How did this city change from good to bad? And what can we learn from its history?
Bethel’s association with God’s people began in 1943 B.C.E. when Abraham was still alive. At that time, the city was known as Luz, its original Canaanite name. It was situated in the hill country, some 11 miles [17 km] north of Jerusalem. Picture Abraham and his nephew Lot looking down on the fertile plains of the lower Jordan Valley from a vantage point high in the mountains around Bethel. Tactfully, Abraham brings to Lot’s attention the difficulty of assigning grazing areas for their large flocks: “Please, do not let any quarreling continue between me and you and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we men are brothers. Is not the whole land available to you? Please, separate from me. If you go to the left, then I will go to the right; but if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.”—Genesis 13:3-11.
Abraham did not assert his right to choose first. Rather, he allowed the younger man to take the choice portion. We can imitate Abraham’s fine attitude. We can defuse contentious issues by taking the initiative in speaking calmly and acting unselfishly.—Romans 12:18.
Years later when Abraham’s grandson Jacob camped at Luz, he had an extraordinary dream. He saw “a ladder stationed upon the earth and its top reaching up to the heavens; and, look! there were God’s angels ascending and descending on it. And, look! there was Jehovah stationed above it.” (Genesis 28:11-19; compare John 1:51.) The dream had an important significance. The angels that Jacob saw would minister to him in fulfilling the promise God made to him regarding his seed. Jehovah’s elevated position above the ladder showed that he would direct the angels in this work.
This assurance of divine support moved Jacob deeply. Upon awakening from the dream, he called the place Bethel, meaning “House of God,” and vowed to Jehovah: “As for everything that you will give me I shall without fail give the tenth of it to you.”* (Genesis 28:20-22) Recognizing that everything he had came from God, he desired to give back a generous portion as a token of his gratitude.
Christians today also have angels ministering in their behalf. (Psalm 91:11; Hebrews 1:14) They too can show their appreciation for all their blessings by being “rich with many expressions of thanks to God.”—2 Corinthians 9:11, 12.
In time, Jacob’s descendants became a nation. Their leader Joshua defeated the pagan king of Bethel fairly early in the conquest of Canaan. (Joshua 12:16) During the time of the Judges, the prophetess Deborah lived near Bethel and related Jehovah’s word to the people. Samuel too visited Bethel regularly as he judged the nation of Israel.—Judges 4:4, 5; 1 Samuel 7:15, 16.
Bethel Becomes a Center of Apostasy
But Bethel’s association with pure worship ceased after the division of the Kingdom in 997 B.C.E. King Jeroboam set up Bethel as a center for calf worship, the calf supposedly representing Jehovah. (1 Kings 12:25-29) That is why, when prophesying Bethel’s destruction, Hosea referred to it as “Beth-aven,” which means “House of Hurtfulness.”−Hosea 10:5, 8.
Although Bethel had become a center of spiritual hurtfulness, events connected with it continued to provide important lessons. (Romans 15:4) One such lesson concerns an unnamed prophet who was sent from Judah to Bethel to foretell the destruction of its altars and priests. Jehovah also told him to return to Judah—just a few miles to the south—without eating or drinking. This prophet boldly uttered a prophecy before Jeroboam, king of Israel, calling down evil upon the altar of Bethel. But then he disobeyed God by eating at the house of an old prophet in Bethel. Why? The old prophet falsely claimed that an angel of Jehovah had ordered him to offer hospitality to a fellow prophet. The disobedience of the prophet from Judah led to his untimely death.—1 Kings 13:1-25.
If a fellow believer suggests that we do something that seems questionable, how should we react? Remember that even well-intentioned advice can be harmful if it is wrong. (Compare Matthew 16:21-23.) By seeking direction from Jehovah through prayer and study of his Word, we will avoid the tragic mistake of the unnamed prophet.—Proverbs 19:21; 1 John 4:1.
Some 150 years later, the prophet Amos also made the trip north to prophesy against Bethel. Amos firmly denounced his hostile audience, including the priest Amaziah, who haughtily told Amos to ‘run his way off to the land of Judah.’ But Amos fearlessly told Amaziah of the calamities that would come upon the priest’s own household. (Amos 5:4-6; 7:10-17) His example reminds us that Jehovah can embolden his humble ministers.—1 Corinthians 1:26, 27.
Eventually, faithful King Josiah of Judah pulled down ‘the altar that was in Bethel, burned the high place, ground it to dust, and burned the sacred pole.’ (2 Kings 23:15, 16) Elders today can imitate his fine example by zealously following through on God’s instructions and by taking the lead in keeping the congregation clean.
These incidents in Bethel’s history graphically portray the consequences of righteousness and wickedness, of obeying and disobeying Jehovah. Years earlier, Moses had put this choice before the nation of Israel: “I do put before you today life and good, and death and bad.” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 16) Meditating on Bethel’s history will encourage us to identify ourselves with the “House of God,” a place of true worship, rather than with the “House of Hurtfulness.”
Both Jacob and Abraham voluntarily offered tithes.
[Picture on page 23]
Ruins on the site of Bethel, where Jeroboam established a center for calf worship