Where is Biblical Bethel, Beth-Aven, and Ai?

UPDATE: A year after the writing of this post, I totally changed my position regarding Beitin and Bethel.

Bethel was located in the hill country of Ephraim (Judges 4:5) and in Benjamin (Josh 18:22). It was said by both Jerome and Eusebius to be at the 12th milestone from Jerusalem, but Beitin (the conventionally accepted Bethel, LB IIB fortress at 31°55’37″N, 35°14’20″E) does not fit, either by size, archaeology, or distance.

Firstly, archeologically, Beitin only had strong activity beginning in the Iron IIB; the 8th century BC. Throughout the entire period of early Iron IIA and late Iron I (from Saul to Omri), there was hardly any sort of settlement at Beitin! Even in the days of Jehu, there is no evidence of any great city at Beitin. After the 8th century, Beitin remained a poor village until the Hellenistic period.

Secondly, Judges 4:5 makes far better sense if a Ramah is placed at Ramalla and Bethel placed at Bireh (there are over five miles between er-Ram, certainly a Ramah, but certainly not the one mentioned in the verse, and Beitin [remember the existence of Mizpah]). Ras et-Tahuneh, 31°54’30″N, 35°12’44″E, the most likely candidate for Bethel’s high place, contains 40% Iron II shreds. We can therefore assume Bethel as el-Bireh, since, if it is not Bethel, it is not mentioned in the Bible (Beeroth is at Biddu according to Eusebius’s distances and the implication of other Bible verses, and at Khirbet al-Burj according to Finkelstein, which, while a fine Iron II site, is too near Jerusalem to fit Eusebius’s distances). Since Bethel was in Benjamin, Beth-Aven must be interpreted in Joshua 18:12 as being north of Bethel. Since Ai was “near” Beth-Aven, Beth-Aven should preferably be to the east of Bethel/Bireh. Beitin is the only site with Iron II pottery Northeast of Bethel that is west of Michmash (1 Sam 13:4). It is therefore the best candidate for Beth-Aven. Since there are only two archeological sites that were ruins during Iron II in the vicinity of Beitin, Kh. Maqatir, 31°54’54″N, 35°14’58″E, and et-Tell, et-Tell being excluded due to its being larger than Gibeon in Joshua 10:2 (Gibeon was 16 acres. et-Tell was 27), Khirbet Maqatir is the only candidate for Ai. This is supported by Genesis 12:8, which says there is a mountain between Bethel and Ai (obviously, the one at 31°54’47″N, 35°13’49″E). Burj Beitin, the conventionally accepted “mountain” is not even a hill, but a modest ridge, and was only inhabited in the Byzantine-Crusader era. The most likely locations of Iron II and Persian Ai are Sites 205 (31°54’45″N, 35°14’51″E) and 204 (31°54’33″N, 35°15’4″E), respectively, on the previously linked Benjamin Survey. Khirbet Nisya, 31°53’48″N, 35°13’45″E, is therefore Zemaraim.

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Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

22 thoughts on “Where is Biblical Bethel, Beth-Aven, and Ai?”

  1. Difficulties in location of Bethel are connected with the following problems:
    1. We really do not know when biblical texts have been written. Accordingly, we do not know what historical conditions they reflect.
    2. We do not know the historical and geographical knowledge of biblical authors and Church Fathers, who describe the location of Bethel.
    3. We do not know what is Bethel. Is it a city name or its epithet?
    If Bethel (House of God) and Beth-Aven (House of vanity) are epithets, they may indicate a cult center (or even several different cult centers).

    I think that identification of Bethel as some single city is very difficult today.

    One of the possible values ​​of “Mount Bethel” is Mount Gerizim with the Samaritan temple on it.

    1. 1. We really do not know when biblical texts have been written. Accordingly, we do not know what historical conditions they reflect.

      -True. Archaeology and other textual indicators might help us in this matter (e.g., the Patriarchs’ connections with Mesopotamia indicate a post-Exilic date for the final composition of Genesis).

      2. We do not know the historical and geographical knowledge of biblical authors and Church Fathers, who describe the location of Bethel.

      The traditions of Eusebius are likely reliable, as Eusebius lived at Caesarea of Palestine and his location of Bethel (12 milestones N. of Jerusalem, five milestones W. of Ophrah/et-Tayyibeh) is consistent with a location of Bethel at Beitin.

      3. We do not know what is Bethel. Is it a city name or its epithet?
      If Bethel (House of God) and Beth-Aven (House of vanity) are epithets, they may indicate a cult center (or even several different cult centers).

      -Yes, but a cult center inside the city of Luz/Bethel. No Iron Age (or later) cult center has been detected near el-Bireh or Beitin (although an Intermediate Bronze one was found on the ridge E. of Beitin). Bethel was placed near Shechem by a Medieval tradition, but no early one. Your idea OT Bethel might have represented several different cult centers is possible, but the vast majority of mentions of Bethel in the OT do seem to refer to Bethel in northern Benjamin, whose location was probably not forgotten throughout the centuries.

      1. Thus, Bethel is the cult center (temple), located in city of Luz. If we identify the location of Luz, we can find Bethel.
        Crusaders were not first who identify Bethel near Shechem. First was Eusebius.

        1. No, Eusebius placed Bethel 12 milestones N. of Jerusalem and 5 milestones W. of Ophrah in his Onomasticon (see here for map). My definition of “near” in this context is “within seven or so miles”.

          1. I found english translaion of Onomasticon.
            So, Eusebius wrote:

            “Baithēl (Bethel). It is now a village twelve miles from Jerusalem to the right of the road going to Neapolis. It was formerly called Oulamma and also Luza. It was given to (the lot of) the tribe of Benjamin, near Bethaven and Gai. Josue also fought there killing the king. [Further, since some hold Ulammaus to be the old form following the error of the Greek volume, they err greatly. Surely the word is Hebrew and they appear to have confused the name of the city with Ulam meaning “first,” i.e., former, while Luza really means “almond.” So properly Bethel was first called Luza. Neither this nor Bathaun should be looked for in another city since the Hebrews reckoned them to be Bethel. But from the time of Jeroboam, son of Nabat, made there the Golden calves and the ten tribes worshiped there, it has been called Betraun, i.e., “House of God.” But we have spoken of this fully in the book Hebrew Questions.”

            But on identification of Luza he wrote:

            “Jacob renamed this Bethel. This village, inhabited even now, is on the left of the road going to Jerusalem from Neapolis. Given to tribe of Benjamin.

            Another. Given to the sons of Joseph. Near Suchem (Sychem) nine (three) miles from Neapolis.

            Another near Baithel located in the land of the Hethites. The one left from Bethel founded it as it is told in Judges.”

            First two identification he made on the basis on two existing villages. Third, on the basis on biblical text only.

  2. Thank you! Apparently there were already competing Bethel traditions by the Late Roman period. The northern one was likely a Samaritian invention, possibly dating back as early as the Persian period.

    1. That’s a possibility, though I still don’t see any convincing evidence Judges 1’s Bethel/Luz is distinct from Judges 21:19’s (Bethel at or near Beitin was on the border of Benjamin and Ephraim in the Joshua border description). Judges 1 was also clearly tacked on to the rest of the Book of Judges at a later date than the composition of the rest of the Book of Judges, although I still see no evidence of a post-monarchic date for Judges 1’s composition.

      1. Perhaps you agree with Finkelstein theory of late-monarchic dating of the biblical texts.
        I respect Finkelstein. I read most of his articles and book The Bible Unearthed. I translated this book into Russian. But I think his dating too optimistic.

        If you believe that the biblical texts are dated to the Iron Age II then you should seek historical conditions for Bethel in that period. But these texts can be written later in the Persian or Hellenistic periods. Then you should seek appropriate historical conditions in other periods.

  3. I would like to introduce you to some problems concerning Bethel.
    In Hebrew Masoretic text another name of Bethel is mentioned as Luz. But in Samaritan Pentateuch it is named as Luza. Samaritan version is confirmed by Septuagint and Vulgate texts. Even Eusebius in his Onomasticon wrote LUZA.
    It seems that in Masoretic text the name of Luza has been edited to Luz. Perhaps, this was done against Samaritan claims that Bethel was located on Mount Gerizim.

    1. Though Bethel and Beth-Aven may be the same place (cf., Joshua 7:2 in the Septuagint and Hosea’s mentions of Beth-Aven), I still find it hard to explain why “Beth-Aven” is used instead of “Bethel” as a geographical name twice in Samuel and once (or twice) in Joshua.

      1. Maybe Bethel (House of God) is the name of the cult center. And Beth-aven (House of vanity) is a negative epithet of this cult center on the part of supporters of another cult center (ie Jerusalem temple).

        Can you propose a strong argument that Bethel is a name of the city?

        1. Yes, but that idea does not explain well the mentions of Beth-Aven in Joshua and Samuel (which also mention Bethel). It does explain well the mentions of Beth-Aven in Hosea. Perhaps “Beth-Aven” was a scribal interpolation in Joshua and Samuel. Bethel is used as the name of a town/village in Joshua 18:22.

  4. Modern Samaritans call their sacred Mount Gerizim as Bethel-Luza. I do not know why they do it and what it means. But Eusebius knew it. In his Onomasticon he made ​​reference to the biblical text. When he identified one of Luz near Shechem, he made a link for the Jos. 16:2. What’s special is in Jos. 16:2?
    Let us look in KJV.

    “And the lot of the children of Joseph fell from Jordan by Jericho, unto the water of Jericho on the east, to the wilderness that goeth up from Jericho throughout mount Bethel, and goeth out from Bethel to Luz, and passeth along unto the borders of Archi to Ataroth, (Jos 16:1-2 KJV)”

    Surprisingly, in this verse states that Bethel and Luz are different settlements. But a literal reading of this verse is:

    “And fell the lot to the sons of Joseph from Jordan Jericho towards the water of Jericho on the east, the pasturage that goeth up from Jericho throughout mount Bethel, and goeth out from Bethel Luza, and passeth along unto the borders of Archi Ataroth, (Jos 16:1-2)

    Eusebius identified this Luza near Shechem because he knew this toponym Bethel-Luza, and knew where does it located.

    1. In the Joshua border descriptions and town lists, it is almost impossible to place Bethel within 16 miles of Shechem. Doing so would make the border of Benjamin cut deep into Ephraim, possibly even dividing Ephraim into two! The Samaritans did (and still do) identify OT Luz as Khirbet Lozeh/Kiryat Luza on Mt. Gerizim (curiously, there is another Khirbet Lozeh some three miles W. of Beitin), but there is no evidence I know of that this tradition originated any time before the Persian period (when the Gerizim temple was founded).

  5. I’m looking to site associated with “Jacob’s pillow” any leads? What happened to the stone. Was there a temple put over it or church?

    1. As far as I know, nobody has found the Bethel temple’s location, though I suggest looking SE of Albright & Kelso’s excavation areas.

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