Beitin: Its Size and History

Beitin is a little village to the NE of the Bira-Ramalla area. It is readily identifiable with ancient Bethel, and has been so since at least 1838 (begin at page 447). It is the only notable site which is consistent with Eusebius’s statements that Bethel was 12 milestones from Jerusalem (apparently, one turned off before reaching the 13th milestone), as confirmed by numerous attempts by me to accurately locate the milestones (a near-impossible thing to do due to the fact the roads were so drastically altered during the modern period and the inaccuracy of the Survey of Western Palestine). Since Beitin is surely the site of Byzantine Bethel, I shall here summarize the archaeological history of Beitin, as recorded in Albright&Kelso’s The Excavations of Bethel.

Above: Map of Beitin. Red line represents the Middle Bronze city wall. Thick blue line represents hypothesized border of Benjamin. Thin blue line represents road.

Beitin was first settled in the Pottery Neolithic period (¶ 218), although, due to the limited mention of this period in the excavation report (only one sherd, to my knowledge, is mentioned), this is uncertain. The Late Chalcolithic is well represented in almost all areas of Beitin. A high place with evidence of blood, animal bones, and fire, was found in the NW gate area. According to ¶ 88, “The only actual installation in connection with this earliest place of sacrifice was a shallow elliptical pit or bin, 55 cm long and 15 cm deep. It was on (in?) a thin layer of debris just above bedrock and 15 cm E. of the ledge. It was made by standing thin slabs of limestone on edge in the ground. They averaged c. 1 cm thick and 15 cm. in height. There were a few stone slabs at the bottom of the bin, the longest being 22 cm. There were also some pieces of charcoal, the largest 2-5 cm.”

Beitin was abandoned by its inhabitants at the beginning of the Early Bronze. Its descendants would go on to found et-Tell, identified by the scholarly community with Biblical Ai. et-Tell was destroyed in the EB IIIB, the same period Beitin was resettled, as four Khirbet Kerak sherds were found at Beitin in the same locus as the Neolithic sherd. Beitin was abandoned again in the Intermediate Bronze Age and resettled again in the Mirsim H phase toward the end of the Intermediate Bronze.

Middle Bronze IIA Beitin was somewhat reduced in size compared to its Late IB predecessor (Dever disagrees with this conclusion of the excavators, arguing the IB settlement was rather limited), although pottery of this phase was found in the pit where the South Wall was discovered. MB IIB-C Beitin was a strong, well-fortified city with the NW gate area being occupied by a gate which led out toward the E. This gate was never rebuilt. There was some evidence of burning at the end of the MB II city. For Beitin’s history c. 1500-c. 300 BC, see this article. According to Bryant Wood, Beitin was re-occupied already in the LB IB. According to the excavators, the town revived c. 1400 BC and its fortifications were rebuilt with the best masonry found at Beitin. The excavators also concluded that the town was destroyed c. 1300 BC, and was quickly re-inhabited and re-fortified as a slightly poorer settlement in the 13th C BC. According to Finkelstein and Singer-Avitz, the town did not survive into the Lachish VI phase, and according to the excavators, it was destroyed in a massive conflagration at the end of the LB IIB. According to Albright&Kelso, Beitin’s first two Iron I phases were destroyed and the Iron I settlement at Beitin certainly extended into the South Wall area. According to Finkelstein and Singer-Avitz, Beitin’s Middle Iron I stratum (the one contemporary with the habitation of Shiloh) did not survive into Late Iron I, when Jerusalem was well-occupied once again.

According to Finkelstein and Singer-Avitz, Beitin did not bear any distinctive Early Iron IIa (Jeroboam I era) ware, revealed a poor settlement from the Late Iron IIa, reached a peak of prosperity in the post-Aramean Kingdom of Israel, and continued to exist after the fall of Israel (e.g., a Lapidarist lmlk stamp impression was found at the site), albeit in a state of decline, until it was destroyed by fire (Excavations, pg. 37), probably during the Babylonian conquest. According to ¶ 47, repairs on the wall were conducted in the 8th C BC in the form of one or two towers, the first being in the E. part of of Area I. No Babylonian-period remains (such as Mesopotamian-inspired wedge or reedimpressed ware or mwsh impressions) were found in any part of the tell, contradicting the theories of Knauf, Amit, and Blenkinsopp. This contradiction with the Biblical text is paralleled at Tel Dan, which contained no significant Iron IIa settlement, and was only resettled during the Aramean period, as evidenced by the Tel Dan Stela. It contained no building remains and almost no pottery remains of the Persian period (a “fragment of a Greek lekythos…which Iliffe dated to the latter half of  the fifth century BC” was identified in ¶ 320 of Excavations among “Late Bronze sherds of imported ware”), and was not reoccupied until the Seleucid period.

Beitin was re-occupied in the Seleucid period (not earlier; p. 77, ftn. 6). According to the excavators, three Hellenistic phases could be distinguished, and plans of the 1st and 2nd-3rd phases are shown. Three (?) Rhodian jar handles were found at the site, all dating to the first half of the 2nd century BC. According to Albright (¶ 6), “On the next ridge to the northeast stands a tumulus, named today Rujm Abu Ammar, which is covered with Hellenistic sherds from about the second century B.C. and has remains of masonry, suggesting it was a watchtower of the Maccabaean age.” According to Kelso (¶ 153), it can be identified with Bacchides’s fortification at Bethel mentioned in I Mac. 9:50. Repairs on the city wall and a building of a new city gate, mentioned in ¶ 47&48, were conducted in the Hellenistic period. This re-fortification may be attributed either to Bacchides or to the Hasmoneans. According to ¶ 161, “The only definite signs of Roman conquest were found in 1957 at the NE gate of the city and the adjacent N wall, ¶ 48 ff. Time permitted only preliminary study at this point. The NE gate was destroyed down to pavement level and the few sherds were colorless and could be dated no closer than sometime between Pompey and Vespasian. Just W of the gate the upper section of the N wall had been removed and a Roman house built over the lower courses, ¶ 173-174.”. The town continued into the Roman period, when it expanded to the west and south as far as the Mosque area, and the Byzantine period, when a church was built at/near the Mosque. The Roman period was the first period during which cisterns ere built at Beitin. A Byzantine street (shown in orange just E. of the MB city) and numerous buildings were recorded by the excavators. The great cistern to the south of the village also dates to the Byzantine period. The town was abandoned toward the beginning of the Islamic period, and was forgotten until the 1830s.

Thus, Beitin’s archaeological history is fully compatible with Bethel’s literary history. However, problems remain: Jeroboam’s altar has, after decades of searching, not been found (it might have been located to the E. or SE. part of the walled city). Also, there are some Bible-based indications, as Knauf and Blenkinsopp have cited, that Bethel was occupied into the Babylonian-Early Persian periods. However, the evidence from Genesis 12 and Joshua does not exactly favor a pre-Hellenistic Bethel at el-Bireh, a suggestion made most notably by many of those at the ministry Associates for Biblical Research, as we’ll see in a later post.