Why ABR Should Give Up On the el-Bireh-Bethel Equation

Since the founding of ABR (Associates for Biblical Research, a Protestant ministry), it has since its founding (in 1969) supported the idea that Bethel should not be identified with Beitin, but, rather, with el-Bireh. This was largely David Livingston’s idea, and was proposed due to his miscounting of Roman milestones, his supposition Bethel should be a ‘living town’ (he did not consider in his first article that Beitin’s situation is paralleled by Lachish, Megiddo, Gezer, Hazor, ect.), and his supposition Bethel should have a mountain E. of it, not just a ridge. Note that I now think the statements of Eusebius that Bethel/Beitin was 12, not, as is in fact, 13, milestones from Jerusalem possibly stemmed from the possible lack of the Roman road leading directly to Beitin in his day (there was an eastern service road from Bireh to Nablus on the PEF map; see below). However, since 1995, there has been a split between Bryant Wood and David Livingston on the location of ‘Ai. While Livingston suggests Khirbet Nisya (excavated under his direction between 1979 and 1994) to be ‘Ai, Bryant Wood suggests Khirbet Maqatir (excavated under his direction since 1995) to be ‘Ai. In order for Nisya to be ‘Ai, Bethel has to be identified as el-Bireh. However, if ‘Ai is to be identified at Maqatir, there is no need for ignoring (or misinterpreting) Late Roman data to fit a location of Bethel at el-Bireh.

Even assuming a location of Bethel at el-Bireh, Khirbet Nisya is a poor location for ‘Ai. It contains no remains of a city gate that would have been visible during the time of original composition of Joshua, obviously the late 7th century BC, and, indeed, contains no architectural remains at all prior to the Iron I period. Indeed, it was hardly a ruin between the Iron IIB and the Persian period; a two-winged lmlk handle and three yhwd impressions were discovered at the site. A location of ‘Ai at Khirbet Nisya also suffers from a lack of a good location for Beth-Aven, which would, if Khirbet Nisya was ‘Ai, be better substituted for Mizpah.

Above: Mizpah is just to the W. of HaGiva. Nisya is just to the SE of Psagot. el-Bireh is just to the SW of the map’s “al Bira”. Baytin is Beitin. The remaining two sites are Maqatir and et-Tell, the latter being closer to Deir Dibwan.  The blue line is the Geba-Beitin road.

Thus, we are left with the conclusion that ‘Ai is either Khirbet Maqatir or et-Tell. For our purposes, it does not matter which is ‘Ai, due to the sites’ proximity. It is clear that a location of Bethel at el-Bireh is as consistent with Genesis 12:8 as a location of Bethel at Beitin; one can see both candidates for ‘Ai from the ridge E. of Beitin, but none from the ridge E. of Bireh. Indeed, ‘Ai would, if Bethel was at Bireh, be scattered in a collection of hills just E. of Bethel, and there would be no point stating “between Bethel and ‘Ai” in Gen 12:8. I should also note the Iron Age settlement in the area SW of Beitin was at Ras-et-Tahuneh, a high spot altered by means of ancient fills two hundred meters NW. of Bireh. It has been suggested this is Zemaraim, although Zemaraim might as well be Nisya. Bryant Wood has also used the Beth-‘Aven argument against Beitin, although it is not known for certain what Beth-Aven was (was it a set of EB/IB ruins just E. of Beitin? Site 205?), and the range of possibilities is certainly consistent with the traditionally-attested location of Bethel at Beitin (it is rather unlikely the location of one of the most important sites in the Tanakh was mysteriously lost during the Persian period). Likewise, Joshua 8:13 may mean that the border turned to the South or to the southern shoulder of Luz/Bethel.

Thus, while there is no conclusive evidence against the location of pre-Persian Bethel at el-Bireh, the weight of the evidence points to Beitin being pre-Persian Bethel. Since Bryant Wood’s reasonable identification of Khirbet el-Maqatir as ‘Ai, there has been no good reason I can think of for ABR to continue to identify Bethel with el-‘Bireh.

Appendix:

The PEF map:

I suspect the western roman road to Nablus was built by the Romans, while the eastern one was built by the Byzantines-I do not see any other reason for the eastern service road to Nablus than pilgrimage reasons.