I want to focus on the place called Bethel, because in the story of Bethel lies a tail that weaves its way through the Bible.
We first hear about Bethel in Genesis 12, where Abram, (Abraham’s original name) receives his call to leave his homeland and is promised a new land and a people. One of the first places mentioned, where he rests in his journey, is Bethel, where he builds an altar to God.
In Genesis 13 it was at Bethel that Abraham and Lot chose to separate ways, given that their herds were too large to share the same land. Abraham chooses the hill country, Lot the plains. We have Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder to heaven. The Gates of Heaven.
Altars served as a place where the gates were opened. It still interests me that the prayer books in Reform Judaism were once called Gates. The Gates of Prayer and the Gates of Repentance. Jewish prayer is as a kind of gate, a kind of altar to encounter God.
Genesis 35 God wrestles with Jacob at Bethel as Jacob was journeying to reconcile with Esau. I have often compared progressive Christianity with Jacob, wrestling with the tradition, with God to secure a blessing. But then, going with that metaphor, we’d have to ask, what acts as our Bethel, our gate, our space where that wrestling can begin? For many it is the progressive church itself. But the name Bethel is hard to find among progressives. The name is usually picked up by evangelical churches.
There are about 20 more separate times Bethel shows up in the Old Testament, Joshua conquers it, Deborah resides there, the prophet Samuel prophesied from there. In Judges 20, the Ark of the Covenant is housed at Bethel. But just the Genesis accounts alone give its importance in Israel’s history. Bethel, as you can see in the map out is a border region, subject to conquests on all sides. It’s in a mountainous region.
Now the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah is said to have existed from about 1030 to about 930 BCE. It was a union of all the twelve Israelite tribes living in the area that presently approximates modern Israel and the Palestinian territories.
After the death of Solomon in about 931 BCE, all the Israelite tribes except for Judah and Benjamin (called the ten northern tribes) refused to accept Rehoboam, the son and successor of Solomon, as their king.
Jeroboam, who was not of the Davidic line, was sent for from Egypt by the northern tribes. Rehoboam fled to Jerusalem and in 930 BCE, Jeroboam was proclaimed king over all Israel at Shechem. After the revolt at Shechem at first only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David. But very soon after the tribe of Benjamin joined Judah. The northern kingdom continued to be called the Kingdom of Israel or Israel, while the southern kingdom was called the kingdom of Judah.
For the first sixty years, the kings of Judah tried to re-establish their authority over the northern kingdom, and there was perpetual war between them. For the following eighty years, there was no open war between them, and, for the most part, they were in friendly alliance, co-operating against their common enemies, especially against Damascus.
In 721 the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom. I mention this history because it was at this point that the Bible stories are being compiled. Much of the Hebrew scriptures were compiled from the Assyrian takeover of Israel all the way through the Babylonian captivity.
This is captured best by Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” That comes from the time of the Babylonian captivity.
At this time you start seeing a division between the writings that come from the north, from Israel, and writings that come from the south, Judah.
This division would make up what has become known as the Documentary Hypothesis. That the Torah, was compiled by putting stories from the North and South together, called the Elohist and the Yawhist, E and J. Those stories predate captivity itself. What is known as the Priestly and Deuteronomist source was compiled during and after captivity and they pulled the text together into one coherent whole.
But when you start reading the northern and southern writings, you see differences emerge. It matters if what you are reading comes from Israel and Judah. One of the key differences is what constitutes a holy site? In the south, there is one holy site. It’s Jerusalem and the temple. By centralizing worship, the content of ancient Judaism and political power is centralized as well.
The northern kingdom had no such city to centralize their worship. What the northern kingdom, Israel, had was the shrines, the holy sites that mark the history of Israel, shrines like Bethel and like Dan.
From 1 Kings Chapter 12 : Then Jeroboam (the northern king) said to himself, “Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David. 27 If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, [b] “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel and before the other as far as Dan.[c] 31 He also made houses[d] on high places
When you read a passage like this, what source are you getting? It’s the southern Kingdom’s perspective, Judah.
And this from Numbers 33: “In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying “When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places.” Another southern writer. Think of the Golden calf story in Exodus 32? Same source.
So why would Jeroboam use Golden Calves at these altars of God? There is some evidence that the Bull is associated with Jacob. The Mighty one of Israel, the Mighty one of Jacob referenced in Genesis 49 can be translated the Bull of Jacob. The bull was associated with God because the bull was full of strength, power, a source of protection. It’s mentioned several dozen times in Genesis in reference to God. If you wondered why a golden calf in the Moses story, now you know.
And that identification of God and the Bull goes back to El, the Canaanite deity, it is that name which the northern kingdom associates with God. El, El’ohim, El Shaddai. Beth-el literally means, the House of God. This is why the northern writings call God El, and they writers are called E, the Elohist. So when Jeroboam established Golden Calves at Beth-El, the House of God, he was re-establishing Bethel as a sacred place, made sacred by Jacob.
Whereas the southern kingdom uses the term Yawheh, J (the German original use of the term was Jehovah, and there has been some dispute to the pronunciation since we don’t know the vowels in Hebrew in saying a name that could not be named.) In other words, it’s a guess on the Tetra-gram, the 4-letter name of God YHWH.
So, in any sermon, or in this case, lecture, the question is: what’s the point? The point is that what you find in reading the Bible, and in this case, the division of the northern and southern kingdoms, you are being introduced into a debate. Or rather you are being introduced into many debates.
So when the Bible was being compiled, since it was the southern kingdom, doing the compiling, why didn’t they just cut out any stories of the northern Kingdom? Why didn’t they get rid of references to God as a bull, to get rid of God as El, replace it all with Yahweh and Jerusalem? That would have been so much cleaner, easier, no embarrassment at hearing an opposing viewpoint.
But the folks who put the Bible together didn’t see a reason to do that. They were not trying to create a seamless text that never disagreed with itself. They wanted the whole story, even the debates, even if it was contradictory, even it was awkward. They wanted the whole family history, warts and all, even if it indicated things which were embarrassing.
Often it is assumed that to be a Christian is to believe in the Bible, to agree with everything found in it. But the Bible never allows you that chance. You can’t agree with everything in it. The stories don’t mesh.
I’d propose a different metaphor. That to be a Christian, to be a people of the book, is to join in this debate, to identify yourself with this family history, warts and all. And it gives us a precedent as well. If we want to be faithful to the Bible, the debate never stops, the warts, the disagreements, the differing accounts never end. To relate to the Bible faithfully then is not to agree with it, it is to enter into the debate. To join the conversation.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma