The Northern Kingdom’s Southern Temple

Credit:, Israel

In Leviticus 26 God tells Moses to instruct Israel on a series of rules. One of these includes “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God.” Israel is told that if they follow the rules they will be rewarded, but if they do not, they will suffer a series of misfortunes: “If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I myself will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.”

In 1 Kings 12, after Jeroboam led the split of the 10 northern tribes from Rehoboam’s kingdom centered in Jerusalem, he established two competing sites for ritual worship, one at Dan at his kingdom’s northern edge and another at Bethel near his southern border. His reasoning was that “If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.” Instead, “he made two golden calves. He said to the people, it is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other… On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.”

To date, no physical signs of the Temple at Bethel have been found. But this is an instance in which the Bible itself can serve as its own evidence. Based on writing style, timing and message, the books of Hosea and Amos are recognized to have been written by distinct authors, unconnected to the author the Book of Kings 1 & 2. These two books corroborate the existence of the Temple at Bethel.

In Hosea 9, the prophet Hosea warns that “The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great.” He warns against the worship of foreign gods: “But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol.” And he foretells of punishments coming: “Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring. My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him; they will be wanderers among the nations.”

In Hosea 10 descriptions of punishment continue. “The people who live in Samaria fear for the calf-idol of Beth Aven. Its people will mourn over it, and so will its idolatrous priests, those who had rejoiced over its splendor, because it is taken from them into exile.” Beth Aven here is a derogatory term for Bethel, as becomes clear in the immediately following passages. “So will it happen to you, Bethel, because your wickedness is great. When that day dawns, the king of Israel will be completely destroyed.”

Here, the 8th century BCE prophet Hosea attests to a worship site at Bethel.

In Amos 4, the prophet Amos warns Israel of their impending doom due to their iniquities. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, Bring us some drinks! The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness: The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. You will each go straight out through breaches in the wall, and you will be cast out toward Harmon.”

The prophet taunts Israel: “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years. Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings, boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,”

The connection of worship and Bethel, by another prophet in the 8th century BCE, corroborates the idea that there was a functioning temple site at Bethel, despite a current lack of tangible evidence.

The image above is of Beitin, a Palestinian village near Ramallah, which is assumed to have been the site of ancient Bethel.