Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
Good start, but bad finish
John Akhwari had a good start in the 1968 Olympic marathon race, but he also had a bad finish. He fell during the race and dislocated his knee but kept on going to finish last over one hour behind the winner. Likewise, the town of Bethel in Israel had a good start but a bad finish.
Bethel was 20 km (12 miles) north of Jerusalem; west of Ai (Gen. 12:8) and south of Shiloh (Jud. 21:19). It has been identified with modern Beitin (or Benin) or with el-Bireh. Bethel was on the ancient north-south ridge road that has been referred to as the Road of the Patriarchs. This road went through Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel, Jerusalem, Hebron and Beersheba.
Bethel was on the northern border of the land allocated to the tribe of Benjamin and Jerusalem was on the southern border. Bethel was assigned to the Benjamites, but they did not possess it, as the Ephraimites captured it from the Canaanites (Josh. 18:21-22; Jud. 1:22-26). So Bethel was an Ephraimite town (1 Chron. 7:28).
But during the divided kingdoms, sometimes Bethel was ruled by Judah (2 Chron. 13:19). And after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, Bethel belonged to Judea rather than Samaria (Ezra 2:28). Some Benjamites returned to Bethel after the exile (Ezra 2:28; Neh. 7:32; 11:31).
After God called Abram to move to Canaan, he travelled to Shechem where God promised to give that land to his descendants. So Abram built an altar to the Lord. Next he stopped near Bethel and “built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 12:8NIV). After visiting Egypt, Abram retuned to this place near Bethel and “called on the name of the Lord” once again (Gen. 13:3). So Abram worshipped God near Bethel.
Because Esau was angry after his brother Jacob stole his birthright and blessing, Jacob fled to Harran in Paddan Aram. One night on the trip God spoke to Jacob in a dream (Gen. 28:10-22). In the dream angels were ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth. God stood at the top of the ladder and confirmed the promises He had given to Abram. When he awoke, Jacob promised to follow God if God protected him on his journey. Then Jacob named the place “Bethel”, meaning “house of God”. It was called “Luz” before (Gen. 28:19).
After Jacob spent 40 years in Harran, God told him to return to Canaan and said, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me” (Gen. 31:13).
When Jacob was back in Canaan, God told him, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God” (Gen. 35:1). After Jacob did this, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel and confirmed the promises He had given to Abram (Gen. 35:1-15). And Jacob also set up a stone pillar at Bethel. So Jacob lived at Bethel and worshipped God there.
Deborah held court under the Palm of Deborah near Bethel (Jud. 4:5). And in the times of the judges the ark of the covenant of God was at Bethel under the care of Phinehas the grandson of Aaron (Jud. 20:26-28). Bethel was a sacred place to offer sacrifices to God and receive messages from God. For example, the Israelites went to Bethel to seek God’s advice when they planned to attack the Benjaminites at the battle of Gibeah (Jud. 20:18-28). They made three visits there because they lost the first two battles.
The altar at Shiloh, a few miles north of Bethel, housed the Ark during the ministry of the Eli and his sons, but Bethel was still prominent. The prophet Samuel’s circuit included Bethel which was a holy place where people offered sacrifices to God. (1 Sam. 7:16; 10:3).
So Bethel was a place where the Israelites worshipped God and were reminded of His promises. Today believers can worship God individually wherever they are and collectively when they meet as a church. And God has given them many promises as well. Do we remember to worship God like Abram and Jacob did? Do we read and remember God’s promises to us?
But life doesn’t always go easily for God’s people. Their sinful nature can cause sinful behavior and conflict. That’s what happened to the Israelites.
After the kingdom of Israel was split into two kingdoms on the death of King Solomon (931 BC), Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, made two calves of gold (1 Ki. 12:28-33) and set one up in Bethel, and the other in Dan in the far north of his kingdom. This was to stop the people of Israel going to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. But a prophet from Judah visited the idol at Bethel and prophesied that it and the other pagan shrines in the kingdom would eventually be destroyed by king Josiah of Judah (1 Ki. 13:1-6, 32).
During the days of Elijah and Elisha, companies of prophets were located at Bethel, Jericho and Gilgal (2 Ki. 2:3, 5; 4:28). So there were still people following God although the kings were ungodly.
Bethel is next mentioned in connection with the eleventh king of Israel, Jehu (reigned 842-815 BC). Despite his killing of the prophets of Baal and destruction of their temple, it is said that Jehu continued to tolerate the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan (2 Kings 10:29). Throughout the books of Kings, the kings of Israel are condemned for repeating the idolatrous “sin of Jeroboam” in failing to stop idol worship at Bethel.
The prophets denounced Israel’s sin of idolatry at Bethel (Amos 3:14; 4:4; Hos. 10:15; 13:1-3) and predicted their punishment which was destruction by the Assyrians (Hos. 10:15; Appendix). This idolatry brought “shame” on the kingdom of Israel (Jer. 48:13). They were told to “seek the Lord and live” and “do not seek Bethel” (Amos 5:5-6). Amos persisted even though he was intimidated by the priest of Bethel who said, “don’t prophesy anymore in Bethel” (Amos 7:13). And the Judeans were warned not go to Bethel because of the idolatry (Hos. 4:15).
Because of the idolatry of the Israelites, they were invaded and taken into exile by the Assyrians (2 Ki. 17:7-23). The shrine at Bethel apparently avoided destruction in the Assyrian invasions of the kingdom of Israel in 740 BC and 722 BC, but was finally completely destroyed (2 Ki. 23:15-20) by king Josiah of Judah (reigned 640-609 BC).
What about us? An idol can be anything that gets our attention instead of God. What are the “golden calves” in our lives?
Worshipping both God and idols
When the Assyrians took the Israelites into exile, they brought people from other nations to occupy the kingdom of Israel (1 Ki. 17:24-41). Because these people didn’t worship the Lord, God sent lions to kill some of them. After they appealed to the king of Assyria, one of the priests was sent back to live in Bethel to teach the people how to worship the Lord. But the people of each nationality continued to worship their national gods. They made idols and set up shines for them. There was even child sacrifice.
The Bible says, “They worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought … Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols” (2 Ki. 17:32-33, 41).
So they were worshipping both the God of Israel and their own gods! That’s syncretism – mixed religion. It’s breaking the first commandment given to the Israelites (Ex. 20:3).
What about us? If we claim to worship God, are there any other idols in our life as well?
As the main religious center of the northern kingdom, Bethel was an important town in the religious history of ancient Israel. Bethel started well because it was where people worshipped God across about 750 years between Jacob and Solomon (1680 BC to 930 BC), but it ended badly because of the gross idolatry and syncretism over about 300 years from Jeroboam to Josiah (930 BC to 640 BC).
Near the end of his life Paul said, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Let’s not only start the journey that leads to heaven, but let’s also finish it well because the Bible also says, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).
Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus after following Him for over three years. And Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson have walked away from their Christian faith. Our culture is pluralistic, skeptical, individualized, personalized, and syncretized. Jesus predicted that in future, “Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12NLT). But genuine faith endures (Mt. 24:13; Heb. 3:14; Jas. 1:12). So, don’t give up. Endure and persevere in the Christian faith. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is returning to resurrect and transform all believers and take them to heaven, “Do not throw away your confidence [in God]; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere [keep trusting God] so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised [after the rapture]” (Heb. 10:35–36).
Lessons for us
Let’s follow the good start at Bethel by trusting in God and by continuing to worship Him. But let’s not follow Bethel’s bad finish and not let anything come between us and God.
Appendix: Israel’s sin and punishment (Amos: 5:21-27)
21 “I [God] hate, I despise your [Israel’s] religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king [idols at Bethel and Dan],
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god—
which you made for yourselves [they were worshipping their own creations].
27 Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus [exile in Babylon],”
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.
Written, November 2019
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice