posted on Jan, 2 2015 @ 05:01 PM
The name “Beth-El” means “House of God”.
It doesn’t necessarily have to mean “the place where God lives”, though that’s one way of taking it.
I remember walking into my confirmation class, held in the church, and being rebuked for whistling a tune. “This is God’s house”, said the
parish priest waiting to conduct the class, pointing upwards..
At the very least, the phrase means a place where people are expecting to feel more conscious of the presence of God.
Bethel was one of the most important sanctuaries of Israel for most of the period of Israel’s independence.
Even before the time of the kings, men would be “going up to God at Bethel” (I Samuel ch10 v3).
In the kingdom established by Jeroboam, it was one of the two shrines where there was a “calf” image, a place where the king himself offered
sacrifice and burnt incense.
Amos prophesied there and was told to stop doing it;
“Amaziah the priest of Bethel said to Amos…’Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the
kingdom” (Amos ch7 v13).
After the fall of the northern kingdom, the altar was destroyed on the orders of Josiah, king of Judah.
From that time, Bethel ceased to be a major sanctuary.
According to the story in Genesis ch28, the naming of Bethel and the origins of the shrine go back to Jacob.
He had deceived his father in order to receive the blessing which belonged to his brother Esau, and now he was escaping the possibility of
In his journey from Beersheba in the south to the lands of the Euphrates, he stopped for the night at a place which was then called Luz.
Preparing to sleep, he took a stone for his pillow.
During the night, he had a vision with two different aspects.
In a dream, he saw the angels of God.
They were ascending and descending a ladder (or perhaps, rather, a staircase) which stretched from earth up to heaven.
He was able to recognise the presence of God’s agents, being sent out in order to do God’s work.
Then the Lord himself stood above him (or above the ladder). He identified himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac and repeated his previous promises,
that there would be many descendants and they would possess the land.
This was followed by a more specific and personal assurance. He told the man who was about to leave the area of the “promised land”; “I am with
you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land”.
This was the experience which prompted Jacob to say “The Lord is in this place…This is none other than the house of God”.
Then he pulled up the stone “pillow” and erected it as a pillar, which must have become the focal point of the later shrine.
What is the meaning of the Bethel experience?
To the isolated exile, it clearly meant encouragement. It was also a confirmation of the promises which had been made to his family.
It was the renewal of the covenant relationship, first established with Abraham.
But what does it mean for God’s people in general?
In the first place, we can see that Jacob was not “chosen” because he was a good man.
Jacob was the typical younger brother, grasping and encroaching (which is what his name means) on his elder brother’s preserves,
Not having power, he tended to promote his interests by deception. After deceiving his father, he would deceive Laban. When he escaped from Laban, he
stole and concealed some of Laban’s idols.
At the end of his return journey, he escaped Esau’s control with another evasion;
“You go ahead, we’ll follow- right, lads, let’s go off in that other direction”.
So Jesus commended Nathanael as a better and truer Israel because he had “no guile” (John ch1 vv47-51).
If the Bethel experience is not reserved for “good men”, that must be encouraging for the rest of us.
Secondly, the Bethel experience is not limited to one location.
It might look that way, at first, because of Jacob’s reaction.
His conclusion is that the Lord is in this place, that this is “none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven”.
He even calls the pillar itself “God’s house”.
Yet if we turn from Jacob’s words to God’s own words, we get a completely different picture.
“I am with you wherever you go”; the presence of this God is not limited to one stone or to one city or even to one country.
If God can be anywhere that Jacob might go, then God must be everywhere.
John’s gospel comments on this point as well, when Jesus says that people will no longer worship in one specific location, whether Samaria or
Jerusalem, but they will worship “in spirit and in truth” wherever they might be (John ch4 vv21- 23).
If God is present all over the world, then the whole world is the “house of God”.
Thus God offers his people a covenant relationship of “I am with you wherever you go”, which is not based on any merits of their own.
Thirdly, the essence of the Bethel experience is being able to recognise God at work.
That was the significance of the vision which portrayed the movements of his agents.
The symbolism shows him originating and managing what takes place over the world at large.
The purpose of this vision was to encourage Jacob to go forward in trust.
When you recognise God’s work in the world, then you are recognising God’s presence in the world.
We may recognise the law of gravity as God’s angel driving round the planets.
We may recognise the political circumstances of the campaigns of Cyrus as God’s angel bringing back the Jews from their exile in Babylon.
We may, like Jacob, recognise God’s work and therefore God’s presence in our own lives, and that may encourage us to act in trust.
Jesus told Nathanael that he would have a vision comparable to Jacob’s.
He would “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John ch1 v51).
In this version of the vision, the ladder is replaced by “the Son of Man”, which is, of course, the way Jesus describes himself.
That is, Jesus identifies himself in that affirmation as the gateway that connects earth with heaven, the point of contact between God and man.
He becomes the focus for the work of God, which the angels represent.
The implication is that Christ is the presence of the Lord and the representation of God’s fundamental promise;
“I am with you wherever you go”.