Monday, September 3, 2012

A Trip to Beit El

View from the observation area of Beit El looking toward Jerusalem.
I should have read my Tanah (Bible) before my visit to modern Beit El because this journey begins with the story of Jacob’s dream.  On August 15, 2012 I visited the Beit El[1] Winery in the town of Beit El, Israel.  

The modern town is about 10 miles from Jerusalem and has a large military base just outside of town. Many soldiers were on the bus with me and I conversed with the one who sat next to me. The bus journey took about 2 hours because of the wait for connections and a circuitous route.

When Ya’akov went from Beer-sheva toward Haran he rested for the night and that was where he had his dream of angels going up and down a ladder.  When he awoke he called the place, Beit-El (Genesis 28:11-21).  Beit-El is mentioned 67 times in the Tanach.[2] My tour began at a place called, “Jacob’s Dream.”   The area was occupied before the time of Jacob.  Today there is evidence of threshing floors, homes, a commercial olive press, and commercial winery.  Based on the size of the vessels in ruins, farmers from a large area brought their produce for processing.

The olive oil factory.  The ceiling has a black stain which could be soot or mold. 

This area was a crossroads for travelers from Nablus on their way to Jerusalem.  The modern town of Beit El started in 1977[3] and in September 1997 was granted local council status.  In 2009 they had 5300 residents. Beit El is just east of the Arab town Al-Bireh (population 39,000)

In 1838 Edward Robinson a Bible scholar from Union Theological Seminary identified the village of Beitin as the Biblical Beit El.[4]  Robinson had no doubt that Beitin and Beit El are the same place. He said that distance from Beitin to Al-Bereh was about 45 minutes and to Jerusalem about 3 hours on horseback.[5]   Robin claimed the site was 12 Roman miles (11.04 U.S. miles) from Jerusalem. Until Robinson reported this site, the tradition of the connection to the ancient Beit El and the current site was lost to residents and scholars.

In 1927 William F.Albright made his first archeological dig at Beth El and reported his findings in “A Trial Excavation in the Mound of Bethel” in  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 29 (Feb., 1928), pp. 9-11.  Albright wanted to prove with archeological evidence that the Israelite town of Beit El was
indeed the site of the Arab town of Beitin.  Albright dates the first occupation of Beit El before 1800 B.C.E. (ibid.. p. 10)

In the summer of 1934 Albright returned to Beit El for a more comprehensive dig on the site.  He reports on this dig in “The First Month of Excavation at Bethel” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 55 (Sep., 1934), pp. 23-25 and “The Kyle Memorial Excavation at Bethel quick view” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 56 (Dec., 1934), pp. 1-15.

It is clear from Abright’s pictures and descriptions that I did not see the site he excavated but I was very close.  Albright (ibid p. 11) states that Bethel and the city Ai fell into Israelite hands in the late 13th century B.C.E. about the same time as Jericho.  This is very close to the dating from internal Biblical evidence and the excavations of Jericho reported by John Garstang[6] in 1941.  My guide showed me the native trees and said that the same trees existed in Biblical times.  I was viewing a site with a direct Biblical connection.

These are grape vines owned by the modern Beit El winery.  They are remainders that the grape industry is very old in this area.

Fermentation tanks.

The finished product of this journey is this bottle of wine from the Beth El Winery[7].  I thank my guide, the owner of Beit El Winery, Hillel Manne, for his hospitality and for showing me an aspect of Israel that intimately connects present day  to the Torah.

[7] Visit their home page for more information:  This is a small winery that produces about 12,000 bottles per year.  They frequently sell out very quickly.  Bottles are sold in the New York/New Jersey area, but I don’t think they are sold in the Chicago area.

[6]  “The Story of Jericho: Further Light on the Biblical Narrative” in The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures , Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct., 1941), pp. 371

[3]  Since the town didn’t exist when the Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) was published, the article just deals with the archeology of the place.  This is a prime reason to keep old reference books.

[4] .Robinson’s trip was the basis for his book, Biblical Researches in Palestine and Adjacent Countries (London : Crocker and Brewster, 1841) for which he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1842. Robinson's Arch in the Old City of Jerusalem is named after him.

[5] Biblical Researches in Palestine and Adjacent Countries vol. 1 page 449.   (electronic copy:

[1] I use the English spelling that is on the town’s signs.  Bethel and Beth El are used by other authors.  All pictures were taken by the author.

[2] Only Jerusalem is mentioned more times.  However, Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Torah.

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