Lecture 63: The Status of Bet-El and Mitzpeh

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy






This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man
whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.



Lecture 63: The status of Bet-El and Mitzpeh

Rav Yitzchak Levi





            Last year, we discussed the issue of "the territory of Binyamin as the territory of the Shekhina."[1] In those shiurim, we attempted to understand the significance of this idea with respect to the tribal territory of Binyamin as a whole, the various stations of the Mishkan in that territory, and the city of Jerusalem in particular. One of the interesting points that we noted is that in addition to the stations of the Mishkan themselves, it is precisely in the tribal territory of Binyamin that a concentration of holy places was found during the period beginning with the conquest of Eretz Yisrael and concluding with the kingdom of David.


            In this shiur, I wish to relate to two places in Binyamin, Bet-El and Mitzpeh, which filled an important role during this period. There is a significant difference between the two places: Bet-El had already been a place of special importance and holiness in the days of the patriarchs, whereas Mitzpeh had no special history and only rose to importance in the period of the Shoftim and the prophet Shmuel.






            The location of Bet-El can be determined from the description of the borders of the tribal territories in the book of Yehoshua. First of all, Bet-El is counted among the cities of Binyamin (Yehoshua 18:22), and it is also noted that it is found in the northern part of that territory, along the border between Binyamin and Efrayim (Yehoshua 16:2).


            Today, Bet-El is commonly identified with the place called Burg Beitin, situated southwest of Ofra.[2] (The conquest of the city is described in detail in Shoftim 1:22-26.)




And the children of Israel arose, and went up to Bet-El, and asked counsel of God, and said, “Which of us shall go up first to the battle against the children of Binyamin?” And the Lord said, “Yehuda shall go up first…” And Binyamin went out against them from Giv'a on the second day, and laid low of the children of Israel another eighteen thousand men, all these drawing the sword. Then all the children of Israel and all the people went up, and came to the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before the Lord. And the children of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aharon, stood before it in those days), saying, “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Binyamin my brother, or shall I cease?” And the Lord said, “Go up; for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand…” Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mitzpeh, saying, “None of us shall give his daughter to Binyamin to wife.” And the people came to the house of God, and abode there till evening before God, and lifted up their voices, and wept very bitterly. (Shoftim 20:18-21:2)


            It follows from these verses that Bet-El was a place where the children of Israel would go to inquire of God.[3] The place is defined as "before the Lord" – a place where people fast and offer sacrifices, and where they inquire of God by way of the ark of the covenant that was located there at that time.


            Why don't the people of Israel go to the Mishkan in Shilo in order to pray there and inquire of God? Surely the regular site of the ark was in Shilo!


            Some commentators resolve this question in simple fashion, arguing that indeed the term "Bet-El" ("house of the Lord") relates here to the Mishkan in Shilo (Metzudat David, Shoftim 20:18; Radak, Shoftim 20:26). It is interesting that elsewhere in his commentary, the Radak is not content with his explanation here. In his commentary to the verse describing the building of the altar in Bet-El and the offering of sacrifices there, he writes:


If this "Bet-El" is Shilo, why did they build an altar there? Was there not an altar in the Mishkan? And if this is the city called Bet-El, there too there was the altar that was built by Yaakov, our forefather, as we shall later explain in the book of Shmuel regarding the verse, "going up to God in Bet-El." It may be suggested that they built a new altar there, and the place was either Shilo or Bet-El, and the building of an altar constitutes seeking of God, as we find in many places that people would build an altar to inquire of God. And owing to this terrible thing that happened to them regarding Binyamin, they built an altar and offered sacrifices and wept before God, saying, “Why has it come to pass that one tribe is lacking.” (Shoftim 21:4, s.v. vayivnu sham)


            According to this approach, it is difficult to understand why Scripture notes that the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days. What was special about those days as opposed to the days that came before and after, when the ark was found in Shilo?


Another possibility, one that is closer to the plain sense of the text, is to relate to Bet-El itself. It may be suggested that during this period, Shilo did not enjoy high standing and the people did not visit it on a regular basis.[4] According to this explanation, we can also understand what the prophet emphasizes, "And the children of Israel inquired of the Lord, for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days."


How did the people of Israel offer sacrifices in Bet-El? Surely during this period offering sacrifices on bamot was forbidden!


The Meshekh Chokhma (Devarim 12) explains that on various occasions the ark was removed from the Mishkan. In such circumstances, when the ark was outside the Mishkan, offering sacrifices on bamot was permitted. This explanation is based on the Yerushalmi (Megilla 1:12) and the Tosefta (end of tractate Zevachim), which state that as long as the ark was inside the Mishkan, bamot were forbidden, but when the ark was outside the Mishkan, bamot were permitted.


In this manner, the Meshekh Chokhma explains several instances in which sacrifices were offered outside the Mishkan. For example:


                      · The altar mentioned in connection with the great assembly in Shekhem at the end of Yehoshua's life (Yehoshua 24).


                      · The sacrifices offered in Bokhim (Shoftim 2:5).


                      · The sacrifices offered in Bet-El during the incident involving the concubine in Giv'a.


Beyond the physical proximity of Bet-El to the site of the battles against the people of Binyamin, it would seem that the reason that the ark was taken specifically to Bet-El is connected to Bet-El's history, it being the sanctified site of the patriarchs already in the days of Avraham and Yaakov. It is possible that the memory of this holiness continued to have an impact, and that the people continued to relate to the sanctity of the place even during the period of the Shoftim, despite the fact that the Mishkan stood in Shilo.


In order to understand why the people continued to relate to the sanctity of Bet-El even during this period, we must consider the standing and essence of Bet-El during the period of the patriarchs.




            During the period of the patriarchs, Bet-El stands out as the most sanctified place. It is in Bet-El that Avraham first called out in the name of God in Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 12:5), and it is interesting that after his journeys to the Negev and to Egypt, Avraham returns to the very place where he began:


And he went on his journeys from the Negev even to Bet-El, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bet-El and Ay;[5] to the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first. And there, Avram called on the name of the Lord.[6]


            It is also there that, after separating from Lot, he receives a blessing regarding seed and the Land, the first detailed blessing that God gives him in Eretz Yisrael.


            But it was Yaakov who gave Bet-El its special standing, tarrying there on his way to Charan and turning it into a "sanctified place"[7] upon his return. In this context, attention should be paid to the fact that the city is called "ha-makom," "the place" (a term that repeats itself six times in Bereishit 28 and four more times in Bereishit 35), and to the nature of the revelation there: "This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Bereishit 28:17).


            This sanctified place, called "the house of God," gives expression to the site of the resting of the Shekhina and to the place where man serves God in God's house.[8] This is the place that connects heaven and earth: "A ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached the heaven" (ibid. v. 12). The name of the place – Bet-El, Bet-Elokim – signifies its role as a sanctuary. Yaakov's fear when he wakes up from his sleep is fear and awe of the Mikdash. Setting the stone as a pillar and pouring oil on top of it alludes to libation offerings.


            To summarize, all the elements noted above – the name Bet-El, the ladder connecting earth to heaven, the terms "house of God" and "gate of heaven" – testify that the place served as a Mikdash that was revealed to Avraham and Yaakov at this place.[9]


            The uniqueness of Bet-El also follows from a comparison between it and the tower of Bavel. When Yaakov arrives in Bet-El on his way to Charan, he dreams of a ladder that reaches heaven. Prof. Yehuda Elitzur[10] sees a connection between Yaakov's ladder and the tower of Bavel, and he draws a comparison between them:


Regarding the tower of Bavel it says, "Therefore is the name of it called Bavel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth" (Bereishit 11:9). The Torah's intention is to put to scorn the pretentious explanation proposed by the inhabitants of Bavel for the name of their city – Bab-ili, gate of God. Scripture wishes to argue that this is not the gate of God, but rather the gate of confusion. The true gate of heaven is revealed in Yaakov's dream, and there Scripture reveals that the gate of heaven is in Bet-El, in the chosen land and not in the land of Shin'ar. Yaakov's house of God is found in an open field, in defiance of the majestic towers connected to the Mesopotamian cultic rites. These enormous towers, called ziggurats, which rose up high in every important Mesopotamian city, served as meeting places between god and man. It is against these people that Yaakov calls out, "This is no other than the house of God." This field in Bet-El is the house of God in which stands the real ladder between earth and heaven, while the towers of Bavel are but hideous idols of brick and clay. Yaakov's ladder, which "is set on the earth, and the top of it reached heaven" (Bereishit 28:12), is a continuation of the polemic in the story of the generation of the dispersion, "Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven" (Bereishit 11:4). Yaakov's ladder serves as a constant bridge between God and His chosen ones, similar to what is stated in Devarim 11:12: "A land which… the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." The ladder expresses the true and constant connection between God and His chosen land, and the place best fit to express this idea is Bet-El.[11]




            In the days of the prophet Shmuel, following the destruction of Shilo, Bet-El is mentioned in two connections:


·        Bet-El is one of the places in which Shmuel judged Israel each year (I Shmuel 7:16).


·        Following the anointing of Shaul as prince, Shmuel gives him several signs, one of which is connected to Bet-El:


Then you shall go forward from there, and you shall come to the oak of Tavor, and there shall meet you three men going up to God to Bet-El, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of read, and another carrying a bottle of wine. And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall receive from their hands. (I Shmuel 10:3-4).


            What is the meaning of this sign? What is the meaning of the fact that the men are going up to God to Bet-El?


            In order to understand this point, it should be remembered that at this point in time, following the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo, offering sacrifices at bamot is permitted. Thus, it is possible that there is a famous bama or central altar at Bet-El, to which the kid-goats are being brought for sacrifices, the bread for meal-offerings, and the wine for libations. This is the way the Radak explains the matter (ad loc.):


This is Luz, which Yaakov called Bet-El, and where the altar built by Yaakov stood. During the period when bamot were permitted, they would offer sacrifices there and that house was holy. Israelites would come there at that time to pray by the merits of Yaakov. And so Yaakov said about this that it would be the house of God. Even though the midrash has another approach to this, what we have written accords with the plain sense of the verses. For Bet-El was forever a holy place and the site of an altar, and people would come there to pray, and it was a place of prophecy, as it is stated, "And this is the gate of heaven." That is, it is the gate through which to know what is being decreed in heaven regarding the lower world. And Hoshea said, "He would find Him in Bet-El, and there He would speak with us" (Hoshea 12:5). And Yonatan renders [the verse]: "Going up to God – going up to serve God in Bet-El."


            The Radak understands that the sanctity of the place was continuously preserved since the days of Yaakov, and that it served as a site of prayer and prophecy. The ancient tradition regarding the sanctity of the place had meaning and continuity until the period of the Shoftim, and Bet-El was a famous site at which sacrifices were offered during the period when bamot were permitted.




            Following the division of the kingdom, Yerov'am, who ruled in Shekhem over the kingdom of Israel, decided to separate the seat of his rule from the site of cultic ritual,[12] setting up two calves of gold in Dan and in Bet-El (I Melakhim 12:29). Setting up the calves in Dan and in Bet-El was undoubtedly connected to the fact that these two places were situated on the border of his kingdom. Yerov'am set up central cultic sites on the borders of his kingdom – border temples - in Dan in the north and in Bet-El in the south.[13] It was not by chance, however, that he chose precisely these two border cities. Yerov'am proposed, as it were, a cultic alternative to Jerusalem in the form of Bet-El – the "sanctified place" of the patriarchs, endowed with ancient sanctity.[14] Against the background of its sanctity during the time of the patriarchs, Bet-El once again became an important cultic site during the period of the divided kingdom, just as it had been during the days of the Shoftim. Various prophets related to the cultic rites practiced at Bet-El, especially Amos and Hoshea, who viewed these rites as outright idol worship and as treachery against the covenant between God and Israel[15] (Bet-El becomes “Bet-Aven,” "house of iniquity").


            Bet-El maintained its special status until the end of the First Temple period. With the conquest of Shomron by the kingdom of Ashur and the settlement of new inhabitants in the region, one of the priests was sent to Bet-El to teach the new inhabitants how they should fear God (II Melakhim 17:28).






            Mitzpeh is a city in the tribal territory of Binyamin. According to one suggestion, it has been identified with Tel a-Nasba, southwest of Ramallah. Alternatively, it has been identified with Nebi Samuel, north of the neighborhood of Ramot in Jerusalem.




            Beyond its being situated in the tribal territory of Binyamin, Mitzpeh is first mentioned in the context of the war between the people of Israel and the tribe of Binyamin in the wake of the incident of the concubine of Giv'a:


Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation assembled as one man, from Dan to Be'er-Sheva, with the land of Gil'ad, to the Lord in Mitzpeh. And the chief of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword. (Shoftim 20:1-2)


            What is meant by the words, "to the Lord in Mitzpeh"? The Radak explains (ad loc.):


In a place where all or most of Israel assemble, there the Shekhina rests. As it is stated, "God stands in the Divine assembly" (Tehillim 82:1). Or it means as it was explained in the book of Yehoshua,that in Mitzpeh there was an altar to God and a house of prayer… We already wrote in the book of Yehoshua why it was their way to gather in Mitzpeh, for there was a great salvation for Israel there when the kings gathered to fight against Yehoshua.


            The city of Mitzpeh is mentioned in other places as well, and the question that arises among the commentators is whether we are dealing with the same place or with a different place. Thus, for example, it says at the beginning of Yehoshua 11:


And it came to pass, when Yavin king of Chatzor had heard those things, that he sent to Yovav king of Madon, and to the king of the Shimron, and to the king of Akhsaf, and to the kings that were in the north, in the mountains, and in the Arava south of Kinnarot, and in the plain, and in the districts of Dor on the west, and to the Kena'ani on the east and on the west, and to the Emori, and the Chiti, and the Perizi, and the Yevusi in the mountains, and to the Chivi under Hermon in the land of Mitzpeh. (Yehoshua 11:1-3)


            The Radak explains (ad loc.):


… And it is possible that this place is the Mitzpeh where Israel would always assemble. And because there was a great salvation there, they assembled there. For in the other war that Yehoshua fought against the five kings, even though there was a great salvation, there were only five kings, but these were many kings. It is possible that Yehoshua built an altar there because of the great salvation that took place there, and for this reason Israel would gather there when they needed to go out to war or for some other important matter. And so we find regarding Yiftach, "Before the Lord in Mitzpeh," and similarly regarding the concubine in Giv'a, "To the Lord in Mitzpeh." And so, too, Shmuel said in the war against the Pelishtim, "Gather unto me all of Israel in Mitzpeh." And similarly when he anointed Shaul, "And Shmuel called the people together to the Lord to Mitzpeh." It seems from all these verses that there was an altar there and a house sanctified for prayer and for the gathering of Israel in those days.


            The Radak views all of the places named Mitzpeh as one place, including the northern Mitzpeh below the Chermon, the Mitzpeh of Yiftach in Gil'ad, and the Mitzpeh in the tribal territory of Binyamin mentioned in the wake of the incident of the concubine in Giv'a. He argues that owing to the great salvation that took place there, Yehoshua built an altar there; therefore, in times of distress, the people of Israel would gather there. It is possible that there was also an altar in the Mitzpeh in the tribal territory of Binyamin (which was used during the period that bamot were permitted), and possibly also a house of prayer, and that the people of Israel would gather there in that period.


            We are unable to suggest why Mitzpeh was chosen as a gathering place for all of Israel. According to our understanding, nothing happened at the Binyaminite Mitzpeh because of which it should serve as a place in which to assemble the entire people. It is possible that it was chosen because of its geographical location, it being centrally located in the tribal territory (this is especially reasonable if we identify Mitzpeh with Tel A-Nasba).


            Mitzpeh is next mentioned in the book of Shoftim:


Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mitzpeh, saying, “None of us shall give his daughter to Binyamin to wife…” And the children of Israel said, “Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that came not up with the congregation to the Lord?” For they had made a great oath concerning him that came not up to the Lord to Mitzpeh, saying, “He shall surely be put to death.” (Shoftim 20:1, 5)


            Here, too, it is mentioned twice in the same verse that going up with the congregation to Mitzpeh means going up to the Lord.




            After Shmuel succeeds in bringing the people of Israel to repent, he gathers all of Israel in Mitzpeh:


And Shmuel said, “Gather all of Israel to Mitzpeh, and I will pray for you to the Lord.” And they gathered together to Mitzpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Shmuel judged the children of Israel in Mitzpeh. (I Shmuel 7:5-6)


            Shmuel offers a burnt-offering to God and prays there on behalf of Israel. The Radak explains the sacrifices as follows:


"And he offered (va-ya'alah) a burnt-offering" – Thus it is written. And it is read: "And he offered it" (va-ya'alehu). And Chazal expounded: It is written: "Va-ya'alah" – it was female. From here they learned that a female burnt-offering is fit on a private bama. And they also had a tradition that a non-priest can offer sacrifices on a private bama. For when the Mishkan in Shilo was destroyed and they came to Nov, bamot were permitted the entire time that the Tent of Meeting was in Nov and in Givon until the permanent Mikdash was built, when they became forbidden and were never again permitted. And they said: A bama only becomes permitted by way of a prophet, for Shmuel was the first to offer a sacrifice on a private bama after the Mishkan in Shilo was destroyed. And so, too, in Gilgal, Yehoshua was the first to offer a sacrifice on a private bama, as it is stated: "Then Yehoshua built." (ibid., v. 9)


            It is interesting that, according to the Radak, Shmuel's offering at this private bama was the first offering brought following the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo.


            If the Radak is correct, it would seem that this special offering that was brought in this special place where all of Israel had assembled is what prepares Israel for the Divine revelation at that place.


            Later, at the end of the First Temple period, we find Gedalyah ben Achikam at Mitzpeh before he is killed by Yishmael ben Netanya ben Elishama. We see, then, that the place retained its central importance over time, now as a seat of rule and government.


            The special status of Mitzpeh is reflected in a most interesting manner in the book of Maccabees (I, 3:38-4-6), according to which Yehuda the Maccabee assembles the people in Mitzpeh "because Mitzpeh had formerly been a place of prayer in Israel."


            Our examination of these two places, Bet-El and Mitzpeh, their sanctity and the attitude toward them, teaches us an important point, both in the period of Yehoshua and the Shoftim and in the period of Shmuel. During these periods, the Mishkan does not play a very important role, but there are several sanctified places of considerable national importance. The ark is frequently removed from the Mishkan and brought to one place or another, at which time it is possible to offer sacrifices in proximity to the ark, and for a limited amount of time the place turns into a holy place.


            This reality accords with the words of God to David when David wants to build a house for God:


For I have not dwelt in any house since that time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but I have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle. In all the places where I have walked with all the children of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the rulers of Israel, whom I commanded as shepherds of My people Israel, saying, “Why do you not build Me a house of cedar”? (II Shmuel 7:6-7)


            The temporary nature of the site of the resting of the Shekhina also finds expression in the people of Israel's attitude toward other places, such as Bet-El and Mitzpeh, places of spiritual and religious importance, despite the fact that the Mishkan stood in Shilo for 369 years.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Lectures 46-48.

[2] R. Yoel Elitzur dealt with this issue in his article, "Burg Beitin Mesoret U-Mekora," Kovetz Shomeron U-Vinyamin (Jerusalem, 5751), pp. 103-111.

[3] It is possible that the term "going up" used with respect to Bet-El is not connected to geographical reality; rather, it denotes going up for the purpose of inquiring of God. The "going up" relates to spiritual reality.

[4] We expanded on this issue in last year's shiurim.

[5] The expression "between Bet-El and Ay" appears again later in the account of Yehoshua's battle at Ay. Yehoshua continues in the footsteps of Avraham, who paved the way in Eretz Yisrael, and he leads the entire people into the Land. "The actions of the fathers are signs for the children."

[6] It should be noted that the end of the verse is intentionally ambiguous regarding the time that Avraham called on the name of the Lord – was it now or when he was there the first time? It seems that this ambiguity is intended to emphasize the fact that Avraham returned to the very same place and engaged in the very same action.

Later, Yaakov similarly returned several times to this same place. "And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house…" (Bereishit 28:22) is rendered by Onkelos as: "And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, I shall serve God upon it." Rashi cites this and adds, "This, indeed, he did on his return from Padan-Aram, when God said to him (ibid. 35:1): 'Arise, go up to Bet-El.' What is stated there? And Yaakov set up a pillar… and he poured out a drink-offering thereon' (v. 14)." In other words, there is an allusion here to the sanctity of the place that will be revealed by Yaakov himself upon his return to Bet-El. Thus, we can understand those who wish to call Bet-El "the Mikdash of the patriarchs." I thank R. Yoel Elitzur for this point.

[7] It is not by chance that, despite the Divine revelation at Mount Moriya at the time of the Akeda, Yaakov does not go there (according to the plain sense of Scripture). The revelation at Mount Moriya was an instance of "the actions of the fathers are signs for the children," but only for the later generations. The Akeda was a one-time event that took place between Avraham, Yitzchak, and God; there were no additional witnesses, and the place would only be revealed anew to the people of Israel in the days of David, in the revelation at the threshing floor of Aravna the Yevusi.

[8] This point repeats itself in the days of David when he arrives at the threshing floor of Aravna. At that time, David says: “This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:1). Once again, the place plays a double role – a site for serving God and God's house. This is part of a very broad issue, connected also to the structure of the Mikdash, the relationship between the resting of the Shekhina in the Mikdash and human worship, and other matters.

[9] Chazal identified the revelation at Bet-El as transpiring at Mount Moriya (see, for example, Pesachim 88a and elsewhere), even though the plain sense of the text implies that it took place at Bet-El and not Mount Moriya. Chazal's identification teaches that they viewed Bet-El as a Mikdash, which served the patriarchs as a site of revelation and service.

In this context, it is interesting to note that, in contrast to his father and his son, Yitzchak never appears in Bet-El. Yaakov, in many senses, retraces the steps of Avraham, whereas Yitzchak follows an independent path. This, however, is not the forum in which to expand upon this matter.

[10] "Migdal Bavel Ve-Sulam Yaakov," in his Yisrael Ve-Ha-Mikra; Mechkarim Ge'ografiyim Historiyim Ve-Hagutiyim (Ramat Gan, 5760), pp. 44-48.

[11] The full and complete repair of the sin of the tower of Bavel will come with the building of the Mikdash.

[12] As opposed to David and Shlomo, who chose to unite the seat of their kingdom in Jerusalem with the site of the resting of the Shekhina – Mount Moriya and the Mikdash.

[13] Of course, one of the main goals of setting up a calf in Bet-El was to prevent pilgrims from continuing on toward Jerusalem.

[14] Dan also has a certain significance in connection to the patriarchs, it being the place reached by Avraham while he was in pursuit of the four kings (Bereishit 14:14).

[15] See, for example, Hoshea 4:15; 5:8; 10:5-15.