Monday, February 05, 2007

Beit El in History: The Patriarchs

Note: Religious Jews use the term "BCE" (before common era) for the general term "BC" (Before you-know-who), because we do not speak the name of the gods of other peoples. Likewise, for "AD", we use "CE" or "Common Era."
The history of the city of Beit El began, on the Jewish calendar, in 2171, which is 1569 BCE. Ya'akov (Jacob,) upon having been awarded the birthright of his brother Esav (Esau,) is forced to flee the holy land in fear of his brother's wrath. Bereishit (Genesis) 28:11-19 describes the events which transpired here:
Ya'akov is on his way out of the land when suddenly the sun falls from the sky and he is overtaken by a deep sleep. In this sleep he is given the prophesy that he is to leave the holy land for a time, but is promised that he and his descendants (the Jews) will inherit the entire land, "the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants." He encounters a vision of a great ladder, and sees his protective angels from the holy land ascending the ladder, and the protective angels for outside of the holy land descend the ladder. Upon awaking he declares that the spot on which he slept is a house (Hebrew: Beit) of God (Hebrew: El) and names the place "Beit El." (Old English bibles refer to the place as "Bethel.")

A well-groomed Jacob, sleeping on the stone and having his dream.

Later, on his way back through the land, having reconciled with his brother Esav, and now with his wives, children, and entourage, he returns to Beit El and makes a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving.

Looking towards what is believed to be the hilltop where the ancient city of Beit El was located.

Then, suddenly, Dvorah (Deborah,) the wet nurse of the matriarch Rivkah (Rebecca) dies and is buried in Beit El, in what Bereishit (Genesis) 35:8 describes as "below the plateau, and he named it Allon-Bechot (the weeping oaks.)"

Today, on the furthest "Givah" (hilltop outpost) of Beit El, at Mount Artis, there stands a grave known as the "Tomb of the Sheikh" by the local Arabs.

The tomb of the Shekh

While excavating the hillside, archaeologists have discovered that this one hill is riddled with burial caves. All caves are in the traditional Jewish style of family catacombs. The ancient custom was to bury the dead in a field for a year, then dig up the bones and put them in a jar, and place the jar of bones in a notch in the family catacomb.

Foreground: Terraces with many burial caves. Midground: the Arab village of Ein Yarbud. Background: The ancient biblical city (and recently rebuilt Jewish settlement) of Ophra.

Also, one can see that large areas of rock have been scraped clean and flat, as if for gatherings and pilgrimage.

Yours truly in front of the Tomb of the Sheikh. Note the hewn, flattened area I'm standing on.

But why are so many graves in this one hill with the tomb on the top? Well, one logical reason is that this site was seen as an especially holy hilltop for Jews.

Approaching the opening of the tomb.

This begs the question: why? Well, we know of two events that happened in Beit El, the vision of Jacob's Ladder, and the burial of Dvorah.

Now, we know that, in the middle east, various cultures tend to build on the ruins of previous cultures. Just as the Arabs, after conquering and colonizing the holy land in the 7th century CE, built an enormous mosque on top of the ruins of the Jewish temple mount in Jerusalem, so too they claimed other holy sites, such as Joseph's tomb in Shechem (Nablus) by burying Arab Sheikhs in the same location and "transforming" them into Muslim holy sites.

It is only conjecture but, given the overwhelming archaeological evidence of a Jewish presence and burial ground, the fact that the grave on a plateau just below Mount Artis, which is the highest point in Beit El, exactly as described in the book of Bereishit, given the evidence that this was a place of pilgrimage, and given that the later Arab invaders also placed a tomb on the same spot, it stands to reason that we may very well be looking at the grave of Dvorah, wet nurse of Rivkah.

Josh, wandering around inside the tomb.

And to top it off, the place is still home to a grove of oak trees, as described in Bereishit 35:8.

Background: The water towers supplying the modern settlement of Beit El, and some trailers, on Mount Artis, the "Plateau" referenced in Bereishit. Foreground: the weeping oaks, and quite possibly the Tomb of Dvorah.

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