What the Bible says about
Bethel as a Place of Transformation
(From Forerunner Commentary)
Jacob entered this encounter with God as a result of taking the birthright and blessing from his brother Esau through deceitful chicanery. Esau was so indignant, he let it be known that there was a contract on Jacob's life: He was going to kill him.
So Jacob did what anybody would do in that situation—he fled. He decided to go to his mother's relatives, to Laban in Syria. On the way, he stopped at the place described in verses 12-17. Here he encountered God.
Jacob saw a ladder in a dream stretching into heaven, with angels ascending and descending. Verse 13 is very important: "And behold, the LORD stood above it."
"The LORD stood above it" is a mistranslation. The Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible, and the New International Version all translate this to say that God stood beside him. God stood by Jacob at the foot of the ladder, not above it.
In other words, God came down the ladder; He revealed Himself as being there. This is why Jacob said, "God is in this place," and why he named it Bethel, meaning "this is God's house." Not that God is in heaven, but that Jacob's God was right there—that was His house. Consequently, Bethel became a shrine in later years.
Jacob did not merely have an encounter with God, but something happened to Jacob himself. He arrived a man with a price on his head and the guilt of many deceitful tricks. He was guilty of stealing, and in one sense of the word, guilty of a sin that was worthy of death. God in no way condoned his actions, yet He had chosen Jacob even before he was born, while he and Esau were still in the womb.
At Bethel, God confirmed that He had chosen Jacob and that He would follow through with him nonetheless. Jacob arrived a man with a price on his head and no future. He was transformed so that he had a future and a hope with which he could live. He was so encouraged that he promised that he would tithe to God all of his days.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prayer and Seeking God
Why does Amos specifically mention Bethel (verses 5-6) other than that it was where the Israelites were holding feasts? Why did they choose Bethel as a feast site? Bethel played an important role in Israel's history. Twice Jacob, one of the fathers of Israel, has important events happen to him there.
Genesis 28:11-22 records the first occasion Jacob has an encounter with God at Bethel, though it was not called Bethel then. It received its name—"House of God"—from God revealing Himself to Jacob there, and Jacob believing that He lived there. On this occasion, the patriarch arrives as a homeless wanderer, a man on the run from the murderous intents of his brother Esau. He is a man with a past, having just deceived his father and brother out of the blessing. Nevertheless, God reveals Himself to him there, and the transformation of Jacob begins. He leaves Bethel as a man with a future.
The second time he encounters God at Bethel (Genesis 35:1-4, 7, 9-15), he arrives after departing from his father-in-law, Laban, and having reconciled with Esau. He is a far better man than the first time, but he is not yet complete. However, he arrives as "Jacob" and departs as "Israel." The new name is assurance of the reality that he is a new man, that a transformation is taking place. In the Israelite mind, Bethel thus became associated as a place of renewal, of reorientation, of transformation by God.
Even as verses 1-3 of Amos 5 are a dirge, verses 8-9 are in the form of a hymn praising the true God, the transforming God. When God is at work, things change for the better; He is the God who makes a difference.
With this background, we can understand why Amos 5 calls attention to Bethel. God is asking, "Why aren't you Israelites being transformed in the conduct of your life when you keep the feasts?" He is saying, "You indeed go to Bethel for the feast, but no transformation of your conduct and attitude occurs. Are you going there to seek Me?"
One of the primary proofs that God is making a difference in a person's life occurs when one who was formerly hostile to God and His law begins to love God and His law. He shows his new love by obeying God and His law in his life in areas like those mentioned in verses 10-12.
Yet, the Israelites attended the feasts in Bethel and returned home with their lives still ungoverned by God's truth. When Jacob met God, his life began changing immediately, as his vow to tithe in Genesis 28:22 shows. Faith immediately became part of the conduct of his life. The lives of those in Amos' day should also have changed according to the dictates, principles, and examples of God's Word. They should have left Bethel singing and exemplifying, "Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97).
It seems that these people turned the feast in Bethel into nothing more than a vacation. Thus, Amos admonishes, "Do not seek Bethel! Seek the Lord and live!" Ultimately, the Bethel approach signifies death, not life.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Amos 5 and the Feast of Tabernacles
What is Gilgal's significance in Israel's spiritual history? Israel's first experience at Gilgal occurs when the people cross into the Promised Land under Joshua: "Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho" (Joshua 4:19). In Gilgal, they set up the twelve stones taken from the Jordan as a memorial of their crossing (verse 20-24).
Joshua 5:1-12 records that it was in Gilgal that all the Israelite males who had been born during the forty years in the wilderness were circumcised, thus entering into the Old Covenant—in effect, becoming God's nation in the land. Verse 10 shows that they kept the first Passover in the Promised Land in Gilgal, and in verse 12, where they first ate the fruit of the land.
Chapters 9, 10, and 14 show that Joshua launched his military attacks from Gilgal against the people of the land to secure it for Israelite inhabitation. I Samuel 11:14-15 records that Saul was confirmed as Israel's first king in Gilgal. All this early history of Israel's occupation of Canaan made Gilgal a shrine to the Israelites' inheritance and possession of the land.
However, Amos again hits the people with a precisely aimed lightning bolt by saying, "Gilgal shall surely go into captivity [exile]" (Amos 5:5). He then fastens that thought more firmly in their minds by making it personal: "'Therefore I will send you into captivity beyond Damascus,' says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts" (verse 27). In other words, even though they observed a festival in the shrine that commemorated possession of the Promised Land, those prosperous, lukewarm people listening to him would lose the land and be taken into captivity.
From this knowledge, we can begin to understand the attitude that Amos confronted. Generally, complacency or apathy was the problem, but specifically, it was much narrower.
With the Bethel illustration, Amos points out that they were mistaken in believing that God was in this place, and therefore their hope for life was a hollow one. They were assuming that simply because they were there, it would work in their favor.
The Beersheba illustration makes them face the fact that they were assuming God was with them. Their pride was almost boundless. They should have been asking whether God was pleased to walk with them.
The Gilgal illustration deals with their assumption that, because they were not only in the Promised Land but in full possession of it, everything was thus well with them.
Amos 5 highlights three critical assumptions, all of which are factors in a doctrine evangelical Christians term "eternal security." The context of the chapter shows a wealth of religious activity (verses 21-26). Amos mentions religious festivals, animal sacrifices, and music they believed to be glorifying to God, all indicating worship services of some kind. They went in for religion in a big way! Undoubtedly, they were wholehearted about it, so it was probably emotionally satisfying to them. But what good is worship if it does not get through to God? This is what Amos reveals to them. All of their enthusiasm was for naught because their daily lives did not match God's standards.
We are assured of making it into God's Kingdom on the strength of His ability to prepare us. So what is the problem? Verse 24 gives us some insight: "But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The first phrase can just as easily read, "Let justice [or, judgment] roll down." There is a clever play on a word here, as Gilgal means "the rolling." The people attended the festivals in Gilgal, but before their arrival and after they returned home, justice and righteousness failed to roll down—we might say "trickle down"—into their everyday life. Things went on as before. They had fun at the feast all right, but nothing changed spiritually.
Justice is the fruit of righteousness. When linked as they are in this verse, justice stands for correct moral practice in daily life, and righteousness for the cultivation of correct moral principles. Justice is external, righteousness is internal. The trouble with Gilgal was that the people allowed their human nature to keep their religion in a box with no way for it to influence daily life.
Together, these three illustrations show that our relationship with God is not a game. Each of His festivals has a serious purpose in keeping us oriented toward the completion of His purpose for us as individuals, for His church, for Israel, and in due time, for the whole world. Presently, attention is focused on the church and our part in its life. The church exists to serve Him in witnessing the gospel to the world by our lives, as well as by preaching. We cannot witness well without preparation, and the festivals play an important role in this.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Amos 5 and the Feast of Tabernacles
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