Beth Aven: A Scholarly Conundrum

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Excerpt Scholars have been unable to come up with a viable site for Beth Aven. The reason is clear. Since the inception of historical-geographical research in Palestine, Bethel and Ai have been incorrectly located, thus obscuring the location of Beth Aven... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the Fall 1999 issue of Bible and Spade.

The location of Beth Aven is important to ABR research because it was situated adjacent to Ai: “Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel” (Jos 7:2).

Ai, Beth Aven, and Bethel were a triad of settlements in close proximity to one another. The Hebrew word translated “near” in Joshua 7:2 is im, which means “close to,” or “beside.” Any serious candidate for Joshua’s Ai, then, must have a candidate for Beth Aven near by.

Scholars have been unable to come up with a viable site for Beth Aven. The reason is clear. Since the inception of historical-geographical research in Palestine, Bethel and Ai have been incorrectly located (Livingston 1998: 77–80; Byers 1999), thus obscuring the location of Beth Aven.

Biblical Requirements for Beth Aven

The first mention of Beth Aven, which means “house of wickedness,” in the Old Testament is in Joshua 7:2. There it states that Beth Aven was close to Ai. Since Ai was east of Bethel, Beth Aven would have been east of Bethel as well. From this passage we conclude that Beth Aven was occupied at the time of Joshua (late 15th century BC), was close to Ai, and was east of Bethel.

Beth Aven is referred to a second time in the book of Joshua in the description of the northern border of the tribe of Benjamin:

On the north side their boundary began at the Jordan; then the boundary goes up to the shoulder north of Jericho, then up through the hill country westward; and it ends up at the wilderness of Beth-aven. From there the boundary passes along southward in the direction of Luz, to the shoulder of Luz (the same is Bethel) (Jos 18:12–13a, RSV).

Here we learn that Beth Aven was north of Bethel. Since it was both east (Jos 7:2) and north (Jos 18:13a) of Bethel, in reality it must have been northeast of Bethel.[i]

The next reference to Beth Aven is in the account of Israel’s battles with the Philistines recorded in 1 Samuel 13 and 14. In response to Jonathan’s attack on the Philistine outpost at Geba, the Philistines assembled their forces and “went up and camped at Micmash, east of Beth Aven” (1 Sm 13:5b). The Philistines were coming from their territory along the Mediterranean coast, so they evidently first passed by Beth Aven and then continued eastward to Micmash, modern Mukhmas. Beth Aven was therefore located west of Micmash and was occupied at the time of Saul in the mid-11th century BC. Because of Jonathan’s bravery in attacking the Philistine outpost at Micmash, the Israelites were victorious that day. As the Philistines retraced the route back to their homeland, “the battle moved on beyond Beth Aven” (1 Sm 14:23b).

Beth Aven is then mentioned in Hosea 4:15, 5:8 and 10:5. No locational information is given in these verses and in any case nearly all scholars take Beth Aven here to be a pejorative name for Bethel.

Scholarly Opinions

A number of suggestions have been made for the location of Beth Aven, only one of which meets the Biblical requirements. The confusion on this subject is best illustrated by the views of W.F. Albright. In 1924 he suggested the village of Burqa as the location of Beth Aven (145). Fifteen years later he revised the location to et-Tell (1939: 16–17) and 24 years after that to Deir Dibwan (1963: 29).

Kh. Haiyan
C.W. Wilson appears to be the first to attempt to locate Beth Aven. In 1870 he suggested that Kh. An was Beth Aven. He located Kh. An: "some distance below the village [of Beitin], and lower down the same valley, westward from Michmash and not far from Et-Tel (Ai) (126)."

Wilson was most likely referring to Kh. Haiyan on the southern edge of modern Deir Dibwan, since there is no site named Kh. An in this vicinity. Sellin (1900: 1–3) and Smith (1899) also thought Beth Aven could be at Kh. Haiyan. Although west of Mukhmas, Kh. Haiyan is east of El Bireh (=Bethel, Livingston 1998) rather than northeast as the Bible requires. In addition, excavation and surveys have shown that the site was not inhabited in the 15th and 11th centuries BC (Callaway and Nicol 1966; Finkelstein and Magen 1993: 36*, 183; Na’aman 1987: 13)

Deir Dibwan
In 1893 Biblical scholar Adolf von Schlatter suggested the village of Deir Dibwan as another possibility for Beth Aven (240–42). Others who adopted this identification were Smith (1899), Abel (1938: 268) and Albright (1963: 29). Deir Dibwan does not qualify to be Beth Aven, however, since it is located east of El Bireh, not northeast, and was not occupied in the 15th and 11th centuries BC (Finkelstein, Lederman and Bunimovitz 1997: 533).

Burg Beitin
G. Dalman in 1911 suggested that Burg Beitin on the southeast edge of the modern village of Beitin could be Beth Aven (14). He believed Beitin to be Bethel and, since Beth Aven was next to Bethel, Burg Beitin was a logical candidate. Schunck has made the same proposal (1963: 150, 155 n. 14). Burg Beitin is indeed northeast of El Bireh and west of Mukhmas as required by the Bible, but it could not possibly be Beth Aven since it was not occupied until the Byzantine period (Albright 1928: 9; Finkelstein, Lederman and Bunimovitz 1997: 522; Na’aman 1987: 13).

Na’aman has a similar theory. He believes that Beth Aven was the name of the sanctuary of Bethel and that it was located to the east of Beitin at a site other than Burg Beitin, yet to be found (1987: 17).

In 1924 Albright thought that perhaps the modern village of Burqa was Beth Aven (1924: 145). To the present author’s knowledge, the only other scholar to give credence to this possibility is Howley (1979: 318) Burqa cannot be Beth Aven since it is located southeast of El Bireh, not northeast, and was not occupied prior to the Hellenistic period (Finkelstein and Magen 1993: 35*, 179; Na’aman 1987: 13).

In view of the almost universal acceptance of et-Tell as the site of Joshua’s Ai, it is surprising that a few scholars have placed Beth Aven there. The first to do so was R. Dussaud in 1937 (134–41). He was followed by Albright (1939: 16–17), Kaufmann (1959: 118), Grinz (1961: 213–16), and Schmitt (1980: 51–58). Sellin also thought that et-Tell could be the location of Beth Aven (1900: 1–3). Although et-Tell is northeast of El-Bireh and west of Mukhmas, excavations have shown that it was not occupied in the 15th century BC and therefore does not qualify to be Beth Aven (Cooley 1997).

Tell Maryam
The most popular candidate for Beth Aven in recent years has been Tell Maryam, 7 km (4 mi) southeast of El Bireh. This suggestion was put forward by Zecharia Kallai in 1956 (Kallai-Kleinmann 1956; cf. Kallai 1986: 128 n. 68). Others who have favored this location are Aharoni (1979: 256, 431), Howley (1979: 318), Boling (1982: 222), and Arnold (1992).

Tell Maryam is the least qualified of the possible sites for Beth Aven. It is southeast of El Bireh rather than northeast, it is too far from the candidate sites to be considered “next to” Ai, and it was not occupied prior to the Hellenistic period (Finkelstein and Magen 1993: 35*, 180; Na’aman 1987: 13). Its small size, 0.5 dunam (1/8 acre) (Finkelstein and Magen 1993: 35*, 180), precludes it from being a settlement of any significance.

Kh. Tell el-‘Askar
Kallai recognized the shortcomings of Tell Maryam, so in 1991 he abandoned that site in favor of Kh. Tell el-'Askar 1 km (0.6 mi) north-northeast of Mukhmas (Kallai 1991: 175–77). In spite of Kallai’s confidence,[ii] this site fares little better than Tell Maryam. It is southeast of El Bireh, not northeast, and is east of Mukhmas rather than west. In addition, it is far from the candidate sites for Ai. A survey of the site did not produce evidence for occupation at the time of Joshua in the 15th century BC (Finkelstein and Magen 1993: 37*, 187–88).

The best suited of the possible sites for Beth Aven is Beitin 3 km (2 mi) northeast of El Bireh. Since nearly all scholars have identified Beitin as Bethel, it largely has been overlooked as a possible candidate for Beth Aven. Early on, one of the pioneer explorers in Palestine, Claude Conder, recognized that the Hebrew name Beth Aven may be preserved in the modern Arabic name Beitin (1878: 335; 1881: 101). In his opinion, however, Beth Aven was simply another name for Bethel that he considered to be located at Beitin.

After correcting the location of Bethel from Beitin to El-Bireh, ABR’s own David Livingston was the first to suggest that Beitin could possibly be Beth Aven (1994: 158). He pointed out that the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (AD 333) located a village named Bethar, which the translator Wilkinson equates with Beth Aven, 1 Roman mile north of Bethel (Wilkinson 1981: 155). [iii] The turn off to Beitin from the main north-south Roman road is exactly 1 Roman mile north of El Bireh. With Bethel at El Bireh, this would place Beth Aven at Beitin. Beitin is northeast of El Bireh and west of Mukhmas as required for Beth Aven, but does the archaeology of the site support this identification?

Aerial view of Beitin looking east. The area of the Middle Bronze-Late Bronze fortress is the open area in the lower left center of the picture. On the left edge of the photo is the curving paved road shown on the plan of the fortress. The Deir Dibwan road proceeds from the lower right corner to the upper center. The rectangular area just to the right of the mosque in the center of the photo is a Roman reservoir. Burg Beitin is at the top center of the photo to the left (north) of the Deir Dibwan road. (Randy Cook).

Archaeology of Beitin

A sounding was made at Beitin in November of 1927 by W.F. Albright (Albright 1928). He was fortunate enough to encounter the inside face of a fortification wall (at C on the plan). Major campaigns were then carried out in 1934 under the direction of Albright, and in 1954, 1957 and 1960 under the direction of James Kelso. Unfortunately, Beitin was poorly excavated and poorly published.

Sufficient work was done, however, to demonstrate that there was a small fortress on the site in the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze periods (Kelso 1968: 10–19). The north, west and south walls of the fortress were located. They were well-built stone walls ca. 3.5 m (11.5 ft) wide founded on bedrock.

The south wall was not plotted on the site plan, nor related to the other walls in the excavation report, so it is difficult to determine the north-south dimension of the fortress with accuracy. It was found just to the north of the Deir Dibwan road. From the aerial photo, it appears that the distance from the northwest corner of the fortress to the south wall is ca. 200 m (220 yd). The east wall was not excavated, but the excavators believed it was located beneath a paved road ca. 70 m (77 yd) east of the west wall (Kelso 1968: 18). If this is the case, the fortress was quite small­on the order of 75 x 200 m (82 x 220 yd), or 3 1/3 acres.


Plan of the Middle Bronze-Late Bronze fortress at Beitin. Excavations conducted in Beitin between 1927 and 1960 by W.F. Albright and James Kelso revealed a small fortress that can be identified as the Beth Aven of the Old Testament. It was probably the southern border fortress of the Shechem city state and supportive of the Israelite tribes when they attacked Ai.

Abundant pottery from the LB I period was found at Beitin. In particular, a type of bowl with interior concentric circles painted in red (Kelso 1968: Pl. 34. 25, 27, 28, 32–34). This bowl is unique to the LB IB period in the second half of the 15th century BC, the time of the Conquest. It does not occur before this time and occurs only rarely thereafter. There is no doubt that Beitin was occupied at the time of the Conquest. In addition, there is abundant Iron Age I remains from the time of Saul. Thus, Beitin meets both the geographic and archaeological requirements to be identified as Beth Aven.

Late Bronze I pottery from Beitin. The pottery shown here demonstrates that the fortress at Beitin was in existence at the time of Joshua’s attack against Ai. Numbers 1 and 4 are large pithoi similar to what ABR archaeologists are finding in abundance at Kh. el-Maqatir. The other vessels are: 2 and 5, carinated bowls with vertical upper wall; 3, 6, 7 and 11, flaring carinated bowls; 8–10, dipper juglets; 12–23, cooking pots. (Drawing by author.)

Significance of Beth Aven

Just across the Wadi el-Gayeh 1.5 km (1 mi) to the south-southeast of Beitin is Kh. el-Maqatir, also a small fortress in the LB IB period. Why were there two fortresses located in such close proximity to one another in the Late Bronze IB period? It is the opinion of this writer that the Wadi el-Gayeh was the border between the territory of the Jerusalem city-state coalition to the south and the territory of the Shechem city state to the north (Wood 1999: 23). This same wadi later became the border between the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim when the tribal allotments were made (Jos 18:12–13). It appears that Kh. el-Maqatir was the northern border fortress for the Jerusalem city-state coalition and I believe it should be identified as the Ai of Joshua (Wood 1999). Beitin, on the other hand, was the southern border fortress for the city state of Shechem and should be identified as Beth Aven.

The two fortresses were in close proximity, observing one another across the no man’s land of the Wadi el-Gayeh. Thus the Bible describes their relationship as being im one another, meaning “next to,” or, in view of the geographical situation, perhaps “opposite” would be a better meaning. Being located in the area of the Shechem city state, Beth Aven undoubtedly was on friendly terms with the Israelites (Wood 1997; 1999: 22).

Ai, conversely, was the northern border fortress for the hostile Jerusalem city-state coalition and as such was strategically important to the Israelites. It was chosen by Joshua as the first site in the central hill country of Canaan to be attacked. Beth Aven may have provided logistical support in this undertaking.

With the location of Beth Aven now fixed, the border between Benjamin and Ephraim in this area can be traced. It passed from the southeast, coming up from Jericho, along the Wadi el-Gayeh that ends at Beitin. From there, the line went southwest, most likely on the west side of El-Bireh since Bethel was included in the tribal area of Benjamin (Jos 18:22). The border then proceeded to Lower Beth Horon (Beit 'Ur et-Tahta) 12 km (7.5 mi) west-southwest of El-Bireh (Jos 18:13b).


Finding the correct locations of Bethel, Joshua’s Ai, and Beth Aven is crucial to a proper understanding of the date, nature and historicity of the Conquest as described in Joshua. The identification of these sites has eluded scholars since the beginning of scientific historical-geographical research in Palestine. Edward Robinson got the investigation off on the wrong foot in 1838 when he identified Beitin as Bethel and rejected the local tradition that Ai was located at Kh. el-Maqatir. The majority of Biblical scholars have uncritically accepted Robinson’s conclusions to the present day. As a result, not only have Bethel and Joshua’s Ai been misidentified, but also Beth Aven.

These three places form a triad linked together by a complex network of geographic and archaeological parameters set forth in the Old Testament. There only can be one unique set of sites that fulfills the precise conditions of Scripture. The three sites that meet all of the Biblical requirements are: Bethel at El Bireh (instead of Beitin), Joshua’s Ai at Kh. el-Maqatir (instead of et-Tell) and Beth Aven at Beitin.

View northwest down the Wadi Gayeh. The houses of Deir Dibwan are at the lower left and et-Tell is in the left center. Beitin (Beth Aven) is visible in the upper right corner and across the shallow northwest end of Wadi Gayeh is Kh. el-Maqatir at the upper left. (Randy Cook)

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[i] Biblical Hebrew did not express intermediate points on the compass. There are no candidate sites for Beth Aven northeast of, and reasonably close to, Beitin, providing additional evidence that Beitin cannot possibly be Bethel.

[ii] “There is no other identification that can seriously be considered for this site [Beth Aven]…there are hardly any other candidates available” (Kallai 1991: 176).

[iii] In the 3rd edition of Egeria’s Travels, Wilkinson did include the footnote equating Bethar with Beth Aven (1999: 27).


Abel, F.M.
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Aharoni, Y.
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Arnold, P.M.
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Boling, R.G.
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Byers, G.A.
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Conder, C.R.
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Wood, B.G.
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1999 The Search for Joshua’s Ai: Excavations at Kh. el-Maqatir. Bible and Spade 12: 21–30.



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