Where is Bethel and Ai? -- By: David Livingston

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 01:1 (Winter 1988)
Article: Where is Bethel and Ai?
Author: David Livingston


Where is Bethel and Ai?

David Livingston1

[This article is a revision of our paper given at the Memphis Symposium on the Exodus and Conquest in April, 1987.]

One of the major reasons why many scholars today reject the truthfulness of the biblical account of the Conquest is the site of Ai. No one lived at et-Tell (the modern location for Ai) when the Israelites arrived. So, for this and other reasons, many scholars believe the story of the destruction of Ai (and the whole Conquest “saga”) is merely legend, embellished over hundreds of years and finally written down during the time of Israel’s kingdom. They ask, “How could it possibly be accurate history?”

Throughout the Old Testament, both Bethel and Ai are closely associated. To find one is to find the other. Conversely, to mislo-cate one is to mislocate the other. Furthermore, if one excavates a site which is not the biblical city he supposes it is, he will obviously come to some wrong conclusions.

ABR staff have been working on the Bethel-Ai problem for many years. We may not have all the answers yet, but we do have some suggestions.

Has Bethel Been Correctly Located?

The city of Bethel was on the border between Benjamin and Ephraim (Joshua 16:1–2, 18:13). It separated the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah and thus had every reason to be the most-mentioned city, next to Jerusalem, in the Old Testament. Its correct location is centrally important in determining geographical as well as chronological relationships. And its twin-city of Ai should yield important archaeological information to help in dating the Conquest.

Although almost all scholars agree that Bethel has been correctly located for over 150 years, there have been some serious problems with the identification of Ai. We will examine the procedure used to identify these two cities and the problems that have resulted.

In doing so, we will assume the biblical documents are accurate historical accounts. Contrary to the attitude of many scholars, we do not believe they are simply “folk legends.”

Problems with the Identification of Bethel and Ai:

Bethel and Ai were “twin cities. “ Genesis 12:8 is the first mention of this relationship. Then throughout the Old Testament they are associated, as late as post-exilic times (Ezra 2:28

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