Solving the Bethel problem in Joshua 8.17

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The mention of Bethel in Joshua 8.17 might seem a little odd. Up until this point the only role that Bethel plays within the narrative is to help mark the location of where the Israelites were waiting in ambush. Then all of a sudden Bethel is mentioned along with Ai as having gone out to attack Israel. How do we account for this seemingly sudden change of events?

This is one of those occasions where the answer is not obvious and straightforward. Sometimes these situations are labeled “problems” because there is not a clear answer to the issue. However, just because absolute certainty is impossible that does not mean that we cannot provide a reasonable or plausible answer to a “problem.” The rest of this post is going to be focused on providing a reasonable answer to the issue of the sudden mention of Bethel in Joshua 8.17.

The first question: is the text I am reading correct?

This question is not as outrageous as it might seem, nor should it cause a crisis of faith for anyone. In fact it is usually one of the first questions I ask when trying to solve a “problem.” The Christian faith is not based on the accuracy of the Biblical text, but on the historic event of the resurrection of Jesus. If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true. If it didn’t then it is false and we are all wasting our time (1Cor 15.12-19). Biblical textual criticism (deciding what is and isn’t part of the original Biblical text) is a discipline that many believing scholars and pastors have practiced for hundreds of years without suffering a crisis of faith. The recognition and admission of Jesus’ resurrection as the basis of the Christian faith frees up myself and others to investigate textual issues without causing a crisis of faith.

The process of textual criticism is an art and a science. Meaning that there are definite concrete steps you take, but that you also need to combine imagination and creativity at certain points. The concrete steps involve sorting out what various manuscripts have for a particular passage and then reading the verse with each of those differences, called variants, and evaluating what difference it makes. The imagination and creativity comes in to play when brainstorming possible ways these differences might have come about.

There are not always variants present, but Joshua 8.17 does have one and so we are provided with an opportunity to do some textual criticism and hopefully demystify the process a bit and show the effect that it can have on the translation and interpretation of a passage. Fortunately, there is only one variant to consider in this verse and its effect is fairly simple and straightforward: the Septuagint (LXX) does not have Bethel in Joshua 8.17; other ancient Old Testament manuscripts do have Bethel. If Bethel is eliminated from the verse then the problem is solved because it has been literally eliminated. The rest of the chapter remains squarely focused on Ai and there is no need to account for the seemingly odd sudden appearance of Bethel joining Ai in attacking the Israelites.

In fact, this could be the reason for the LXX not including Bethel. The translator recognized it didn’t make any sense, concluded it was an error and left it out of his translation and solved the problem. Of course it is also possible that the manuscript he was translating from also did not mention Bethel and so he did not include it in his translation.

At this point some of you might be wondering what the LXX (Septuagint) is, so let me briefly explain. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament completed around the 2nd century BC, which is before the events of the New Testament occurred. It served as the Old Testament of the early church and even to this day still serves as the Old Testament (or the underlying text of a translation) for the Eastern Orthodox churches. Modern English translations however don’t use the LXX as a translation basis. Instead, most opt for something called the Masoretic Text (abbreviated MT). The MT is the work of a group called the Masoretes who basically worked through all the known Hebrew manuscripts of the OT, corrected the “faults” that were present, and produced a standard text to prevent further corruption. The MT was completed during the medieval period, making it a later text than the LXX.

Which text is superior is a matter of debate. In favor of the LXX it can be argued that it is the older text, and since it was completed before the events of the NT it is also more accurate because there would have been no temptation to add/correct things to undermine the Christian message. Against the LXX it can be argued that despite being the older text it is still a translation, and in that way it is the more inaccurate text.

In favor of the MT it can be argued that since it is not a translation it is thus more accurate than a translation such as the LXX, even though it is later. Against the MT it can be argued that since it wasn’t completed until the medieval period there was plenty of time for the text to have been modified to counter Christian teaching points.

Now, in the grand scheme of things the LXX and MT (and the Dead Sea Scrolls for that matter) are mostly in agreement. Meaning they say the same thing; nothing of significance is missing in any of them. So you can trust that the Old Testament in your English bible, whatever its translation basis happens to be, is not deficient or lacking in anything. For this particular verse whether Bethel joined Ai in attacking the Israelites or not doesn’t change that in the end both Ai and Bethel (Joshua 12.9, 16) were defeated by Joshua. Leaving Bethel out of this verse does not then change the text to say that the Israelites did not conquer Bethel.

However, from a technical viewpoint whether or not to include Bethel in this verse is significant. From a technical perspective you want to have the most accurate text possible. Even if a certain detail doesn’t matter in the overall picture, you never know when even a small error could have significant consequences or serve as a faulty premise in a larger argument.

So, with the goal of technical accuracy in mind I will discuss a couple possibilities regarding the mention of Bethel. One of these will assume that mentioning Bethel with Ai is the original reading, while the other will assume that Bethel was added later and attempt to explain why it might have been added.

Possibility: Ai and Bethel had a mutual defense agreement

If the position is taken that Bethel is the original reading of the text then this view could help explain why it was included and how it is functioning in the text.

The fact that Bethel is used to help identify where the Israelites waited in ambush while waiting to attack Ai seems to indicate that the two cities were in close proximity to each other (Joshua 8.9). Ai is usually identified with et-Tell, which is less than 3 miles east of Bethel (which is identified with Beitin), but this is not without problems, namely that et-Tell appears to have been unoccupied during the biblical period. Or if it was occupied any evidence of it being an active city during the time of Joshua’s conquest has eroded away. There are other sites nearby (e.g. Khirbet Nisya and Khirbet el-Maqatir) that have been argued to be Ai, but none of these has been accepted either.

If the cities were indeed close to each other, as the text seems to indicate, then we learn an additional reason for the initial defeat of the Israelites: their spies were spotted and the position was quickly reinforced from nearby Bethel. Since they were likely anticipating an attack it is not inconceivable that each city had troops at the ready to be able to reinforce one another at a moment’s notice. In this case then it is not only Achan’s carelessness, but also the carelessness of the Israelite spies that brought about their initial defeat. When they got to Ai they realized they were hopelessly outmatched and they immediately retreated instead of trying to fight.

This could also explain why later (Joshua 8.3) Joshua positions his army during the night: so that they won’t be spotted beforehand. When Israel makes their advance Ai is once again reinforced by Bethel and they go out to meet Israel in battle again. But having not spotted the 25,000 men who moved into an ambush position overnight they are unprepared for it. So when Ai burns both Ai and Bethel are defeated because their armies were combined to repel the Israelite threat.

Including Bethel in Joshua 8.17 then serves to inform the reader of this arrangement and provide the reason for Bethel’s defeat as well.

Possibility: Further confirmation of Joshua as Moses’ successor

If the view is taken that the LXX is the original reading and that Bethel was added later, this view could account for the motivations behind the addition.

There have been several parallels between Joshua and Moses so far in the book of Joshua. In chapter 1 God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the people, then the people agree to follow Joshua just as they did with Moses. In chapter 2 Joshua send spies to scout the land, just like Moses did in Numbers 13.1-33. In chapter 3 Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan, imitating Moses’ leading them through the sea. In chapter 5 the people demonstrate obedience by being circumcised, like Moses was (Ex 4.24-26); Celebrating the Passover that God commanded through Moses (Ex 11.1-12.51); and finally God appears to Joshua like he did to Moses (Ex 3.1-4.17).

Now if we remember back in Genesis the promise was originally given by God to Abraham in Gen 12.7. After receiving this promise Abram moves on and pitches his tent between Ai and Bethel and builds an altar there (Gen 12.8). After Joshua conquers Ai he raised a great heap of stones, resembling an altar, over the body of its king (Josh 8.29). So, by making the specific remark that Bethel was also conquered the text makes clear that Joshua is fulfilling the promise made to Abram because he conquered the area where Abram built an altar and worshipped God after having received the promise.

What could be the motivation behind making such a specific connection in the text?

Well, Paul uses Gen 12.7 to help show that salvation always came through faith not the law. Specifically, he says:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3.16.

Christians were saying that Jesus fulfilled the promises given to Abraham, not Moses or anyone else. Furthermore, Paul was using this verse as part of a larger argument demonstrating why Christians are not subject to the law of Moses, something the Judaizers Paul is writing against in Galatians were trying to make Christians follow. Gen 12.7 was being used to attack Jews and undermine obedience to the Mosaic law. Being on the receiving end of such an attack would give them motivation to somehow counter it, and what better way to do it by slipping in an innocuous addition to their Scriptures?

By specifying explicitly that Bethel was also conquered along with Ai, a place of significance to Jews, it further strengthens the idea that Joshua, not Jesus (oh the irony), fulfilled the promises given to Abraham.


It is impossible to definitively prove or disprove either one of these scenarios. For that matter these are not the only possible scenarios. In fact, you could probably even use the first scenario in support of the LXX as the more accurate reading: people forgot about the arrangement between Ai and Bethel and so Bethel was added to remind people that such an agreement existed. Which possibility is opted for, if either, will likely depend a large deal on personal biases and presuppositions. If you’re already inclined to consider the LXX to be a more accurate text than the MT, then more than likely you are already inclined to consider Bethel to be a later addition motivated by something. If you consider the MT to be a more accurate text than the LXX then likely you suspect that there must be a reason for including Bethel in Joshua 8.17 and are already inclined to accept an option that makes sense of its inclusion.

Regardless of what you do with this verse Christ is still risen.

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary