Class 3 - From Bethel to Samaria

Class 3 - From Bethel to Samaria

In our last class, we looked at several cities that Hosea would have been to and more than likely prophesied against at those very locations.  None though were as important as Bethel and Samaria.  These two places are the hallmarks of the problems with Israel.  Bethel, or Bethaven as we shall see, was the religious problem of Israel, idolatry in all its ugly self-serving.  Samaria was the political problem of Israel, in all its brash self-reliance.  Their history will be important to understand, their current problems during Hosea’s times are highly relevant, but most important of all is realizing that this is our problem.  As humans, flesh and blood, we are all susceptible to the same drives, the same temptations, the same lusts.  We may not be bowing down to Baal but in many ways the essence of our attitudes can be much the same.  We may not be relying on Assyria for help but in many ways our reliance on others can be just as damaging.  This is why we are going to spend the whole period now dealing with the lessons behind Bethel and Samaria.

The History of Bethel

Bethel means “the house of God” and in the first mention of it, Hosea just cannot bring himself to call it the “house of God”.  Rather, he calls it Bethaven, “the house of wickedness” or “the house of nothing” (4:15).  Because the place was filled with idolatry, it was the house of nothingness.  I’ve read commentators who say that Bethel and Bethaven were the same place but according to Joshua 7:2 they were separate locations but very closely associated.

"And Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is beside Bethaven, on the east side of Bethel..."  (see also 18:12)

During the days of Amos and Hosea, there was no distinction between the two.  It’s as if Bethaven had taken over Bethel.  Amos, a contemporary of Hosea, during the days of Jeroboam II also prophesied against Bethel.  You may recall in Amos 7 how Amaziah the priest of Bethel criticized Amos for his heavy prophecies which, he said, the land could not bear (Amos 7:10).  He told Amos in chapter 7:13,

(NIV) “Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

Amos was right there with Hosea pronouncing God’s judgments against this place.  Amos even uses the same word play in Amos 5:5,

"But seek not Bethel, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beersheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Bethel shall come to nought."

The word for “nought” is the Hebrew “aven”, thus Amos says that Bethel, the house of God, will become Bethaven, the house of nothing.  But, what was it about Bethel that made it special.  Why were the prophets so concentrated on it more than other places? 


It had not always been full of idolatry.  Bethel had a long and significant history before all this that starts with Jacob.  In fact, understanding this history will help us later to see why Hosea comments on it and what lessons we are to draw out of it for our own lives.  Turning to Genesis 28 we hopefully see a familiar story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it.  God reveals to him the promises of Abraham, which are his as well.  God assures him that he is with him.  Picking it up at verse 16,

"And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. {17} And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. {18} And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. {19} And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. {20} And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, {21} So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: {22} And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee."

Bethel, for Jacob, was the start of a new life.  It was his realization that God was with him.  He vowed a vow.  It was a dedication.  Brethren and sisters, I hope we’ve all had our Bethel, that moment in time when we’ve felt God so near, so real.  It may be at our baptism or it may come later but it’s important to have that experience.  Jacob would go on in his life and would seem to lose his way back to Bethel.  So too, we go our way in the world and have a hard time finding our way back to the place where God is.  Jacob “went on his journey” (29:1) and served for a wife (Hosea 12:12).  On his way back, he struggles to get back to Bethel.  He frets over meeting Esau.  He wrestles with an angel who changes his name to Israel.  He settles in Shechem (33:18) and buys some land there (33:19).  Then in Genesis 34 is the incident with Dinah and Shechem where Simeon and Levi end up slaying the whole town.  It doesn’t seem like things could get much lower for Jacob at this point.  Now look at what God says to him in Genesis 35:1,

"And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother."

At this juncture in his life God is saying to him, “you’ve got to get back to where you started from.”  Go back there and remember that I gave you promises and you vowed a vow to me.  Have you forgotten?  Brethren and sisters, we have to do that sometimes in our lives.  We get so swamped with all the worries of this life and the things that can drag us down.  God is saying we’ve got to get back to the place where we feel his presence.  We can’t do that with idols in our lives.  Look at what happens next in verse 2,

"Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments:"

Where had these strange gods come from?  Why had Jacob not dealt with them before?  Certainly, this was time for Jacob to get back to the basics.  He had to bury all the worldly things and get back to Bethel, “the house of God”.  When he finds the place again and builds the altar, God says to him in verse 10,

"And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel."

Now the angel had all ready said this to him back in 32:28 but up until this time the record has never actually referred to him as Israel (first time 35:21), only Jacob.  Here is where it sticks.  Here is where God solidifies the name change because Jacob had changed.  Israel got it and no matter where he travelled, Bethel was not far away.  Even at the end of his life when he was in Egypt he reminds Joseph that God appeared to him in Luz (that is Bethel, Gen. 48:3).  When he blessed Joseph in Genesis 48:15-16 he went back to his vow at Bethel,

"And he blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day, {16} The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth."

Don’t we like Jacob have to learn the same lessons?  That if we walk with God he cares for us, and his angels will redeem us from all evil?  We need that patient continuance in well doing.  Jacob had learned that.  It comes out in the most interesting places like smack dab in the middle of chapter 49 where he is telling his sons what will happen to them in the later days he says verse 18 out of the blue,

"I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD."

Remember this verse.  While it may seem out of place, it becomes part of Hosea’s commentary on Jacob’s life.  Hosea saw Jacob’s life, much like we should see his life, as a life lesson.  What Jacob had to experience and learn so do we.  Why else in Hosea 12:3-6 would he say this (notice it is Hosea speaking, not the LORD at this point),

"He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God: {4} Yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spake with us; {5} Even the LORD God of hosts; the LORD is his memorial. {6} Therefore turn thou to thy God: keep mercy and judgment, and wait on thy God continually."

When Hosea says, “he found him in Bethel” is that referring to the first time or the second time?  I would suggest to you, since it is after wrestling an angel that he is referring to the second time in Genesis 35.  When Jacob put away the strange gods and made an altar to God at Bethel.  How appropriate would that message be to the children of Israel?

Also notice that he says “there he spake with us.”  God may have talked with Jacob but there he spoke with us.  All scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).  The scriptures that were written before were written for our learning (Rom. 15:4).  No doubt that God still speaks to us through his word.

What is God saying to us in the life of Jacob?  The exhortation is three fold in verse 6,

  1. Turn to God
  2. Keep mercy and judgment.
  3. Wait on God continually

We can work backwards here and see the third one is exactly what Jacob had said in Genesis 49:18, “I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.”

Where had Jacob been aware of God’s mercy and judgment (or truth) and latched onto it?  Back before he wrestled the angel in Genesis 32:10 he says, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant.”  What a wonderful attitude.  He turns to God at that moment, faced with a sense of impending doom before his brother; he sought God with crying and tears.  What a wonderful exhortation Jacob’s life is for us!  If only the children of Israel would have contemplated it and done it.


What happened to Bethel?  How did it turn into what it was during the days of Hosea?  Turn to 1 Kings 12:25 and you’ll recall how Jeroboam the son of Nebat established Bethel as a place of false worship.  It’s almost as if he deliberately takes the same journey as Jacob but with the opposite effect.

"Then Jeroboam built Shechem [first place Jacob dwelt, Gen. 33:18] in mount Ephraim, and dwelt therein; and went out from thence, and built Penuel [where Jacob wrestled the angel, Gen. 32:30]."

Then he sets his sights on Bethel.  The king “took counsel” (v. 28) and made two golden calves of which one he set up in Bethel (v. 29).  He made the worship similar to that of Jerusalem but just enough different to appeal more to the Israelites.  A similar but different priesthood.  He had similar but different feasts.  These things he “devised of his own heart” (v. 33) were so well crafted that they would last through the history of the nation of Israel.  Hosea, about 200 years later, makes mention of the calves in 10:5,

"The inhabitants of Samaria shall fear because of the calves of Bethaven: for the people thereof shall mourn over it, and the priests thereof that rejoiced on it, for the glory thereof, because it is departed from it." (see also 8:5-6)

What was it about idols that so intoxicated the Israelites?  We look at these golden calves and wonder at how they could do something so stupid, so utterly meaningless.  Yet, it makes me wonder if we understand the true diabolical nature of idolatry?  What is idolatry?  I’m sure we’ve all heard that our idolatry today is money and materialism.  There is truth to that but there is more to it.  A commentator named G. Campell Morgan got me thinking more on this.  He said,

“What then is idolatry? Let us first recognize that idolatry is pre-eminently religious. The idolater is not a man who has broken with religion. He is practising it. If a man is avowedly an atheist, and honestly so, then he cannot be an idolater. And yet in his case, however honest he may be in his claim to be an atheist, his whole life is mastered by some central devotion, which is his god, and so in the last analysis he also is an idolater. But in our general use of the word, it applies to those who themselves claim to be religious, or to have a religion. I repeat, the idolater is not the man who has broken with religion, but the one who is practising it.

Well, what are idols? Let us first confine ourselves to the word as it occurs in our text: “Joined to idols.” The word so translated simply means images. Quite literally, the word, Atsab, means something carved. By use it means a carved representation of something else. Idolatry is the worship of an image, as the image is supposed to represent God-a god, if you like so to say. That is idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of false representations of God.”  G. Campell Morgan, Hosea: The Heart and Holiness of God, pg. 33-34

That is interesting and something deeper to ponder.  Is idolatry simply any religion, even our religion, that puts God into our image, imparts on him our feelings, shapes him after our judgments rather than relying on his testimony as revealed in scripture to change ourselves into his image?  Is idolatry reading our own interpretations and justifications into scripture rather than having the scripture speak to us and guide us?  If this is the case then the problem of idolatry has longer tentacles into our lives then at what we first thought.

For the Israelites, there were no clear-cut lines.  They mixed their views together.  Theologians have a fancy term for it.  They call it syncretism, that is, the merging of various religious views into an amalgamation of whatever best fit their desires.  If you had asked an Israelite why they didn’t worship Yahweh they would have said they were!  Look closely again at 4:15,

"Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The LORD liveth."

They worshiped Yahweh but it was still idolatry because they worshipped him according to their own representation.  Hosea often points out this kind of mixed up thinking as wrong, something that God will not accept.  Here’s another example in 5:6,

"They shall go with their flocks and with their herds [for sacrifice] to seek the LORD; but they shall not find him; he hath withdrawn himself from them."

Hosea 11:7 is another great example where the NLT dramatically captures the meaning,

“For my people are determined to desert me. They call me the Most High, but they don’t truly honor me.”

When they thought God had come up short for their needs they decided to turn to other gods.  One more verse in this regards will suffice, Hosea 7:14,

"And they have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds: they assemble themselves for corn and wine, and they rebel against me... {16} They return, but not to the most High…"

Where it says, “they assemble themselves” there is a variant that means “they gash themselves” (ESV, NIV).  The idea, either way, has the association of looking to another god, another representation to satisfy their needs for daily food.  That is idolatry.  Where we feel there is a gap or something we don’t personally like and we fill it in with our own understanding.  Turn to Hosea 13:2 and see how he puts it there,

"And now they sin more and more, and have made them molten images of their silver, and idols according to their own understanding, all of it the work of the craftsmen: they say of them, Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves."

There are those calves again and there is the true meaning of idolatry, “according to their own understanding”.  We are so crafty as human beings.  We are so skilled to worship those things of our own making.  It doesn’t have to be a carved image.  It could be a thought or idea molded after our own image.  It is called humanism.  The world is so adept at creating ideologies that are so against what God wants.  They are so subtle and consistently pushed on the media streams that if we subject ourselves to them they become engrained.  The danger is that this idolatry creeps into the ecclesia.   It affects our judgments as a community to make God based decisions.  We get brothers and sisters who decide things based upon what they feel rather than on searching the scriptures for answers.


The distance from Bethel to Samaria is approximately 40 km or 25 miles.  The journey would take us from Israel’s heart of idolatry to its political capital.  Samaria doesn’t have such a long and rich history as Bethel but the lessons are still very relevant.  They are lessons of a kingdom very much relying on itself, through pride and self-confidence, to escape from the Assyrians.  It is a nation in political turmoil, a spiral that led downwards as they failed to cry to God with all their heart.  Let’s look at this history, tie it in with Hosea’s message and see what it says to us.

Samaria has nothing like Bethel for noble origins.  Samaria was completely a man-made endeavor.  For that reason as long as Israel relied on the arm of the flesh it relied on Samaria until it was utterly taken away by the Assyrians.

Samaria’s beginnings are recorded in 1 Kings 16:24.

 “In the thirty and first year of Asa king of Judah began Omri to reign over Israel, twelve years: six years reigned he in Tirzah. {24} And he bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria. {25} But Omri wrought evil in the eyes of the LORD, and did worse than all that were before him. {26} For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin, to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger with their vanities.”

Samaria means a “watch station”.   Omri had specifically chosen this location for it defensibility.   It was so well situated that it would continue as the political capital of Israel until its demise.  It was his own sure tower but it was not of the Lord.  As we read, “he wrought evil in the eyes of the LORD, and did worse than all that were before him.”  His kingdom would be so notorious that for years Israel would be known as “the house of Omri” by the nations surrounding it.

During the days of Hosea it was still Ephraim’s head.  Isaiah mentions this when one of Israel’s kings, Pekah, made an alliance with Syria and Assyria to come against Judah in the days of Ahaz.  Isaiah says to Ahaz in Isaiah 7:9,

“Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. {8} For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. {9} And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.”[1]

In these verses, you begin to catch a glimpse of the political intrigue of the time.  During Hosea’s days of prophecy there would constantly be turmoil and bloodshed from one reign to another.  It’s easy to follow if we turn to 2 Kings 15 and start reading in verse 8 of the reign of Zachariah the son of Jeroboam II,

“In the thirty and eighth year of Azariah king of Judah did Zachariah the son of Jeroboam reign over Israel in Samaria six months. {9} And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, as his fathers had done: he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. {10} And Shallum the son of Jabesh conspired against him, and smote him before the people, and slew him, and reigned in his stead.

Shallum reigned a full month before facing his bloody end,

{13} Shallum the son of Jabesh began to reign in the nine and thirtieth year of Uzziah king of Judah; and he reigned a full month in Samaria. {14} For Menahem the son of Gadi went up from Tirzah, and came to Samaria, and smote Shallum the son of Jabesh in Samaria, and slew him, and reigned in his stead.

Notice how many times the word Samaria is used throughout these accounts.  It is as if the record wants to draw emphasis to it.  Menahem had a longer period of ten years but we notice here the beginnings of making a covenant with the Assyrians,

{17} In the nine and thirtieth year of Azariah king of Judah began Menahem the son of Gadi to reign over Israel, and reigned ten years in Samaria. {18} And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not all his days from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. {19} And Pul the king of Assyria came against the land: and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand. {20} And Menahem exacted the money of Israel, even of all the mighty men of wealth, of each man fifty shekels of silver, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back, and stayed not there in the land.

Menahem’s son Pekahiah takes over but not for long.

{23} In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah Pekahiah the son of Menahem began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and reigned two years. {24} And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. {25} But Pekah the son of Remaliah, a captain of his, conspired against him, and smote him in Samaria, in the palace of the king's house, with Argob and Arieh, and with him fifty men of the Gileadites: and he killed him, and reigned in his room.


{29} In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria. {30} And Hoshea the son of Elah made a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah, and smote him, and slew him, and reigned in his stead, in the twentieth year of Jotham the son of Uzziah.

The history of Hoshea’s[2] reign is picked up in 2 Kings 17:1-6,

{1} In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah began Hoshea the son of Elah to reign in Samaria over Israel nine years. {2} And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, but not as the kings of Israel that were before him. {3} Against him came up Shalmaneser king of Assyria; and Hoshea became his servant, and gave him presents. {4} And the king of Assyria found conspiracy in Hoshea: for he had sent messengers to So king of Egypt, and brought no present to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year: therefore the king of Assyria shut him up, and bound him in prison. {5} Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years. {6} In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

Is it any wonder Hosea decries the nation of Israel for its corruptness and violence?  Hosea frequently makes mention of their seeking to Assyria for help, or to Egypt.  Is it any wonder that God could no longer tolerate such acts against himself?  Let’s just pick up a few of these verses from Hosea and see how they tie in with this history.  Hosea 5:13-14 is the first mention of Assyria.

“When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah saw his wound, then went Ephraim to the Assyrian, and sent to king Jareb[3]: yet could he not heal you, nor cure you of your wound. {14} For I will be unto Ephraim as a lion...”

Hosea 7:10-11,

“And the pride of Israel testifieth to his face: and they do not return to the LORD their God, nor seek him for all this. {11} Ephraim also is like a silly dove without heart: they call to Egypt, they go to Assyria.”

Pride is an interesting thing.  It will cause you to look for help from any other source then the one who you should.  How often in our hour of need, because of pride, we don’t pray.  We forget to seek guidance.  The Israelites had what Hosea called “a spirit of whoredoms”, a state of mind, which would not even let them consider turning to their God (5:4).   Rather they would seek to pay their way out of it as in 8:9-10,

“For they are gone up to Assyria, a wild ass alone by himself: Ephraim hath hired lovers. {10} Yea, though they have hired among the nations, now will I gather them, and they shall sorrow a little for the burden of the king of princes.”

How often do we get caught in the trap that we can pay off our problems?  If only we could make a little more.  However, that type of thinking is incessant.  The Assyrian will keep coming back wanting more and more.  He will never go away.  It is, however, this constant thinking that we can do it on our own, we have the power.  As a final verse in this regards, look at Hosea 10:12-13,

“Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you. {13} Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men.”

Brethren and sisters, let’s not put trust in our own way.  Let’s not trust in a company of mighty men.  Men like to tout their abilities and accomplishments yet for all this world has to offer what does it bring us?  We still die in our sins.  Now is the time to break up our fallow ground. Now is the time to seek the Lord.   Lord willing he will come soon and rain down righteousness on us.


What have we seen in this class?  Bethel, the house of God, had become Bethaven, the house of wickedness.  Through its long and storied history, we picked up everything God wanted Bethel to become.  Sometimes we lose sight of that and we, like Jacob, have to find our way back to that place where we dedicated our lives to him.  We must bury all aspects of idolatry in our lives, which I suggested to you means to stop making God after our own representation but rather continually be seeking to be molded into his image.

We also went to Samaria, the political capital of Israel and saw how deeply depraved it had become.  Israel, for years, turned to itself or others for help rather seek their God.

It will not always be that way for Israel.  Hosea ends on a beautiful positive note that overcomes both of the problems with Bethel and Samaria.  It’s in chapter 14:2-3,

“O Israel, return unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. {2} Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips. {3} Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses [Samaria]: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods [Bethel]: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy.”



[1] So established was Samaria that Ezekiel would put it on a par with Jerusalem in his parable of two harlot sisters, Aholah and Aholibah in Ezekiel 23.

[2] Isn’t it ironic the last king of Israel has the same name as the prophet which spoke of his being cut off (Hosea 10:15).

[3] Jareb is more likely a title “Great” rather than a proper name.