Back to Bethel, part 2

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)


This message is the second of a two-part series on the theme, “Back to Bethel”. The first message was based on Jacob’s return to Bethel, in Genesis 35, and how he led his family to get right with God. This message gives the reverse of that concept, namely, that there was a much different “back to Bethel” experience, many years later. There is always a danger of a wrong kind of Bethel experience!

The text comes from the Old Testament book of 2 Kings. In the background, the northern kingdom, the 10 tribes, are almost at the end of the line. Their capital city, Samaria, has been under siege for a couple of years but it’s almost over. Let’s read the text:

2Ki 17:24-28 NASB 24 The king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they possessed Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 At the beginning of their living there, they did not fear the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them which killed some of them. 26 So they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying, "The nations whom you have carried away into exile in the cities of Samaria do not know the custom of the god of the land; so he has sent lions among them, and behold, they kill them because they do not know the custom of the god of the land." 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, "Take there one of the priests whom you carried away into exile and let him go and live there; and let him teach them the custom of the god of the land." 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD.

Now, the chapter itself is rather long, so I won’t read all of it but will point out selected items as we go along. The first several verses speak of the last king of the northern kingdom, and how he basically wasn’t so much a king as a puppet ruler. We need to remember that there were very few independent kingdoms in those days. You maintained your “independence”, such as it was, by either paying tribute or blackmail money to a stronger power, or, you had enough of a military strength so that people wouldn’t bother you. Assyria, modern day Iraq, was a very strong power and they enforced their rule by very cruel means. I mean, what they did to captives was not something pleasant. I won’t go into too much detail.

A word about siege warfare: this was one means of war that was practiced often in that era. It was simple: the enemy army surrounded your city and waited for you to either surrender or starve. It was a simple and effective way to win a battle—but it was horrible if you were on the inside, or the losing side.

The next several verses describe how most of the citizens were carried away. It wasn’t a pleasure walk, by any means: the Assyrian king re-settled the Hebrews in cities far away from Israel. Some of the territory, their new homeland, was as far away as southern Iran.

And they never returned to the land God had promised them. Such is the result of sin, because the Israelites had abandoned the God of their fathers and imported religious practices from other nations. They had been warned, many times, but paid no attention. Now God’s wrath was revealed, and now God’s judgment was going to fall on them. But none of that would have happened, if they had repented of their sins.

So we’ve observed the rebellion and removal of the native Hebrew people in verses 1-6, but now we see the repopulation of the northern kingdom by others. Verses 24-25 tell of the newcomers, all former captives or subjects of the Assyrian powers, none of whom had much choice while they were in captivity. When the king said, “Move!”, you better say “where?” or else suffer the consequences. These consequences, in a word, weren’t pretty.

It’s bad enough that these newcomers came in with the intent to stay, taking advantage, perhaps, of the wide open spaces and at least semi-fertile land. One major problem, however, was that these settlers brought their own religions and idols along with them! There was one unifying factor, though, in that God sent lions among the people and the lions were apparently having a field day, killing people near the cities of Samaria. May I digress for a moment and share a similar kind of incident? I used to enjoy a “manage the world” kind of computer game where I built Roman colonies in various places. The idea was to start small but keep improving, tearing down older things and replacing them with new. Well, one episode has stayed with me for several years. The colony’s location was near a pack of wolves, and the wolves were just having a feast with my colonists! I’m almost positive I saw a smirk on the computer’s wolf displays when they grabbed another snack, so to speak. Even one of my children noticed my score going down, and exclaimed, “Dad, your people are being eaten by wolves!”

Thus, I’ve always wondered why the people left over, when the lions were attacking (at will?), didn’t band together with bow and arrows, or swords, or spears, or something!—didn’t even try to defend themselves. What did they do? They appealed to the king of Assyria! They didn’t repent and seek God, nor did they even ask the people of Judah for help. The trip took any number of days (weeks?) before making it to Nineveh and back. And what was the king’s advice? “Take one of your priests back there, and let him teach the people what to do (paraphrased) The king basically said, “Don’t bother me—take care of it yourself.”

Sure enough, along comes one of the priests (see v. 28) and goes where? Bethel! It’s one of those coincidences that not only was the True God worshiped at Bethel, but it’s also one of the border towns between the two kingdoms. Even worse, this was where the first king of the northern kingdom built a false god, a golden calf, and commanded the people to worship it. Incredible as it sounds, this priest does begin to teach the people (had they started to mix and mingle or intermarry by this time?) so even though they had made their own idols, they also “feared the Lord (v.33)”! Just think, after taking a look at the list of various gods and perhaps goddesses now in (perhaps, infesting?) Samaria, they could have had a different “god” to worship every day of the week. Perhaps this is where the original “coexist” movement came into being! Something to keep in mind: a lot of religions don’t mind “co-existing” as long as they’re on top and everyone else is on the bottom. The Christian faith, and lands where Christianity is the majority religion, is one of the few that actually allows for religious freedom. Can that be true of other countries?

One additional comment about these various idols and “gods” in verses 30-31. The commentators aren’t in agreement as to how the names should be translated or, in other words, what the “god” actually looked like or represented. It’s another irony in that the people who made these idols, either carving wood, like a totem pole, or working with gold and silver to make metallic images (“molten images”, King James Version) but that effort didn’t amount to two cents in God’s estimation! All the effort to create these idols—and for nothing.

So let’s make this personal. The Bethel experience can be ours if we want it. I hope we want the right kind of Bethel experience, like Jacob did. He got right with God, and stayed right, as far as we can tell. This experience, in 2 Kings 17, is the wrong kind of Bethel experience. There was no call to repentance, no appeal to the God of Israel and Abraham, no journey to the Temple in order to approach God, and no effort to love the Lord, only to fear Him. They missed a golden opportunity to make a true new start, and paid dearly until years later when the (by now) Samaritans adopted the Books of Moses and built their own temple. Nobody knows for sure if they were ever born again until the time of Jesus, though.

What kind of back to Bethel experience do I really want to go through? One in which I come humbly to God, or the kind where a priest, whose own faith is questionable, tries to tell me how to coexist with other systems? Like Jacob, I choose the best choice, not the choice directed by a pagan king to a literal mixed multitude!
What choice will you make?

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.

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