The Significance of Tel Dan in the Genesis Narrative

The land God promised to Abraham and his descendants is a beautiful mosaic of rocky deserts, green valleys, rolling hills, and snow-capped mountains.

These locations are home to familiar and beloved biblical sites frequented by pilgrims touring Israel, like Capernaum, Mount Tabor, and Jerusalem.

However, east of the Galilee and nestled at the base of Mount Hermon in northern Israel is a piece of often overlooked real estate.

But it’s one of the most significant places in all of Israel.

A dark history

Israel’s Golan Heights (biblical Bashan) is a hilly area overlooking the upper Jordan River valley on the west and rising above the Sea of Galilee. The plateau formed from disintegrated lava that left the soil rich and fertile (Deut 32:13–14; Ezek 27:6), resulting in well-nourished herds.

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Tucked away in those hills is the ancient city of Tel Dan, which marked the northern border of the biblical kingdom of Israel. It was here that:

  • Abram chased Lot’s captors (Gen14)
  • King Hazael memorialized his invasion of Israelite territory with the famous House of David inscription
  • The tribe of Dan overpowered the peaceful but unsuspecting Canaanite people of Laish, renaming the city Dan (Judg 18)
  • Israel’s King Jeroboam established a temple to house the golden calf to challenge the temple in Jerusalem for religious supremacy (1 Kgs 12; 2 Kgs 17:24–28)
  • Bronze-age inhabitants constructed the world’s oldest known gated archway, Abraham’s Gate
Abraham’s Gate, Tel Dan, Israel. Abraham may have passed through this gate while pursuing the northern Kings: “When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (Gen 14:14).

The Danites had grown tired of fighting for the land God allocated them and so took over and settled in Laish. Of the twelve tribes, only Dan never pushed down into its God-promised inheritance.

This tribe is known for its perpetual struggle with idolatry:

The extent to which the Baal cult influenced northern Israel is seen in the reign of Jehu, who did not destroy the altars at Dan and Bethel, despite eradicating the Baal priests from the land (2 Kings 10:23–29). Excavations at Dan have uncovered the “high place” of Jeroboam along with a small horned altar, the city gate (with royal throne) and walls (12 feet thick), hundreds of pottery vessels, buildings, and inscribed objects.1

Remains of Jeroboam’s altar at Tel Dan

Eventually, this grievous sin led to Israel’s dispersion from the land (2 Kgs 15:29), and to this day, Dan is a byword in Judaism for apostasy.

But that’s not the end of the story of Tel Dan.

The hope of a promise

North of Tel Dan is a hilly area called Mount Dov, named for IDF officer Dov Rodberg who was killed there in 1970. Rabbis believe it is the site of Genesis 15 where God ratified his promise of land and uncountable descendants for Abraham and blessing for all nations (Gen 12:1–7).

Thematically, Genesis 15 occurs after Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek and his rescue of Lot (both in Genesis 14).

However, geographically and chronologically, rabbinical tradition places Genesis 15 in the Golan before Abraham returned to Judea from the north country, making the Golan a potential backdrop for the Abrahamic covenant.

Though there’s no way to know for sure if this is where God initiated his plan of redemption, there’s a peculiar characteristic of this area that at least makes it possible.

Mount Dov

Abraham believed God’s promise of a son, land, and descendants in Genesis 12. But then in Genesis 15:8 we find him questioning the Lord about these lofty promises. How can I know you are good for your word, God?

Notice the italicized details in what happened next:

“Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” So Abram presented all these to him and killed them. Then he cut each animal down the middle and laid the halves side by side; he did not, however, cut the birds in half. Some vultures swooped down to eat the carcasses, but Abram chased them away. (Gen 15:9–11 NLT, emphasis mine).

Why do details like heifers and vultures matter?

Because the northern hill country south of Mount Hermon is one of the few places in Israel that naturally sustains both vultures and heifers.

Cows grazing in the Golan (Times of Israel, Mire Golan)

Biblical writers often referenced the fattened cattle that grazed in Bashan (Amos 4:1; Ezek 39:18). The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh wanted to settle east of the Jordan river because “it [was] a land for cattle” (Num 32:1–4).

Today, the Golan Heights is home to more than 15,000 cows—and colonies of Griffon vultures can be found there, too.

The Griffon vulture, the largest of Israel’s carnivorous birds

Some scholars believe the vultures in Genesis 15 are symbolic of demonic assault on the covenant. The vultures are attempting to thwart God’s plan of redemption—and Abraham and his descendants (the Jews) are their biggest obstacle.

Why does this matter?

We can’t know with certainty if God made this covenant on Mount Dov in northern Israel. But considering the chronology of events in Genesis 14–16 and the geography of biblical Bashan, it’s possible.

And if it is, there is a story of redemption in the geography itself. God chose a place of spiritual darkness—where his promises were doubted, outright disbelieved, and even attacked (in a sense) by vultures—to reveal his plan to bless Israel and all nations through them.

Time and again, the soil tells a story.

***

Understanding the geography of Israel enhances our understanding of the narrative of the Bible. For more information on the geographical, cultural, and historical settings in the Bible, I commend the Travels through the Bible Lands Collection (15 vols.) and the award-winning Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels.

Karen Engle received her MA in Biblical Studies and Theology from Western Seminary. She is an editor for Faithlife and regularly takes groups to Israel.

  1. Cole, R.D. (2003). Dan. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E.R. Clendenen, & T.C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 384). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.