Torah Portion of the Week: A Name, a Place, a God

Parashat Vayetzeh.

'Jacob’s Dream,' by Jusepe de Ribera (1639).
Museo del Prado / Wikimedia Commons

On leaving his parents’ home, Jacob is privileged with a divine revelation. In his dream, he sees angels of God ascending and descending a ladder, and upon awakening declares, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven” (Genesis 28:17). The text then describes Jacob’s actions following this declaration: “Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that site Bethel (literally, “house of God”); but previously the name of the city had been Luz” (Gen. 28:18-19).

This story, which opens Parashat Vayetzeh (Genesis 28:10-32:3), attributes the founding of the temple in Bethel to Jacob. According to biblical testimony, this temple functioned for centuries in the Kingdom of Israel. However, Bethel is not just the name of a place; it is also, and primarily, a name of a god.

In his book “Angels in the Bible” (in Hebrew), in a chapter entitled “Bethel, El Bethel and the Angel,” Alexander Rofé presents testimonies attesting to a belief in the god Bethel in the ancient Near East, and explores this god’s status in the Bible and elsewhere.

Bethel the god, for example, is mentioned in the 7th-century B.C.E. treaty between Esahaddon, king of Assyria, and Baal, king of Tyre. In papyri found in Elephantine, in Egypt, there are references to individuals whose name includes this god’s name: Bethelnatan, Bethelyaakov, Betheldan and Betheltakam.

The Bible also mentions a person who is named for Bethel: “When Bethel-Sharezer and Regem-Melech and his men sent to entreat the favor of the Lord... ” (Zechariah 7:2). Although Bethel-Sharezer worships Israel’s God, he apparently bears the name of another god.

Bethel appears as the name of a god in one of Jeremiah’s prophecies, too. Although the Moabites, says the prophet, did not suffer exile and migrations like the Israelites, the situation will change when God avenges their villainy against Israel: “And Moab shall be shamed because of Chemosh, as the House of Israel were shamed because of Bethel, on whom they relied” (Jeremiah 48:13).

In the verse’s parallelism, Moab will be disappointed by Chemosh – the Moabite god, mentioned in the Bible and other sources – just as the Children of Israel, in their defeats, were disappointed by their god. Israel’s god, contrasted with the Moabite god, is referred to here as Bethel; apparently, Jeremiah saw some overlap between the two.

Rofé mentions ancient testimonies according to which the name Bethel was given to stones that were believed to contain a life force. In the story of Bethel’s founding, in Parashat Vayetzeh, the stones are also described as having a theological role. Jacob takes one of the “stones of that place” (Gen. 28:11) to serve as a pillow; however, after God’s revelation, Jacob turns the “stone that he had put under his head” (Gen. 28:18) into a pillar, which he anoints with oil.

In his book “The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel,” Benjamin D. Sommer notes that anointment with oil generates a transformation: On being anointed, the high priest and the monarch receive the authority to fulfill their roles. The stone is no longer a pillow; it is now the location of God’s presence, as Jacob explicitly announces: “And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode” (Gen. 28:22). The pillar is not just a ritual artifact in the future temple, God’s house, but is itself God’s house.

According to Rofé, the Bethel incident illustrates an important theological phenomenon in the biblical period. Israel adopted gods perceived by other nations as having independent powers; however, the Bible’s monotheism did not permit these gods to retain their independence, and they were gradually subordinated to, or even identified with, Israel’s God. An additional strategy for the god Bethel’s inclusion in biblical theology that does not contradict the other strategies is the transformation of Bethel from the name of the god himself to the name of a place where God resides.

Sometime, the remnants of ancient beliefs surface in puzzling, ambivalent phrasing. In the verse appearing at the end of Parashat Vayetzeh, Jacob tells his wives that he was addressed by an “angel of God” who identified himself as the “God [of] Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me” (Gen. 31:13).

Why did the angel call himself the God of Bethel rather than the “Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Gen. 28:13)? Although ostensibly the verse means the “God who revealed himself to you at Bethel,” Rofé points out that there is no other instance in Genesis where God identifies himself by the place where he has revealed himself in the past and that this interpretation is incongruous with the words “Ha-El Bethel,” which literally means the “god Bethel” (the incongruity would have been reduced if the words had appeared in the construct case, “El Bethel,” which literally means the “God of Bethel”).

Changes may have occurred in the phrasing: Rofé suggests that the word “where” (sham) in “where you anointed a pillar” was added to the verse to transform Bethel from the name of a god to the name of the place of God’s revelation.

In contrast, Sommer argues that the name “Ha-El Bethel” identifies one of the revelations of Israel’s God, who is identified with the place Bethel and with the kind of revelation that this name expresses, as in inscriptions found in Kuntillet Ajrud in northern Sinai that refer to the “YHWH of Yemen” or the “YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah” – partial revelations by Israel’s God in certain places and ritual artifacts – or as in the terms “Baal Peor,” “Baal Zephon,” ‘Baal Gad” and others, which connote places. This suited the belief then prevalent in Israel and its surroundings that a god can be present in several places simultaneously. In each of these places, so it was believed, the god resided: This was his home, but not his only home. His presence was perceived as tangible, while not exhausting his entity.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.