No, Vawter is not correct.
The Hebrew does likely have two absolute Hebrew word forms next to one another in the construction of הָאֵל֙ בֵּֽית־אֵ֔ל ("the God Bethel"), which can mean an appositional relation ("the God, i.e., Bethel), whereas strictly speaking, "God of Bethel" would have God in a construct form.
But Vawter and other such solutions posing the name of a pagan god are quite evidently completely ignoring the context of the statement.
Genesis 28 as Background
The reference in Gen 31:13 is clearly God, in this current dream, referring to the prior events of Gen 28:10-22 when He had come to Jacob in a dream. It was at that prior time God promised to extend the promises of Abraham to Jacob (Gen 28:13-14) and promised to bring Jacob back to the land (v.15). Jacob declares that place to be "the house of God" (בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים; v.17) and erects his pillar (v.18) and names that place Bethel (בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל; v.19, matching the term of Gen 31:13) and vows if God does bring him back, God will be his God (v.20-21). And the pillar shall be "God's house" (בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים, v.22).
Note a few points about the Genesis 28 passage:
- The term אֱלֹהִ֑ים (God; masculine plural) in v.20 is used as the subject of a series of masculine singular verbs: יִהְיֶ֨ה ("he will be"), שְׁמָרַ֙ ("he will keep"), נָֽתַן ("he will give").
- The term אֱלֹהִ֑ים is used in conjunction with a statement of equation with the masculine singular name יהוה (YHWH) in v.21, for Jacob vows "the LORD shall be my God" if all this comes about.
- The name of the place given by Jacob, Bethel (בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל), uses the singular אֵ֑ל ("God"), while the description of the place uses the plural form בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים ("the house of God").
The clarity of chapter 28 is that the God Jacob is meeting and making these promises in his dream is YHWH, the singular God of the monotheistic religion of his fathers.
So Bethel in the historical (and literary) context is clearly known to Jacob as that place of promise from and to God, YHWH.
Genesis 31's Reference
So why then the Hebrew construction as it is here with, possibly, two absolute terms in Gen 31:13? If not apposition, then what? If it is two absolute terms, those terms can define the boundaries between two clauses, where God in the first clause is the predicate nominative to a verbless clause and Bethel is a nominative absolute to the next clause.
The Verbless Clause and God with the article
The article on God (הָאֵל֙), "the God" is an expected definiteness for a verbless clause where the clause identifies the subject, such as here, where "I" is being identifies as "the God." This is not required, but is very common in Hebrew syntax (#577).
It is possible that completion of the verbless clause is the only reason for the article. However here, there is also possibly further implication of definiteness. The article here may be:
- Anaphoric (#83): pointing Jacob back to "that God" of his previous dream experience at Bethel; this makes sense in the context of the description that follows.
- Referential (#85): stating this God is "well-known" of Jacob, He is "the God" that Jacob has had experience with.
- Demonstrative (#87): probably in a cataphoric sense (see #113), pointing Jacob forward to "that God" that is about to be clarified by the following clause, the one to which Jacob made the promise.
Any of those three other ideas simply add to the definiteness of who the "I" is, and all communicate the same idea in this context, He is the God Jacob has interacted with previously.
There is also the remote possiblity that הָאֵל֙ should be considered as in a construct state, and thus "the God of Bethel" be a grammatically appropriate translation. Almost always construct words do not have the article (#29a). However, Gen 31:13 is a verse listed by Williams as one of just a few verses that are exceptions, the others being: "Exod 9:18; Judg 8:11; Josh 3:14; 1 Kg 14:24; 2 Kg 23:17 (twice), 25:19; Isa 36:16; Ezek 46:19." Just ten total in all the OT, and a few of those are debatable, as my Bible software still shows a couple of those as absolutes (including Gen 31:13), which illustrates the debate about this odd construction here.
If הָאֵל֙ is a very rare construct with the article, no more need be said, "the God of Bethel" is a fine translation grammatically, and there is no issue at all, as Bethel is the absolute word ending the construct chain of the verbless clause. But if it is not construct, then...
The Nominative Absolute
Bethel (בֵּֽית־אֵ֔ל), as Gen 28:19 noted, is a place name given by Jacob. If the prior God reference is to be taken as absolute, then contextually, this name already tells the reader that this word is not directly associated in apposition to the prior word God. If it is not functioning to end a construct chain, then it functions here as a nominative absolute to the following independent clause that is relying on the information in the relative clauses to conceptually relate to the point of the command to return to the land. Ronald Williams notes of nominative absolutes (#35, emphasis his):
- A nominative absolute is typically used to clarify the sentence by stating the focus or topic of the sentence. ...
- There is often a pronoun in the sentence that has the same referent as the nominative absolute, indicating the conceptual relationship between the nominative absolute and the main sentence. Such a pronoun is called a resumptive pronoun.*
* Williams is loose in the term "resumptive pronoun," himself giving an example of שָׁם as a resumptive word, though that word is typically considered an adverb. The point is there are often resumptive words, words which utilize and refer back to this nominative that stands alone before the clause.
But relative clauses themselves use resumptive words also (see p.190 of Williams), and in this case it is the adverb "there" (שָּׁם֙), used twice, once in each clause, to refer back to Bethel. The אֲשֶׁר is a relative pronoun linking each of the following clauses to Bethel, and so could be translated "which" or, because we are dealing with a place, "where."
Bethel is the nominative absolute, acting as antecedent to the two relative clauses with resumptive adverbs referring back to it. However, the whole construction ends up as a single nominative idea, since the relative clauses simply relate more concepts to its antecedent:
Bethel, where you had anointed there the pillar, where you had vowed to Me there a vow
So what function is it performing as a group? Still as a nominative absolute, because the whole is functioning for the following independent command clause. A nominative absolute does "not play a grammatical role in the rest of the sentence" (#35), rather it precedes the sentence, and while "often" the sentence has a pronoun referring back to it, it need not, and recall the nominative absolute's purpose is to place "focus" and establish "conceptual relation" for the following clause.
So the whole construction, Bethel and its relative clauses describing it, are functioning as a nominative absolute for the following independent command to Jacob to return to the land, which command is given in the latter part of v.13. It is placing focus, conceptually giving reason for Jacob to return—the promises of God and Jacob's own promises both related to a return originally (God's promise in v.15 to return him; Jacob's promise in v.21 that such a return would make God Jacob's God). The absolute also being relates to the fact that Bethel resides in that land Jacob is being called to return to.
So while a Canaanite god named Bethel may have existed, the Genesis 28 passage has already set up the context for Genesis 31, and to Jacob, Bethel is that place of promise, the place Jacob himself named; and it is to that place that the שָּׁם֙ words refer back to, and the whole is to that place which gives focus to the independent clause of command. To then import a name of a Canaanite god into the context is eisegesis; the Canaanite god is not the place, and the place is not the god, and the God is not that pagan god.
So a proposed translation without the construct idea of "the God of Bethel" might be:
I am that God—[remember] Bethel, where you had anointed there the pillar,
where you had vowed to Me there a vow—now arise and leave from this
land and return to the land of your family.
I've added the word "remember" to point out that this parenthetical statement, this nominative absolute, is functioning to "bring to mind" something that is not directly grammatically related to the following clause, but gives conceptual focus for it. It is being used to set the context of what God for Jacob, and what land he must return to, and why he should heed the command. The point from the context in Genesis 31 is that the God in this dream is that same God from the Bethel dream of Genesis 28, and it is time to fulfill what was promised in that dream and what Jacob had promised from that dream, in returning to that place.
So "the God of Bethel" is a grammatically correct English translation if God is in the construct state, but it is also a good English translation of the concept expressed if Bethel is instead a nominative absolute that does not strictly grammatically flow from a Hebrew construct word form there—the focus is the God of that place of promises that Jacob must return now to.
1 All references to a # with number refer to the section number of Ronald Williams, Williams' Hebrew Syntax, 3rd. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).