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Genesis 31:13 seems to create difficulties in translation. Most English Bibles translate the Masoretic text as saying "God of Bethel", as shown here:

Genesis 31:13 (KJV): I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred.

The Septuagint says: I am the God who appeared to you at Bethel, which wording is followed by the New American Bible and the New Living Translation.

Interlinear sources translate the Hebrew text as "the God of Bethel", although this one (among others) translates אֵ֔ל (’êl) as 'Bethel' and בֵּֽית־ (bêṯ) as 'of', which are obviously incorrect.

When I look at the Hebrew text, with a word by word translation, it appears to read as I am the God Bethel.

Bethel can mean 'House of God', but translators surely do not confuse this as 'God of Bethel'. Mark S. Smith tells us in The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, pages 61-63 that the god Bethel also appears to have been the primary god of the Tyrian pantheon.

Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho, cites Bruce Vawter as saying the original Hebrew of Genesis 31:13 quite simply reads "I am the god Bethel" ('El Bet'el), who was a member of the Canaanite pantheon along with the rest of the above.


Is Vawter correct?

Should Genesis 31:13 be read as "I am the god Bethel" and, if so is that consistent with monotheism?

  • If you believe God is the ultimate sovereign being above all others (as testified in the Bible) then by definition He cannot be a pagan god. If you don't believe that, then you can say anything. Vawter cannot be correct. – D_Bester Apr 30 '16 at 8:05
  • I don’t doubt that el bet’el – like so much other Canaanite god-language – was once a distinct deity later absorbed into the monolatrous YHWH cult. But shouldn't the 'proper' translation of the biblical text be based on the words’ meaning to the late Iron Age editors, not on the words' even more ancient Canaanite etymology? In this regard I think Gen.31:13 (the el bet'el) is similar to Gen.35:7 (el bet'el) and 1Sam.10:3 (el the elohim bet'el), which I think all reference YHWH’s dealings at Bethel, not the ancient deity after whom the place may well have been named. Thoughts? – Schuh May 4 '16 at 0:40
  • @Schuh Thanks. Why not write an answer along these line? Thoughts: i) On the face of it, Gen 35:7 strengthens Vawter's case, since I have not otherwise see God referred to as 'el rather than as 'elohim. ii) The Late Iron Age editors did not always change the texts from the early monarchy, so my guess is this is Iron Age I or II (but you could see otherwise). I think you could provide a good answer based on your comments. – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 2:37
  • In Genesis 16:13 Hagar calls God El' Roi. – Dan S. May 4 '16 at 3:52
  • @DanS.Noted, thank you. That is of interest and advances my understanding. But perhaps for the Iron Age sources, el roi, the god who sees, was intended as a description rather than a name; 'el for a pure description is plausible. (I also note 'El Shaddai, God almighty) – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 5:24
4
+50

The Secularization (and Yahwist Rebranding) of the House of El

The purpose of translation is to render into English the intended meaning of the biblical writers. While the ancient etymology of Hebrew words is sometimes interesting, it isn’t always helpful to this task.

For example, though Gen.28 tells a story of Jacob’s naming of Bethel, the toponym Bet’el actually predates him (Gen.12:8, 13:3), and the theophoric element of the ancient name belonged to El, once the Father God of the Canaanite pantheon. Bet’el is therefore like Bet’anath (Jos.19:38) and Bet’dagon (Jos.15:41), all sites named for a ‘house’ of a Canaanite god (El, Anath and Dagon respectively), likely once cultic sites. According to Ziony Zevit, in total there are 57 biblical place names with theophoric elements, 22 with ’El names and a similar number for Ba’al; only one is named for Yahweh, putatively.

This backstory is interesting to some, but English translators of Gen.31:13 don’t render bet’el to its earliest, literal meaning, ‘House of El’, or even its later literal meaning, ‘house of god’ (after El’s name became a generic Hebrew word for ‘god’). Translators uniformly offer 'Bethel'. In the same way יְרוּשָׁלִַם is not translated as ‘Founded by Shalim’ or ‘founded in peace’ but as ‘Jerusalem’.

Rightly or wrongly, today's translators assume non-Yahwistic theophoric references were mostly secularized by the time the vocabulary entered the biblical text, so they are typically rendered nearly invisible. Thus Ba’al Hazor becomes Baalhazor in English (2Sam.13:23). Part of the present question is to determine where in the process of Canaanite de-sacralization – and perhaps Yahwistic rebranding – the Genesis theophoric vocabulary might have been in the minds of biblical writers.

The storytellers were themselves actively engaged in this process in regard to Bethel. A source-critical reading of Gen.28:11-22 suggests a mythopoeic co-opting whereby the early Elohist’s story of Jacob’s dream at the ‘House of El' (v.17, lit.) was recast by a later priestly writer/editor as an experience of YHWH at Bethel (v.16,19). The Canaanite theophorism was displaced by a new Yahwist story. We can accordingly assume that the bet’el of Gen.31:13 meant Bethel for the biblical writers, not House of El or even House of God. Its El-association was, for them, ancient history. That brings the translation of bet’el up to the late Iron Age.

But as Dick points out, in addition to being a place name, the evidence suggests Bethel was contemporaneously the name of a Canaanite deity. The Assyrian / Tyrian treaty of 677 BCE retains his name, as do ancient texts from Phoenicia and Egypt and perhaps the Bible (Jer.48:13, Zech.7:2). This complicates the translation. So Dick asks:

Is Bethel in this phrase as a toponym or a theonym?

In Gen.31:13 ‘Bethel’ is itself preceded by an el-word, specifically el with the definite article – ‘the el Bethel’ or the El-Bethel. This juxtaposition is not wholly unique. Gen.35:7 includes el (without the definite article) and 1Sam.10:3 has the plural elohim (with the article), both preceding ‘Bethel’. Scripture4all’s Interlinear renders the three similar Hebrew phrases as ‘the El Beth-El’, ‘El-of Beth-El’, and ‘the Elohim Beth-El’ (respectively). This suggests that Gen.35:7, without a definite article, is in construct form – i.e. ‘El of Bethel’ (a toponym) – and Gen.31:13 and 1Sam.10:3, with the article, are in appositional form – meaning ‘the El (or Elohim) named Bethel’ or El-Bethel (a theonym).

Andrew Dearman confirms that the theophoric element in the majority of the many ba’al-related toponyms is also in the construct state, “signifying originally the Ba'al of or at the geographic site.” Parallel to our challenge, however, Ba’al-x may also designate a deity (e.g. Baal-Gad). Dearman continues:

“Ba'al place names, therefore, are a subset of a larger linguistic and cultural pattern, where different grammatical constructions are used for deities that combine a divine name or theophoric element with a geographic reference." (p.178)

I understand Dearman to agree that the construct form usually denotes toponyms and the appositional form theonyms. If so, a literal translation may render Gen.31:13 as 'the El-Bethel’ or, by a later standard, ‘the god Bethel’, as Vawter and some interlinears suggest as a plain reading.

Vawter is technically correct, but ...

‘The god Bethel’, however, is an unsatisfactory translation if we believe the biblical writers – or at least the last of the biblical editors – were monotheistic. In his Hebrew syntax textbook, Ronald Williams lists Gen.31:13 as one of just 10 exceptions in the whole Hebrew Bible to the grammatical ‘rule’ that construct forms don’t have the article. He offers no rationale for his claim, but it’s easy to see why he makes it. Similarly, none of the most popular Bible translations offers the literal, technically correct, theonym rendering ... though it is noteworthy that the NASB presents “the God of Bethel,” at least admitting by italics that the appositional form is not original to the text.

These translations instead reflect reasonable assumptions about the theological intentions of the biblical writers even though these are absent from or even contrary to the text itself:

  • After changing Bethel from a theonym to a toponym in Gen.31:13, all of the popular versions also, and consequently, capitalize ‘God’ which they would not have done for ‘the god Bethel’. They do the same at 1Sam.10:3. It's not wrong but steers the reader away from a Canaanite reading.
  • In the story of Jacob's return to Bethel in Gen.35, the construct form of el bet'al in v.7 legitimates a ‘God of Bethel’ translation. Instead the popular versions (except the HCSB and YLT) avoid the literal reading and leave the phrase untranslated as El-Bethel, here because Jacob has strangely given this theonym to a place. The NASB footnote clarifies that the literal rendering would be, ‘[Jacob] called the place the God of Bethel’! Most translators avoid the text's literal construction.
  • A last example, only because it’s even stranger, is the name Jacob gave to an altar he erected at Shalem: El Elohim Isra-El – most literally, ‘god of gods of power of god’ – a theophoric toponym three times over! Again this is wisely left untranslated by most at Gen.33:20.

Conclusion

These oddities present translation challenges but likely reflect the development of the traditions in all their multiformity over time. A source-critical reading of the Jacob cycle (Gen.25:19–36:43) suggests multiple hands over many years, so we can expect the text-as-received to retain vestiges of vocabulary and grammar in various states of evolution and adoption.

Even assuming a static text, the translator must make choices based on their identification of the original writer’s cultural location. As noted, while the word bet’el may be correctly translated as ‘House of El’, ‘house of god’, Bethel the place name, and even Bethel the Canaanite god, only one of those options reflects the likely intention of a late Iron Age monotheist ... if that’s where we’re locating our final biblical editor and his theology. The last part of Dick’s question suggests a challenge to that assumption which is well-worth exploring.

But assuming the typical identifications:

  • While Vawter is technically correct that ‘the el bet’el’ may be read as ‘the god Bethel’;
  • And while it’s possible the phrase actually meant that at some point in the long evolution of the tradition of this story;
  • It is highly unlikely the biblical editors meant to refer to a Canaanite god, as the surrounding context makes clear.

I like the NASB rendering – "I am the God of Bethel ...” – a solution that represents the biblical writer's most likely intention and also subtly signals a deviation from the text. Careful readers will want to investigate.

  • Schuh, I am in awe of the research you put into this answer to what I originally thought of as an easy question. In fact, I now have so many good answers it's going to be hard deciding which answer should get the bounty! Without prejudging on that matter, what sets this answer apart is that you answered without theological preconception. – Dick Harfield May 6 '16 at 21:51
  • First of all, it was hard to choose between this and another answer. The strengths of your ans were that U approached the Q without preconception, reviewed the historical possibilities and wrote an answer that was not too technical for me (or the majority of readers). .../ – Dick Harfield May 9 '16 at 5:51
  • .../ I was after a linguistic ans & U said 'Vawter is technically correct' - the ans I was looking for; U improved this by saying 'it’s possible the phrase actually meant that at some point (contextually, I find it hard to believe that the Elohist - let alone the later redactors - ever intended this reference to be 'the god Bethel', a point also made strongly in another answer). You prefer 'the God of Bethel', which is a good conclusion. In summary, Vawter is vindicated by being technically correct, which is exactly what he probably expected (as a priest, hist credentials are impeccable) – Dick Harfield May 9 '16 at 5:51
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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:

  1. 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").
  2. 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.
  3. 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).1

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.

Conclusion

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.


NOTES

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).

  • Thank you for your explanation of the Hebrew text, which is very helpful (+1). The reference to 28:13 is strong, because there we see Yahweh mentioned. I know that in English and in the context of Gen 28, I assume "the god of Bethel" but if a respected Catholic commentator disagrees with what I assume, then I want to know why. I note two things: i) there was a god Bethel; ii) I am not sure whether 'elohim in Gen 28 must be read 'God' or can be read 'gods'. Is there a grammatical clue (ie singular verb) that makes those references to God? /... – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 2:23
  • .../ Also, could you point me to the resumptive pronoun in the sentence, as this appears to be part of the case? – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 2:23
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    @DickHarfield the resumptive pronouns are noted already in my answer, the two "where" and "there" references (four total), that all are referring back to the "place" named by Bethel. As to "why" a "respected Catholic commentator disagrees," the short answer is also what I noted, he is ignoring the context. Because of that, he is importing irrelevant ideas into the text, which relates to your (i) note and his thesis, but I will address both (i) and (ii) in your comment in an edit to my answer as they both need more development. – ScottS May 4 '16 at 3:05
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    @DickHarfield It would have limited effect on the context argument, the "gods" that appeared would simply be the angels ascending and descending. – Dan S. May 6 '16 at 18:53
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    @DickHarfield: "Confirming that this really is the absolute form" (emphasis added) is too strong a statement. The grammar apparently allows for either construct or absolute, but the construct is far less testified to with the article (there may be some rules related to the instances that are considered construct that are unexplored or I am not aware of). If both readings are possible, then it means all the more that grammar is not the solution to meaning, context is. But yes, "the god Bethel" is grammatically sound, just contextually unsound; "the God of Bethel" is sound, just rare if so. – ScottS May 7 '16 at 16:29
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So the question is "Vawter correct?" is perhaps difficult because all I do not have his book and can neither verify Geir's attribution to him, nor determine what context it is in. But as I see it this question can be answered in parts
1) What does the Masoretic Text say.
2) What do the Septuagint say.
3) Are there text critical issues
4) What impact does this have our perception of monotheism in the book of Genesis.
5) I may be able to guess why Vawter is saying what he is.


1) Genesis 31:13 according the WLC 4.20 reads

אָנֹכִי הָאֵל בֵּית־אֵל
אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה
אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר
עַתָּה קוּם צֵא מִן־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת
וְשׁוּב אֶל־אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ׃

You noted that the interlinear you looked at did not have a word for "of" and this is because Biblical Hebrew lacks both a word for "of" and the genitive case, rather it expresses these relations through construct forms which were not formally marked until the advent of Niqqud and other pointing by the Masorites. For this reason אנכי האל בית אל could very well mean I am the God of Bethel and this is very likely considering this passage is dependent on and references Genesis 28:19 (Read 28:10-22) where Jacob stands up the Massebah, anoints it, and calls it "Bethel".

2) Genesis 31:13 according the Gottingen edition of the Septuagint reads

ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεὸς ὁ ὀφθείς σοι ἐν τόπῳ θεοῦ
οὗ ἤλειψάς μοι ἐκεῖ στήλην
καὶ ηὔξω μοι ἐκεῖ εὐχήν;
νῦν οὖν ἀνάστηθι καὶ ἔξελθε ἐκ τῆς γῆς ταύτης,
καὶ ἄπελθε εἰς τὴν γῆν τῆς γενέσεώς σου, καὶ ἔσομαι μετὰ σοῦ.

Which the New English Translation of the Septuagint renders as

I am the God who appeared to you at a divine place,
there where you anointed a stele to me and made a vow to me there.
Now therefore rise, and go forth from this land,
and depart to the land of your origin, and I will be with you.

It should be noted though that the Septuagint does not read "I am the God who appeared to you at Bethel"but rather understood Bethel to mean God's place or house, a toponym not a deity.

3) It is possible that the Septuagint translators had a different text in front of them. A reconstruction of the first line may look like this.

אנכי האל הנראה ליך בית אל

This does not radically change the meaning of the verse.
4) So while Vawter's claim, as reported by Gier, does not fit very well with the whole of the Genesis text let us say we believed him. Does that disprove that the bible is monotheistic? Well that depends on how monotheism is defined. If monotheism is the belief that only a single divine being exists, then Judaism and Christianity have a problem, as both acknowledge the existence of divine beings other than the one deemed as God proper (angels, demons, cherubs, personified death, wickedness, and wisdom). Some scholars propose that what we encounter in the oldest books of the Bible is actually "pagan monotheism" or monolatrism, a system in which other gods exist but are simply not worshiped, others like Larry Hurtado prefers "Ancient Jewish Monotheism" to refer to this non-denial/non-worship of other gods. So ultimately it depends on how you want to define your terms.

5) If i was to guess why Vawter said this, I'd guess that it is because he holds to a redactionary hypothesis in which Genesis is composed of several hypothetical documents weaved together (this is popular in academia). This view enables him to decontextualize verses and read canaanite religion into the bible.

TLDR Vawter is incorrect.

  • Thank you for your explanation of the Hebrew text, which is very helpful (+1). However, perhaps because of preconceptions, you have carefully avoided the issue of "the god Bethel". Whether the Bible is monotheistic is not the issue here, but whether "the god Bethel" is valid, in fact (as I gather Vawter implies) actually the best translation. Then, and only then, does monotheism (of this passage only) become an issue. /... – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 2:15
  • .../ I know that in English and in the context of Gen 28, I assume "the god of Bethel" but if a respected Catholic commentator disagrees with what I assume, then I want to know why. I note two things: i) there was a god Bethel; ii) I am not sure whether 'elohim in Gen 28 must be read 'God' or can be read 'gods' - perhaps you can expand on what is already a useful answer? – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 2:15
  • Bethel is a toponym. "The god Bethel" is not valid and monotheism was the second part of your question. The God who appeared in Chapter 28 is not named Bethel, he is named YHWH. That being said, in Chapter 28 Elohim should probably still be translated God singular due to the preeminence of YHWH at the top of Jacob's ladder. Moreover in this passage those descending and ascending the ladder are simply מלאכי אלהים "angels of God" and not the more "pagan" בני אלהים "sons of God" that we occasionally find in the bible and in Ugarit texts. – Dan S. May 4 '16 at 3:00
  • Should I read anything into the use of hā·’êl (the god) here, whereas elsewhere (eg 35:7) I see 'el ? – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 5:25
  • I don't know if there is anything to read in there, but it is probably important to note that in 35:7 נגלו אליו האלהים the verb נִגְלוּ is plural and it should be translated. "For there the gods were revealed to him", or something similar. – Dan S. May 4 '16 at 22:58
1

The Hebrew text of Gen. 31:13 states,

יג אָנֹכִי הָאֵל בֵּית אֵל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר עַתָּה קוּם צֵא מִן הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְשׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ

The phrase in question is הָאֵל בֵּית אֵל. As the original question mentioned, most English translations translate this phrase into English as "the God of Bethel." The last two words, בֵּית אֵל, actually translate into English as "the house of God" (keep reading below).

Hebrew Grammar

In a Hebrew construct phrase, or סְמִיכוּת, definiteness is indicated by preceding the latter of the two nouns, or סוֹמֵךְ, by the definite article. The former noun, or נִסְמָךְ, is not preceded by the definite article in Hebrew, although it is preceded by a definite article when translated into English.

Pratico and Van Pelt wrote,1

Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, p. 96

Sometimes there occur several nouns in a construct phrase. To indicate definiteness, only the last noun is preceded by the definite article in Hebrew. As Pratico and Van Pelt note, "A train may have many cars but only one caboose" (97).

Pratico and Van Pelt wrote,2

Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, p. 97

Note: In case you are wondering about the bottom example, the last word is a noun with a pronominal suffix. While it is not preceded by a definite article like the final nouns in the examples above it, it is still considered definite due to the pronominal suffix.

The Syntax of Gen. 31:13

After briefly discussing some basic Hebrew grammar, we re-examine Gen. 31:13. The phrase הָאֵל בֵּית אֵל is unusual because if it is to be translated into English as "the God of the house of God," we would expect the Hebrew text to be written as אֵל בֵּית הָאֵל.

However, numerous examples exist where the English phrase "the house of God" is translated from Hebrew construct phrases wherein the latter noun is not preceded by the definite article. For example:

  • בֵּית אֱלֹהִים (Gen. 28:17: "the house of God")
  • בֵית אֵל (Jdg. 20:18: "the house of God")

It also occurs in other phrases, such as:

  • רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים (Gen. 1:2: "the Spirit of God")

Yet, sometimes the latter noun is indeed preceded by the definite article. For example:

  • בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים (Jdg. 18:31: "the house of God")

Note: Unfortunately I could not find an example of בֵּית הָאֵל, but that isn't significant by itself.

There are indeed instances where a noun prior to the final noun in a definite construct chain is preceded by the definite article. For example:

  • עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָֽע (Gen. 2:9: "the tree of the knowledge of the good and the evil")

Note: It is true that most English translations tranlsate it as "of good and evil," but "good" and "evil" being abstract nouns are actually definite. It is certainly not to be understood as indefinite, viz. "of a good and an evil."

Instead of עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע, we would expect to see עֵץ דַּעַת הַטוֹב וְהָרָע.

Furthermore, we frequently encounter אֵל as the latter noun in a supposedly definite construct phrase where it is not preceded by a definite article. For example:

  • תַּנְחֻמוֹת אֵל (Job 15:11: "the consolations of God")
  • יַד אֵל (Job 27:11: "[by] the hand of God"
  • רוּחַ אֵל (Job 33:4: "the spirit of God")
  • נִפְלְאוֹת אֵל (Job 37:14: "the wondrous works of God")
  • כְּבוֹד אֵל (Psa. 19:1): "the glory of God"
  • בֵּית אֵל (Zec. 7:2): "the house of God"

References

Pratico, Gary; Van Pelt, Miles V. Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Footnotes

1 p. 96

2 p. 97

  • Thank you for this answer. Although it is so technical I find it hard to follow, it nevertheless contains some useful information about relevant Hebrew grammar. Do you feel you answered i) whether 'the God of Bethel' is a valid translation on linguistic grounds; ii) whether it is the only properly valid translation (I'm sure it's not); iii) whether on linguistic grounds it is the best translation; iv) contextual issues that decide the issue if in doubt on linguistic grounds? – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 21:18
  • Actually, no, that would be extremely long-winded. I answered the question "Should Genesis 31:13 be read as "I am the god Bethel?" – user862 May 4 '16 at 22:05
  • Where do you answer in respect to that? – Dick Harfield May 4 '16 at 23:28
  • @DickHarfield: I'll soon edit to make it clearer. – user862 May 5 '16 at 0:59

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