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Did Jacob Meet Yhwh by the Stairway to Heaven in Beth-El?

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Baruch J. Schwartz

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Did Jacob Meet Yhwh by the Stairway to Heaven in Beth-El?

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Did Jacob Meet Yhwh by the Stairway to Heaven in Beth-El?

On his way to Haran, Jacob stops at a place, later named Beth-El, and sees in a dream angels going up and down a staircase to the gateway of heaven. In the story, Jacob also notices Yhwh standing beside him and  and Yhwh speaks to him.  Examined closely, this short story is beset with literary difficulties that suggest it is composed of two independent narratives.   

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Did Jacob Meet Yhwh by the Stairway to Heaven in Beth-El?

Jacob’s Dream by Aert de Gelder 1710-1715 Dulwich Picture Gallery – Wikimedia

A Summary of the Story

As he travels out of the land of Canaan, Jacob, stops for the night at a random and unfamiliar location (Gen 28:10–22).[1] He lays his head upon a stone and dreams of a staircase (not a ladder!) reaching to heaven with divine beings – “angels” of God in the classic English versions – ascending and descending (vv. 10–12).

Then Jacob notices Yhwh standing beside him. Yhwh presents himself to Jacob and extends to him, just as he had to Abraham and Isaac, the promise that he and his descendants will possess the land of Canaan, that they will be numerous enough to populate its length and breadth, and that they will, as a result, become the envy of all peoples (vv. 13–14).[2]

Yhwh concludes by assuring Jacob of his providential care throughout the long journey ahead, promising not to rescind it until he has brought him safely home (v. 15). Jacob stirs from his sleep and expresses his surprise that Yhwh is present. Then he fearfully realizes that he has apparently chanced upon a gateway to the heavenly abode of God and that the staircase in his dream must lead directly there (vv. 16–17).

Rising early in the morning,[3] Jacob consecrates the stone upon which his head lay as a monument and names the place – which the reader is told has heretofore been called Luz – “Beth-El”: the House of God (vv. 18–19). Finally, Jacob vows that if God does indeed care for him throughout his wanderings and see to his safe conduct home as promised, Yhwh will be his God; moreover, that the spot where he lay will become God’s temple and that he will offer a tithe of whatever bounty he receives (vv. 20–22).

Narrative Problems

As with many Torah narratives that initially read smoothly and coherently, this brief tale, examined closely, is beset with literary difficulties that make it quite unintelligible. Many of these were anticipated by the traditional commentators; others emerge upon modern critical examination.

1. The words נִצָּב עָלָיו in v. 13 mean “standing nearby him (Jacob),” not, as sometimes supposed, “standing on it (the staircase)”.[4] What then is the precise relationship between the “messengers of God” on the staircase and Yhwh himself, who is the only character with whom Jacob interacts? If Yhwh himself does all of the talking, what is the role of the “angels”?

2. The angels of God on the staircase are certainly in the dream; the stone upon which Jacob lays his head is surely real. Is Yhwh too a part of the dream or is he addressing Jacob while he is awake?

3. If Yhwh is addressing Jacob in his dream, the reference to “the ground on which you are lying” in v. 13 is peculiar. For though it is true that one dreams when one is asleep, one is seldom asleep in one’s dream, and Jacob himself is not a character in the dream! Is Jacob dreaming that he is asleep?

4. Furthermore, if Yhwh is speaking to Jacob in his dream, why does Jacob respond (vv. 20–22) when he is fully awake? Is half of the interchange between Yhwh and Jacob part of the dream, and the other half not?

5. Yhwh’s bequeaths to Jacob (and his descendants) the ground upon which he is lying. Elsewhere, the whole of the land of Canaan is promised—not the particular spot where the promise is uttered. How are Jacob’s descendants to spread out west, east, north, and south if the territory promised to them consists only of the spot where Jacob rested for a single night?[5]

6. When Jacob wakes up he pronounces “Yhwh is present in this place, and I did not know it” (v. 16), a realization that he derives from Yhwh having been standing next to him and speaking to him. He then makes another statement “This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven” (v. 17), which he has deduced from his dream. Each of these reactions seems perfectly clear on its own terms, but they are not the same, and neither of them refers to, or is implied by, the other. What is the connection between the two? And why does the second of the two begin with the word וַיִּירָא “he was struck by fear”? Should we not have been told first of Jacob’s fear at what he has experienced, and only then of each of the verbal reactions that it aroused?

7. Jacob’s vow consist of two distinct undertakings: first, that Yhwh will be his God, which means that he accepts Yhwh’s exclusive lordship over him; second, that the spot which, as revealed in his dream, provides unique access to the heavens will become a divine abode to which he will bring his tithes as an offering. The two undertakings are far from identical, and they are not complementary either. Moreover, why is it that when, on the eve of Jacob’s return to Canaan, God appears to him and reminds him of this vow (Gen 31:13),[6] only the consecration of the pillar and the place-name Beth-El are mentioned, with no reference at all to Yhwh’s assurances and Jacob’s corresponding promise of loyalty?

8. Jacob’s neder (“vow”) consists of a promise: “If God is with me, if he protects me… then Yhwh shall be my God” (vv. 20b-21). But a generalized undertaking, such as a promise to accept a particular deity as one’s very own God if certain conditions are met, rather than the pledge to worship the deity in a specified manner, as elsewhere in the Bible, does not qualify as a נֶדֶר.

9. Why does Jacob’s vow, which begins in the third person (“If God is with me, if he protects me” etc.), suddenly switch to the second person (“and of all that you give me, I will set aside a tithe for you”)?

10. Finally, what is the purpose of the tale? Is it an etiology crediting Jacob as having established, or at least predicted the eventual establishment of, Beth-El as a site of worship, as seems so clear from the story of the dream and the consecration of the stones? Or is it an account of how Yhwh communicated to Jacob the promise of land and progeny that he had made to Abraham? Both are important for the Torah narrative, but why do they both seem to be taking place at once? Most important, why do the verses that express one of the two thoroughly ignore the verses that express the other?

Resolving the Inconsistencies

Any number of ad hoc resolutions to each of these inconsistencies have been suggested, some more persuasive and some more farfetched. In the final analysis, however, each one, no matter how convincing, would amount to special pleading. Each would be essentially a matter of “excusing” the illogical character of the biblical narrative on a case-by-case basis, on the strength of theories specially crafted for the problem at hand.

A single explanation that accounts for all or most of the difficulties would surely be preferable. Such an explanation suggests itself here as in many other places in the Torah: that the text is composed to two originally independent narratives that were interwoven when the Torah was compiled from the sources, or documents, of which it is composed. When these are separated and each one is read on its own, the inconsistencies, duplications and discontinuities are resolved.

Here then is a proposed documentary solution to the problems listed above.[7] Genesis 28:10–23 consists of two independent narratives. One of them is a section of J and the other is a section of E. Let us look at them one at a time.

The J Story: Yhwh’s Promise to Jacob and his Descendants

J’s story consists of what are now vv. 10, 13, 14, 15, 16aβb–b, 17aα2, 20b–21 – in their given order:

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה וְהִנֵּה י־הוה נִצָּב עָלָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֲנִי י־הוה אֱ־לֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵא־לֹהֵי יִצְחָק הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה {רֹאֶה} לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ וְהִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִֹיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ י־הוה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָֽנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי וַיֹּאמַר אִם יִהְיֶה {י־הוה} עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה י־הוה לִי לֵא־לֹהִים.
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out in the direction of Haran. And there was Yhwh, standing beside him. He said, “I am Yhwh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the {land that you see}[8] I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. And I am going to be with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  He said, “Surely Yhwh is present in this place, and I did not know it!” He said: “If {Yhwh} is with me, and if he protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house, then Yhwh shall be my God.

This is the direct sequel to the immediately preceding portion of J’s narrative thread (Genesis 27:1–44), according to which Jacob tricked his blind father into blessing him with Esau’s blessing. This continuation recounts how Jacob, as he sets out on journey to escape the wrath of Esau, encounters Yhwh face to face, who presents himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. Yhwh confirms the promise of land and progeny that he made to Abraham and Isaac in J, and goes on to assure Jacob of his care throughout his journey and to guarantee his safe return.

Jacob correctly understands Yhwh’s words as meaning: I am already the God of Abraham and Isaac; here’s what I am going to do in order to be your God, the God of Jacob. Jacob responds to this by declaring that if all of this comes to pass, Yhwh will indeed become his God as well. Yhwh will then be in a position to carry out the promise to Abraham in its entirety, ensuring that Jacob’s numerous descendants spread throughout the promised land.

The event related by J is not related to Bethel or at any specific location.  It transpires somewhere on the road to Haran, and it is surely the case that here too the whole of the land of Canaan, rather than a tiny spot therein, is the object of Yhwh’s promise.

Reconstructing Yhwh in v. 20

This reconstruction of Yhwh in place of ʾĕlōhîm “God,” in v. 20 is not related to the source division but is a matter of making sense of the verse. If Jacob is familiar with the name Yhwh (which is clearly the case, since Yhwh just said to him “I am Yhwh” (v. 13), why, in the opening phrase of his vow (v. 20b) would he call him ʾĕlōhîm “God,” and only then go on to call him Yhwh in the result clause (v. 21b)?

On purely linguistic and logical grounds, Jacob could not have said “if God is with me…, then Yhwh will be my God;” this sentence is as meaningless as “If the CEO of the company gives me the raise she promised, then Ms. Banks will be my CEO.” Jacob surely said “if Yhwh is with me…, then Yhwh will be my God.”

And since the substitution of the word ʾĕlōhîm for Yhwh in the if-clause cannot be explained as the purposeful, harmonistic work of a redactor, it must be an inadvertent scribal mishap. It may have taken place before the documents were combined, at the moment of their combination, or some time thereafter, and it may be connected to the fact that the immediately preceding word, yihyeh (יהיה), is almost identical to the Tetragrammaton (י-הוה). In any case it has nothing to do with the separation of the sources.

The Compiler’s Correction

Yhwh’s revelation does not take place at night and does not entail Jacob sleeping, dreaming, or awakening. The words שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ “that you are lying upon” in v. 13 must be a substitution by the compiler when the two stories were combined.

To arrive at J’s original text, we have only to refer to J’s formulation of the very same promise as Yhwh expresses it to Abraham (Gen 13:14-15):

שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שָׁם צָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וָקֵדְמָה וָיָמָּה. כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם
Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.

It stands to reason that he must also have promised Jacob “the land that you see.” We may thus restore the words that ultimately became v. 13b as הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ: “the land (not: the ground!) that you see I will give to you and your offspring.”

Not a Neder (Vow)

As noted above, Jacob’s declaration that Yhwh will be his God does not qualify as a neder“vow.” Vows in the Bible consist of specific obligations that one takes upon oneself: to make some offering to a deity, or to perform, or refrain from performing, a particular action.[9]Thus, while Jacob’s statement that if Yhwh protects him throughout his journey “then Yhwh shall be my God” (vv. 20b-21) is part of the J text, the neder (v. 20a), which relates only to the promise to make Beth-El a place of worship and offer tithes (v. 22), is not.[10]

The E Text: The Ladder and the Pillar

E’s story consists of what are now vv. 11, 12, 16aa, 17, 18, 19, 20a, 22 – in their given order. E read as follows:

וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם וַיָּשָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱ־לֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱ־לֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח אֶת הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ מַצֵּבָה וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן עַל רֹאשָׁהּ  וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית־אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר {הָאֶבֶן} הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱ־לֹהִים וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ.
He chanced upon a place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. Jacob awoke from his sleep. Struck by fear, he said: “How fearsome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Jacob rose early in the morning, 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; previously the name of the city had been Luz. Jacob then made a vow, saying, “{This stone},[11] which I have set up as a pillar, shall be an abode for God, and of all that you give me, I will set aside a tithe for you.”

E’s story begins at nightfall and ends at daybreak. Jacob sees the divine beings in a dream, from which he awakes immediately, in the middle of the night, articulating aloud the significance of what he has seen. He then falls back asleep;[12] only after rising early in the morning does he undertake to transform what he has dreamed into a reality: to turn the earthly Beth-El into a spot to which his progeny will “ascend” and “descend” on pilgrimages of worship.

E’s story is a hieros logos: the foundational tale of sacred site. The word מָקוֺם “place” appears in it five times and other locational terms – בַּיִת “house,” עִיר “town,” אֶרֶץ “earth/land” and שָׁמַיִם “heavens” – feature as well. In it, Jacob lies down for the night at a previously insignificant spot, only to have revealed to him – in true Elohistic form, in a dream[13] – that he has in fact chanced upon the gateway to heaven.

Immediately realizing the awesome sanctity of the site, he appropriately names it Beth-El, the narrator parenthetically informing the reader that it was previously known as Luz. Jacob then vows that it will eventually become the House of God, which is of course what Beth-El was for the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, throughout its existence.

Thus, the eponymous patriarch of the Israelite people (Jacob will ultimately be named Israel, in E as elsewhere) is credited with having established the most sacred cultic center of the kingdom of Israel, and having done so on the strength of a revelation granted to him by messengers of the God of Israel. E’s Beth-El tale thus functions predominantly on the historical, etiological level, although it also has a role in the account of Jacob’s life. In contrast to J, however, E’ tale does not serve to express the favor bestowed by Yhwh on Jacob and his descendants but rather the solemn commitment made by Jacob, implicitly on behalf of his descendants, to God.

And, as is only to be expected, throughout E’s Beth-El tale, the deity is referred to as ʾĕlōhîmor ʾēl “God,” whereas J’s tale – if the emendation in v. 20a, which is called for on other grounds, is accepted ­– uses Yhwh, assuming as it does that all the characters in the story were thoroughly familiar with the divine name from the very beginning of time.[14]

E’s Story in Context

J’s tale of promise is connected clearly and directly to the previous incident in the his “biographical” narrative, but the same cannot be said of E. What preceded the impossibly abrupt opening words of the E text “He chanced upon a place” (v. 11)? We have no way of knowing, since prior to this point, the E thread in the Torah was last seen at the end of its Abraham narrative in the Akedah;[15] none of what E may have related about Isaac, or about Jacob and Esau up until this event, is preserved in the Torah. From this point on, however, E’s narrative is much more continuous.

Weaving Together the Two Stories

Correctly separated, each of the two texts is an eminently readable, coherent, and internally consistent tale. Each seems to have been preserved virtually in its entirety and, for the most part, unaltered.

The two stories have been woven together in the same manner that composite narratives, both brief and lengthy, were combined throughout the Torah. The compiler’s intervention, here as elsewhere, has been kept to a minimum; it has been confined to one small harmonistic change (in v. 13) and the addition of one waw (v. 22). In addition to this, one scribal error has crept into what was originally J’s story (v. 20).

Source Critical Division

Here is the compiled version, with J in blue, E in green and the compiler’s contributions—in addition to the meticulous interweaving itself—in black:

[בראשית כח] [י] וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה: [יא] וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי־בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם וַיָּשֶֹם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא: [יב] וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱ־לֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ: [יג] וְהִנֵּה ה’ נִצָּב עָלָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֲנִי ה’ אֱ־לֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵא־לֹהֵי יִצְחָק הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ: [יד] וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ: [טו] וְהִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם־עָשִֹיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ: [טז] וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָֽנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי: [יז] וַיִּירָא
        וַיֹּאמַר                                   וַיֹּאמֶר[16]  
מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱ־לֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם: [יח] וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר־שָֹם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ מַצֵּבָה וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן עַל־רֹאשָׁהּ: [יט]  וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית־אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם־הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה: [כ] וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם־יִהְיֶה <אֱ־לֹהִים> {ה’} עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן־לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ: [כא] וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל־בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה ה’ לִי לֵא־לֹהִים: [כב] וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר־שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱ־לֹהִים וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן־לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ:

Gen 28 10Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out in the direction of Haran. 11He chanced upon a place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. 13And there was Yhwh, standing beside him. He said, “I am Yhwh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the land which you see ground on which you are lyingI will give to you and to your offspring. 14Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. 15And I am going to be with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16Jacob awoke from his sleepHe said, “Surely Yhwh is present in this place, and I did not know it!” 17Struck by fear,

he said:                           He said:        

“How fearsome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” 18Jacob rose early in the morning, 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. 19He named that site Bethel; previously the name of the city had been Luz. 20Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God is with me, and if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21and if I return safe to my father’s house, then Yhwh shall be my God. 22And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be an abode for God, and of all that you give me, I will set aside a tithe for you.”

Understanding the Compiler

What led the compiler of the Torah to view these two narratives as pertaining to the same moment in Jacob’s life and therefore to combine them into a single text? Did he have any evidence that Jacob’s dream at Beth-El took place when he was on his way eastward from Canaan?

Perhaps the fact was mentioned in what is missing from E in the canonical Torah. Or perhaps the compiler believed it to be implicit from E’s account of the events and precipitating Jacob’s departure from the home of Laban, in which a messenger of God appears to him, once again in a dream (Gen 31:11–13), and says: “I am the God of Beth-El,[17] where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me” – although in fact,  this statement indicates only that the Bethel episode preceded Jacob’s journey, not necessarily that it took place during the journey itself or at its outset.

The compiler may also have been influenced by the phrase בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה in Jacob’s exclamation “Surely Yhwh is present in this place” in J (v. 16), as the word מָקוֹם features so prominently in E’s Beth-El tale.

The Beth-El Story in Gen 35

The simplest explanation may be that the compiler based himself on what appears later on in the story. In Gen 35 we read that Jacob visits Bethel upon his return from his long sojourn abroad, “built an altar and named the site El-beth-el, for it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.”

If this account belongs to J, the compiler of the Torah may have taken it as an explicit statement that the encounter with Yhwh of which we read in the J section of Genesis 28 took place at Bethel, even though it is theoretically possible that it refers to another event in J of which we have no knowledge. If this passage belongs to E, then it is unequivocally explicit. But if the words that connect Jacob’s earlier visit to Bethel with his flight from his brother are the harmonistic creation of the compiler himself, we are right back where we started.

Two Stories: Not Two Versions of One Story

The evidence adduced above suggests that the two texts of which our passage is composed are not two versions of the same story or two recensions of a single original text, but two distinct stories recounting entirely different events. Only the compiler of the Torah who, in the process of interweaving the Torah documents throughout their entire length into a single text, determined that J’s story of Jacob’s encounter with Yhwh on his way to Haran and E’s story of Jacob’s dream and vow at Bethel must be referring to a single occurrence—because they are reported to have occurred at the same location and at the same moment in Jacob’s life.

The critical reader, however, should accept the literary integrity and autonomy of each author, granting him the license to relate his own independent account of Israel’s prehistory—whether it corresponds to other such accounts or not.[18]

Published

November 15, 2018

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Last Updated

September 22, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz is the Avraham Mordechai Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at Hebrew University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (1988) from Hebrew University. Schwartz writes and lectures on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.