The book of Genesis gives 2 different stories about how and when Bethel was named, which was an important cultic center in northern Israel, until its destruction in 722 BC by the Assyrians. Stories about its founding were no doubt important and most likely played a prominent role in cultic festivals at Bethel. These stories were told from generation to generation with variations in narrative details and emphases until they were finally written down. The Bible itself bears witness to this.
And Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. And he happened upon a place… And he dreamed, and there was a ladder set up on earth and its top reached the heavens. And behold, angels of God were going up and down it… And he was afraid and he said, “How awesome this place is! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens.” And Jacob got up early in the morning and took the stone that he had set as his headrest and set it as a pillar and poured oil on its top. And he called the place’s name Bethel. (Gen 28:10-19)
And God appeared to Jacob again when he was coming from Paddan Aram, and he blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name will not be called Jacob anymore, but rather Israel will be your name.” And he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply…” And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a stone pillar, and he poured a libation on it and spilled oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken to him Bethel. (Gen 35:9-15)
Genesis 35 is a patchwork of assorted material, almost a concerted effort on the part of a redactor to get the remaining stories about Jacob in before the Jacob cycle closes. There is E’s account of Jacob and the people’s pilgrimage to Bethel where he establishes yet another altar to El (vv 1-8), P’s account of the visitation of El Shaddai and the naming of Bethel on Jacob’s return from Paddan Aram (vv 9-15), E’s account of Benjamin’s birth and Rachel’s death at Bethlehem (vv 10-20), J’s brief mention of Reuben’s sin (vv 21-22), and finally P’s genealogical account of Jacob’s sons and Isaac’s death (vv 23-29).1
The present 2 contradictions, as well as the preceding #62, are an inevitable result of the stitching together of later Priestly material with earlier Elohist and Yahwist traditions. Professor David Carr nicely summaries the contradictions created when the Priestly and Elohist (non-Priestly) traditions are redacted together.
Jacob is renamed “Israel” in 35:10 [P], although he has already been named “Israel” in 32:29 [E]. The appearance and self-identification of El Shaddai in 35:11 [P] presumes that Jacob had not yet met Yahweh (cf. Gen 28:13[E]). Jacob receives the promises of progeny (Gen 35:11[P]) and land (Gen 35:12[P]), although he has already had his children (Gen 29:31-30:24[JE]) and has already received the land promise (Gen 28:13b-14a[JE]). Finally and most importantly, the description of Jacob’s erecting and naming a pillar at Bethel in Gen 35:14-15 [P] agrees almost word-for-word with the preceding non-P narrative [E] of him doing the same thing, but the two acts are not linked with each other.2
It is professor Carr’s assessment that the Priestly version was written to replace the earlier Elohist version of Jacob’s epiphany at Bethel and his name change. If we look closely at P’s account in Gen 35:9-15, we see that what the Priestly author was intending was to replace the folklore tale of Jacob wrestling with a god with an El Shaddai covenantal promise passage (#62).
What happened in the redaction process is that the Redactor decided to preserve both accounts. What appears to have happened in this editorial process was that the Priestly account which was originally written to replace the Elohist is now placed in the narrative where Jacob returns to the land. So in the end the two accounts were preserved: the Elohist version remained where it originally fell in the narrative, at Jacob’s departure, and the Priestly account was then moved to Jacob’s return, leaving behind the text’s current contradictions—the naming of Bethel twice.