#64. Does Jacob name Bethel before he leaves Canaan OR on his return? (Gen 28: 11-19 vs Gen 35:11-15)
#65. Does Jacob erect a stone-pillar altar to the god at Bethel before he leaves Canaan OR when he returns? (Gen 28:18 vs Gen 35:7, 35:14)


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.



  1. See Friedman’s color-coded display of these sources in his The Bible with Sources Revealed, 89-90.
  2. Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 89.

4 thoughts on “#64. Does Jacob name Bethel before he leaves Canaan OR on his return? (Gen 28: 11-19 vs Gen 35:11-15)
#65. Does Jacob erect a stone-pillar altar to the god at Bethel before he leaves Canaan OR when he returns? (Gen 28:18 vs Gen 35:7, 35:14)

  1. If you parse the logic of the statements there is no contradiction:

    “And he called the place’s name Bethel.” (Gen 28:10-19)
    “And Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken to him Bethel.” (Gen 35:9-15)

    Why the repetition? Who knows? Perhaps it was so good he named it twice!

    1. “Why the repetition? Who knows?” Kevin, this is exactly what we’re answering here, more than anything. We, the scholarly community, does know with a great amount of certainty why there is a repetition or doublet of the same story here. As elsewhere (e.g., #1, #14-18, #44, #55, #72-73, #120-122, etc.), these doublets, along with a vast array of other textual data, inform us about different textual and/or oral traditions that existed in ancient Israel, both of which were later preserved, and in this case strategically placed—one before Jacob leaves the land of Canaan and one on his return. They mark the frontier.

      Granted, this is not the best nor the most convincing example of a contradiction, but we might surmise nonetheless that the story of how Beth-el came to be named was variously told by different traditions, different locals, different time periods, by different scribes, and when these variant traditions were finally written down, both were preserved. Furthermore, the second telling, Gen 35:9-15, does not even acknowledge the first naming of Beth-el and encounter with God (El) even though it has Jacob erect (again?) a stone pillar. It proceeds as if the first incident never happened! Moreover, there are a number of textual, stylistic, and linguistic identifiers in this second passage that connect it with other passages marked by the same features—El Shaddai or Yahweh as El Shaddai, the covenant blessing of land and descendants with reference to the community, the expression “be fruitful and multiply,” (see Gen 17:1-14 (#28), 28:1-5 (#46-47), 48:3-7 (#78), and Ex 6:2-3 (#11)) and has been identified as part of what scholars call the Priestly source. Feel free to explore the rest of the site to get a better feel for what I’m trying to accomplish here.

  2. The setting up of the pillar and the naming of the place is one act, and it happens twice, but for different reasons; once it is because of the vision of Jacob’s ladder/stairway and the other time because God renamed him (which he already did in ch. 32). It’s a contradiction because there are two explanations for the name of Bethel that occur at different times.

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