The article of the month

Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Set in Stone

While fleeing the wrath of his bamboozled brother in Genesis 28, Jacob, the wily young patriarch-to-be, lies down to sleep for the night, selecting a comfortable rock to serve as a pillow. After dreaming of a great sullam—usually rendered as “ladder,” but maybe a staircase or the ramp of a ziggurat, reaching up to heaven with angels treading up and down it—Jacob awakens, awed. He pronounces the place holy—literally “the house of God,” whence the site derives its new name, Bethel. Jacob then stands up his stony cushion as a sacred pillar (massebah), anoints it, makes a vow, and continues on his merry way.

The name Bethel is about more than Jacob’s dream, in fact: the standing upright of Jacob’s stone is more at issue, as seen in some data from the ancient context. Aramaic texts from the eighth century b.c., for instance—the so-called Sefire Treaties—speak of the stone stelae on which covenant pacts are inscribed as “bethels” (bty ’ilhy’). Later, Philo of Byblos, another Syrian source, describes animate stones—mini-temples inhabited by a god, which he calls baitylia, a Greek rendering of the same Semitic word. In explaining how Bethel received its name, then, Genesis 28 draws attention to the ancient Canaanite practice of standing up numinous stones, attributing this pagan activity to the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is rather embarrassing, as it is specifically outlawed in Deuteronomy 16:22: You shall not set up a stone pillar—a thing the Lord your God hates.

So what is the catch? First of all, Jacob lives long before the Mosaic Law, which exempts him from Deuteronomy by any fair measure. The later checkered history of the shrine at Bethel, which went rogue under Jeroboam’s idolatrous cult, is also not Jacob’s doing. How are we, then, to understand this curious scene?

Complex strata of historical practices are clearly layered into this text, which exposes the pre-Mosaic character of Israel’s early religion, validating it with a patriarchal pedigree. The ­covenant “bethels” of Sefire are perhaps the most helpful background, for at Bethel the Lord reiterates his own covenantal promise, earlier made to Jacob’s ancestor: I, the Lord, am the God of your forefather Abraham…. The land on which you are ­lying I will give to you and your descendants. These shall be as plentiful as the dust of the earth…. Know that I am with you; I will…bring you back to this land (Gn 28:13-15; cf. 13:16). Jacob accepts God’s blessing and formally seals his deal with the Lord: If God remains with me, to protect me on this journey I am making…and I come back safe to my father’s house, the Lord shall be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial stone shall be God’s abode (beth elohim).

Without being aware, Jacob had laid down for the night on the very site where Abraham first pitched his tent two ­generations before, when he was moving in the very opposite direction: entering the Promised Land from Haran. Jacob’s dream in that place and God’s promise of presence and protection clearly made an impact that lasted all Jacob’s life. Repeatedly, his experience in Bethel is recalled (Gn 31:13; 35:1-6, 15). Ultimately, Jacob’s stone pillow memorial is a ­physical piece of the Land itself, like the dust of the earth, the image of Israel’s increase. By erecting his Beth Elohim, both to serve as a covenant memorial and to be a sort of mini-temple, Jacob’s action says two things above all. First, God’s fidelity to Abraham’s children is stronger than any exile from the Land: a prophecy of great importance for Israel’s sons. Second, as pagan gods were thought to animate the pagans’ own ­version of standing stones, the Lord dwells in this special Land in a very special way.

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.