Bethel (deity)

BETHEL (deity) bĕth’ el (בֵּ֥ית אֵ֖ל, house of El). A W Sem. deity attested in the onomasticon of the Aram. papyri from Elephantine, Egypt and Neo-Babylonian cuneiform texts by some 15 different names. The Biblical examples are Zechariah 7:2; Jeremiah 48:13 and Amos 5:5. In the Zechariah 7:2 passage, Bethel cannot be a reference to the Temple since the expression used in the next v. is Beth Yahweh (and over 250 times in the OT) and elsewhere Beth Elohim or Beth ha’elohim (about 50 times); Bethel does not occur once in this capacity. Bethel-shar-ezer in Zechariah 7:2 is a personal name supported by similar Neo-Babylonian names as Bit-ili-shēzib and Bīt-ili-shar-uṩur from the days of Nebuchadnezzar and following.

It was at the 6th cent. site of Elephantine where the papyri removed any doubts concerning this use of a divine name, for from this site Albert Vincent conveniently collected such names (pp. 564, 593, 622, 654) as Bethel-nātan, Bethel-nûrî, Anath-bethel, Eshem-bethel.

This deity is also known from the Phoenician Theogony by Philo Byblius where Ouranus (“Heaven”) and Ge (“Earth”) have four sons: Ilus (Cronus), Betylus, Dagon and Atlas. This pair is now attested in the Ugaritic pantheon as šmm and arṩ and possibly along with their four sons as ’il, ’il ṩpn, dgn, and ’ilib. The exact identification of the sons must wait until more complete texts are available; therefore one cannot place this deity in the second millennium in a Phoenician or Ugaritic pantheon as yet. In the meantime, the Ugaritic name N’bt’iL may be noted as containing this theophorous element and leads one to expect the presence of this god in the second millennium b.c.

The exegesis of Jeremiah 48:13 and Amos 5:5 is not as easy as Zechariah 7:2, for in each case it is difficult to say whether one is dealing with the god Bethel or by metonomy, the city Bethel is given instead of the golden calf at Bethel. The latter seems almost certainly to be true of Amos 5:5, while the parallelism of Moab’s Chemosh with Israel’s Bethel in Jeremiah 48:13 would point to the former except for the fact that no notice is ever given to the presence of this god in the northern tribes. There is, however, much said of Bethel as the place of the golden calf which led to Ephraim’s downfall.

Bibliography

A. Vincent, La religion des Judéo-Araméens d’Éléphantine, (1937), 562-592; J. P. Hyatt, “A Neo-Babylonian Parallel to Bethelšar-eser, Zech. 7:2,” JBL, LVI (1937), 387-394; “The Deity Bethel and the OT,” JAOS LIX (1939), 81-98; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 4th ed. (1956), 168-175.