The Names of God: El Bethel

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Last week, we introduced the three names that, broadly speaking, are used to describe God in the Old Testament: ­Elohim (“God”), Adonai (“Lord”), and Yahweh (“LORD” or “GOD”). The Old Testament writers, however, frequently employ a combination of these names with other words to teach some truth about God. As we make our way week by week through the names of God, we will pick on these variations and see what we can learn about the God to whom we pray. We begin with the name by which God revealed himself to Jacob in Genesis 31:13: “El Bethel” or “the God of Bethel.”

You will perhaps remember the story. After an act of deep deception, by which Jacob stole the firstborn blessing from his older brother, Esau, he was forced to flee for his life. Esau, a strong, capable hunter, had threatened to kill his younger twin. Their mother warned Jacob to flee to her family in Haran and remain there until Esau’s anger subsided. It would be some twenty years before he would see his family again.

On his way to Uncle Laban’s house, Jacob stopped in Luz. As he slept that night, the God of his ancestors—“Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13)—appeared to him and assured him that his covenant promises remained. “I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back into this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (vv. 14–15). Jacob, whose understanding of God at that time seems to have been somewhat deficient, awoke in fright: “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I did not know it…. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (vv. 16–17). He seems to have viewed Yahweh as a sort of localised deity and believed he had left Yahweh’s territory and Yahweh with it. But when Yahweh appeared to him in Luz, he realised that the God of his fathers was far greater than he had imagined.

The next morning, Jacob built a small memorial there and named the place “Bethel,” which means “the house of God” (vv. 18–19).

Twenty years later, Jacob was still faithfully serving his uncle Laban. By that point, Yahweh had blessed him abundantly with a family and with great wealth so that he was more financially successful than Laban. Laban’s sons were incensed and began to view him with suspicion. Concerned that his cousins would seek to kill him, as his brother had done twenty years earlier, Jacob began thinking of leaving. Yahweh confirmed this to him: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). Jacob related to his wives how Yahweh had been favourable to him and included the account of a dream in which Yahweh had said to him, “I am the God of Bethel,” or, “I am El Bethel” (v. 13). El Bethel literally means “the God of the house of God.”

What was the significance of this name for Jacob? Bethel was the place where God had first met him and given to him great promises. It was the place where Yahweh had first encouraged him in his covenant faithfulness. Bethel held a special place in his pilgrimage. Years later, after his daughter, Dinah, was sexually assaulted and his sons responded with mass murder, he returned to Bethel, where he built an altar to Yahweh and named it “El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he had fled from his brother” (Genesis 35:7).

Bethel seems to have been Jacob’s mountaintop. It was his burning bush, as it were—the place to which he would return when he needed fresh encouragement in the covenant faithfulness of God. But, over time, as he matured in his walk with the Lord, he came to realise that the place (“Bethel”) was less significant that the God of the place (“El-Bethel”). The God who promised to bless him was not limited to a particular locale but was capable of keeping his promises wherever he was.

What lessons can we draw about this particular name of God as we pray to him this week?

First, learn that the God who wonderfully revealed himself to you in the gospel is the same God who remains covenantally faithful to you throughout your pilgrimage and is powerful to help you in your direst circumstances. For Jacob, the God of Bethel was the God who was with him in his darkest times: when he was fleeing from his brother, when he was fleeing from his cousins, when he was paralysed with grief at his daughter’s rape and his sons’ brutality. When the world seemed to be against him—even, sometimes, because of his own failures and passivity—he knew that El Bethel would not fail him.

Do you remember that spiritual high when God first revealed himself to you in the gospel? Do you remember what it was like to feel liberated from the burden of sin? Do you remember what it was like to embrace with fresh zeal the wonderful promises of God in Jesus Christ?

Has that feeling faded? Have those glories become distant memories? Have the sorrows and the trials of this life clouded your trust in the God who saved you? Allow the revelation of El Bethel to encourage you that the God of the gospel—the God of your salvation—is also the God who promises sustaining covenant grace. You can rejoice in El Bethel in your most difficult circumstances and know that, as he was faithful to save you, he is faithful to sustain you.

Second, it is helpful to note that, for Jacob, El Bethel was an extremely personal name. Nobody else in the Bible speaks of God as El Bethel. It is, in a sense, Jacob’s personal name for God, reflecting his personal relationship with God.

The Christian gospel is about far more than your personal relationship with God, but it is not about less than that. Christians are born again into a family and a community, but there is at the same time a degree of personal intimacy with God through the gospel. We each relate to God personally through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The God of the Bible is not an impersonal God who is generically the God of his people but is the God of covenant who relates personally to each person he saves through the gospel.

Third, and finally, let us learn from the revelation of El Bethel that the God of the Bible is patiently committed to working his full purposes in the people to whom he reveals himself in the gospel. Jacob’s life was messy. He frequently tried to live his life, and even serve God, on his own terms. Despite all his scheming, El Bethelpatiently worked in and through him to bring to the point where God changed his name from Jacob (“supplanter”) to Israel (“God prevails”). Yahweh prevailed to accomplish his full purposes in Jacob’s life and has promised to do the same in ours.

As you spend time in prayer this week, remember that the God who saved you is for you, that he desires to relate personally to you, and that he is patiently committed to working his full purposes in and through you to the very end.

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