Aetiology (and Etymological Aetiology)
Another feature of a number of biblical stories, not unrelated to the idea of theological geography, is that they seem to have been preserved principally to explain why a particular place was a holy place, and perhaps also to explain why it was called by its name. A story which combines both of those features, and perhaps adds a third, is that of Jacob's famous dream at Bethel (Gen. 28: 10–22 ). It accounts for why Bethel was an Israelite holy place, that is, because God had revealed himself there to the ancestor Jacob/Israel; it explains the place's name as originating from Jacob's realization that it was ‘none other than the house of God’ (in Hebrew, Bethel means ‘house of God’, but it is likely that the place name reflects that originally it was a temple of El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon); and it may also explain a feature of the sanctuary at Bethel, a standing stone—Jacob's so‐called pillow. The example of Bethel suggests that in part the purpose may be to bring much older sanctuaries into the sphere of Israelite worship. Archaeology suggests that the sanctuary at Shechem dates back to the Middle Bronze Age and that it was a feature of the Late Bronze Age city. But Genesis 12: 6–7 relates that God appeared there to Abra(ha)m, who marked the theophany by building an altar.
More generally, aetiologies are stories which explain how something came to be as it was, or (in the case of etymological aetiologies) why someone or somewhere was given a particular name, and there are many such in the Bible. In Joshua 4: 1–9 , the setting up of twelve stones at Gilgal, to mark the crossing of the River Jordan, is described, ending with the type of phrase found in many aetiological stories, ‘and they are there to this day’. The story explains the presence of a stone circle, and why the place was so‐called (Gilgal may mean ‘circle’). In the following chapter (Josh. 5: 1–7 ), the place name Gibeath‐haaraloth (‘hill of the foreskins’) is explained by recounting how Joshua circumcised the sons of the generation that had come out of Egypt. This is followed by another explanation of the name Gilgal, this time relating the name to a verb meaning ‘roll’, because Joshua had ‘rolled away…the disgrace of Egypt’ (Josh. 5: 9 ). Another example of a double explanation of a place name is found in the story of the ownership of the wells at Beer‐sheba (Gen. 21: 22–34 ). To mark the agreement (or covenant) between Abraham and Abimelech, confirming that Abraham had dug the wells, Abraham set aside seven lambs for Abimelech, and they swore an oath. The name Beer‐sheba could mean ‘well of seven’ or ‘well of an oath’. The preservation of this story may have had another aetiological function, that of establishing the ownership rights over an important oasis on the edge of the wilderness.