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Genesis 33:20

"ויצב שם מזבח ויקרא לו אל אלהי ישראל׃"

The context of Genesis 33:20 is Genesis 33:18-20

"18After Jacob had come from Paddan-aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan, and he camped just outside the city. 19And the plot of ground where he pitched his tent, he purchased from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of silver. 20There he set up an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel."

Are the meanings of El and Elohe in Genesis 33:20 different or same? If different, how do they different?

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In Genesis 33:20, "El" is the same word as the noun "el", deity or god, here used as a proper name for God. In the Massoretic Hebrew text on which most of the translations are based, there are no upper or lower case letters to indicate when "el" is used in the sense of "a god", or is used in the sense of "God", or as a proper name for God. The reader relies on the context to understand the intended usage, which in this verse is clear. In all cases of "el" or "El", the Hebrew word "el" is pointalized with a tsere diacritic under the first letter, aleph, indicating that the pronunciation in American English terms is more like "Ale" than "El" (as when pronouncing the name of the letter "L").

The word "elohe" is a Hebrew possessive propositional form of "elohim" meaning "god of". So the complete phrase in (my) translation is

El, the god of Israel

Both "elohim" and "elohe" start with the same Hebrew letter as "el", aleph, but the diacritic under the aleph is hataf-segol, indicating that the pronunciation is more like a short "e" as when pronouncing the name of the letter "L" or as a shortened soft "a" as in "Al Capone". So the complete phrase in transliteration is

Ale, alohey Yisro'el

When reading the MT text in Hebrew, there is a noticeable difference between "El" ("Ale") and "elohe" ("alohay"). A reader doing the public reading in a synagogue would be stopped and corrected for not making this distinction, as I was years ago.

Note that the Massoretic text also contains readers marks that indicate the punctuation tradition. In this case there is a tifha under the first letter of "El", indicating that the first letter is accented and that there is a short stop, a comma, after the word. In "elohe" the readers mark is a maaraca at the end of the word indicating that the last letter is accented.

Taken together, the grammar, the diacritics and the readers marks make the distinction between "el" and "elohe" very clear. But confusion between them is natural when reading a simplified English transliteration without knowing Hebrew.

The Christian Standard Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible and others avoid the confusion to some degree by translating the whole phrase rather than transliterating

God, the God of Israel

and the Good News Translation translates but leaves "El" as a proper name

El, the God of Israel

which, in my opinion, of the popular translations, is the most fair translation to the non-Hebrew reader.

Finally, note that this name for an altar, "El, elohe Israel" is somewhat palindromic as the proper name Israel also contains the proper name "El" at the end. Compare this with the names "El bet El" for God and for an altar respectively in Genesis 31:13 and 35:7.


In the above I have used the names for diacritics and reader's marks and Hebrew pronunciation as used in the Yemenite Jewish community.

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  • Thank you very much for the thoughtfulness, fairness and efforts to help me thoroughly!! So in Genesis 33:20, "el" was a personal proper noun. Correct ? "elohe" was "a Hebrew possessive propositional form of "elohim" meaning "god of"". So "elohe" is a special kind of common noun. Correct ? Nov 26 '18 at 10:01
  • Could the translation of "ויצב שם מזבח ויקרא לו אל אלהי ישראל׃" be "There he set up an altar and called it "Mighty is the God of Israel"."? Nov 28 '18 at 15:46
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    @Chin-LeeChan I don't think that such a translation has any corroborative support from other verses or external texts. It is using "el" as an adjective rather than as a proper name. To make such a translation plausible you would need to show a similar usage in another verse where an adjectival usage is clear. I know of no such verse.
    – user17080
    Dec 1 '18 at 21:56
  • Munir Ibn Ibranhim Thanks! In Greek grammar, there is no indefinite article. When a noun without a definite article, the noun is either not definite so the translation of the common noun with an indefinite article or the translation of the noun as the characteristic of the common noun. Since "el" has no definite article, what are the option of translating it? Dec 2 '18 at 12:53
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Footnote in the NIV to Gen. 3:22 shows an expanded meaning for the non Hebrew thinker:-

Genesis 33:20 El Elohe Israel can mean El is the God of Israel or mighty is the God of Israel.

The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon:-

'el

god, god-like one, mighty one mighty men, men of rank, mighty heroes angels god, false god, (demons, imaginations) God, the one true God, Jehovah mighty things in nature strength, power

Further Infomation on "El":-

."God (Elohim [yihl\a], Eloah [;H/l\a], El [lea]). The subject of the Bible's first sentence is God ( Gen 1:1 ). Elohim [yihl\a], El [lea], and Eloah [;H/l\a] are from related roots.El [lea] (God) is a generic Semitic designation for deity. Judged by Canaanite usage at Ras Shamra/Ugarit, the term signified a god of the highest rank who was something of a father god figure. The term means a god in the widest sense. Etymologically el appears to mean "power" as in "I have the power (el) to harm you" ( Gen 31:29 ; cf. Neh 5:5 ). Job and Psalms have most of the 238 occurrences of El [lea]. El [lea] is associated with other qualities such as integrity (not lying) ( Num 23:19 ; Deut 32:4 ), jealousy ( Deut 5:9 ), and compassion ( Neh 9:31 ; Psalm 86:15 ), but the root idea of "might" remains. ..."-https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/god-names-of/

It did become a name for Pagan Nations but Not for Israel!

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  • Thank you for your comment! In the Hebrew version of Genesis 33:20, is אל being used as a common noun (a god), a title (God), or a proper personal name (El) ? Nov 26 '18 at 9:50
  • @ Chin-Lee Chan "EL" is a generic noun that can be applied to anything as with "Elohim." "JHVH" (Jehovah, in English) is God's personal name. "Generic expressions come in two basic forms: generic noun phrases and generic sentences. Both express rule-like knowledge, but in different ways. A generic noun phrase is a noun phrase that does not refer to a specific (set of) individual(s), but rather to a kind or class of individuals."-Google Almighty God "The True God" (Joh 17:3) gave Himself a personal name, "Jehovah," make himself totaly seprate from all other gods so people can know who he is.
    – user26950
    Nov 26 '18 at 12:17
  • Thank you for your comment! So you disagree with Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim that "el" in Genesis 33:20 is a personal proper noun "El". Correct ? Nov 27 '18 at 9:43
  • @Chin-Lee Chan On "El" see above, ethos
    – user26950
    Nov 27 '18 at 14:13
  • You think that "el" means a god. The translation is then "the god of gods". This generic phrase mean there is a god who is the god to all the gods. If we take that a god means an ever-living intelligent being, then it works like "the human being of human beings" which means the best human being. if we take a god means an object of worship, then it works like "the object of worship of all the objects of worship". In another words, all the objects of worship have their own singular object of worship. Dec 9 '18 at 9:20
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I strongly agree with Abu Munir ibn Ibrahim. I even wrote an answer on Quora about the possible etymology of the name Allah where I believe it is a proper noun and I used Genesis 33:20 to support my answer. I believe Allah is a contraction of Al and Alah (El and Eloh). I believe Eloh or Eloah or Elah is the non-possessive form of elohe. I am opposed to the other hypothesis of contraction of the definite article Al and generic name for deity ilah to mean "the god". This hypothesis ignores simple rules of grammar. Transposition of English grammar rules onto Arabic is not being scholarly straight. El elah (Al alah) becomes Allah.

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