Elohim (Hebrew: אֱלֹהִים) is a grammatically plural noun for "gods" or "deity" in Biblical Hebrew. In modern Hebrew it is often referred to in the singular, despite the -im ending that denotes plural masculine nouns in Hebrew.
It is generally thought that Elohim is a formation from eloah, the latter being an expanded form of the Northwest Semitic noun il (אֵל, ʾēl). The related nouns eloah (אלוה) and el (אֵל) are used as proper names or as generics, in which case they are interchangeable with elohim.
The notion of divinity underwent radical changes throughout the period of early Israelite identity. The ambiguity of the term elohim is the result of such changes, cast in terms of "vertical translatability", i.e. the re-interpretation of the gods of the earliest recalled period as the national god of monolatrism as it emerged in the 7th to 6th century BCE in the Kingdom of Judah and during the Babylonian captivity, and further in terms of monotheism by the emergence of Rabbinical Judaism in the 2nd century CE.
The word is identical to the usual plural of el meaning gods or magistrates, and is cognate to the 'l-h-m found in Ugaritic, where it is used for the pantheon of Canaanite gods, the children of El and conventionally vocalized as "Elohim". Most use of the term Elohim in the later Hebrew text imply a view that is at least monolatrist at the time of writing, and such usage (in the singular), as a proper title for the supreme deity, is generally not considered to be synonymous with the term elohim, "gods" (plural, simple noun). Hebrew grammar allows for this nominally plural form to mean "He is the Power (singular) over powers (plural)", or roughly, "God of gods". Rabbinic scholar Maimonides wrote that the various other usages are commonly understood to be homonyms.
The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible defines "elohim" as a plural of eloah, an expanded form of the common Semitic noun "'il" (ʾēl). It contains an added heh as third radical to the biconsonantal root. Discussions of the etymology of elohim essentially concern this expansion. An exact cognate outside of Hebrew is found in Ugaritic ʾlhm, the family of El, the creator god and chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon, in Biblical Aramaic ʼĔlāhā and later Syriac Alaha "God", and in Arabic ʾilāh "god, deity" (or Allah as " The [single] God").
The word el (singular) is a standard term for "god" in Aramaic, paleo-Hebrew, and other related Semitic languages including Ugaritic. The Canaanite pantheon of gods was known as elohim or "'ilm" (probably pronounced ilīm). For instance, in the Ugaritic Baal cycle we read of "seventy sons of Asherah". Each "son of god" was held to be the originating deity for a particular people. (KTU2 1.4.VI.46).
Elohim occurs frequently throughout the Torah. In some cases (e.g. Exodus 3:4, "... Elohim called unto him out of the midst of the bush ..."), it behaves like a singular noun in Hebrew grammar, and is then generally understood to denote the single God of Israel. In other cases, Elohim acts as an ordinary plural of the word Eloah, and refers to the polytheistic notion of multiple gods (for example, Exodus 20:3, "You shall have no other gods before me.").
The words used for God varies in the Hebrew Bible. According to the documentary hypothesis these variations are the products of different source texts: Elohim is used as the name of God in the Elohist (E) and Priestly (P) sources, while the name Yahweh is used in the Jahwist source. Form criticism postulates the differences of names may be the result of geographical origins; the P and E sources coming from the North and J from the South. There may be a theological point, that God did not reveal his name, Yahweh, before the time of Moses, though Hans Heinrich Schmid showed that the Jahwist was aware of the prophetic books from the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.
J presents Yahweh anthropomorphically: for example, walking through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve. The Elohist often presents Elohim as more distant and frequently involves angels, as in the Elohist version of the tale of Jacob's ladder, in which there is a ladder to the clouds, with angels climbing up and down, with Elohim at the top. In the Jahwist tale, Yahweh is simply stationed in the sky, above the clouds without the ladder or angels. Likewise, the Elohist describes Jacob wrestling with an angel.
The classical documentary hypothesis, first developed in the late 19th century CE among literary scholars, holds that the Elohist portions of the Torah were composed in the 9th century BCE (i.e. during the early period of the Kingdom of Judah). This, however, is not universally accepted as later literary scholarship seems to show evidence of a later "Elohist redaction" (post-exilic) during the 5th century BCE which sometimes makes it difficult to determine whether a given passage is "Elohist" in origin, or the result of later editor.
The word Elohim occurs more than 2500 times in the Hebrew Bible, with meanings ranging from "gods" in a general sense (as in Exodus 12:12, where it describes "the gods of Egypt"), to specific gods (e.g., 1 Kings 11:33, where it describes Chemosh "the god of Moab", or the frequent references to Yahweh (Jehovah) as the "elohim" of Israel), to demons, seraphim, and other supernatural beings, to the spirits of the dead brought up at the behest of King Saul in 1 Samuel 28:13, and even to kings and prophets (e.g., Exodus 4:16). The phrase bene elohim, translated "sons of the Gods", has an exact parallel in Ugaritic and Phoenician texts, referring to the council of the gods.
Elohim occupy the seventh rank of ten in the famous medieval Rabbinic scholar Maimonides' Jewish angelic hierarchy. Maimonides said: "I must premise that every Hebrew [now] knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, ...
Grammar – singular or plural
In Hebrew the ending -im mainly indicates a masculine plural. However with Elohim the construction is grammatically singular (i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective) when referring to the Hebrew God, but grammatically plural elohim (i.e. taking a plural verb or adjective) when used of pagan divinities (Psalms 96:5; 97:7). Similarly, the Quran uses alīha as the plural of īlah for pagan divinities, and occasionally uses "Allahum" (O God! - plural) for the sole god (as opposed to "Allah"). The exact equivalent, in modern Arabic, of Elohim as meaning plural gods would be Īlahīn (إلاهين), although it is rarely used in Arabic parlance. Note that human beings can also have names with plural endings, such as Ephraim, the son of Joseph.
Plural "gods", with plural verb
God of Israel, with singular verb
In the Hebrew Bible Elohim, when meaning the God of Israel, is mostly grammatically singular. Even in Genesis 1:26 "Then God said (singular verb), 'Let us make (plural verb) man in our image, after our likeness'", Elohim is singular. Wilhelm Gesenius and other Hebrew grammarians traditionally described this as the pluralis excellentiae (plural of excellence), which is similar to the pluralis majestatis (plural of majesty, or "Royal we").
Gesenius comments that Elohim singular is to be distinguished from elohim plural gods and remarks that:
the supposition that elohim is to be regarded as merely a remnant of earlier polytheistic views (i.e. as originally only a numerical plural) is at least highly improbable, and, moreover, would not explain the analogous plurals (below). To the same class (and probably formed on the analogy of elohim) belong the plurals kadoshim, meaning "the Most Holy" (only of Yahweh, Hosea 12:1, Proverbs 9:10, 30:3 - cf. El hiym kadoshim in Joshua 24:19 and the singular Aramaic "the Most High", Daniel 7:18, 22, 25) and probably teraphim (usually taken in the sense of penates), the image of a god, used especially for obtaining oracles. Certainly in 1 Samuel 19:13, 16 only one image is intended; in most other places a single image may be intended; in Zechariah 10:2 alone is it most naturally taken as a numerical plural.
There are a number of notable exceptions to the rule that Elohim is treated as singular when referring to the God of Israel, including Gen. 20:13, 35:7, 2 Sam. 7:23 and Ps. 58:11, and notably the epithet of the "Living God" (Deuteronomy 5:26 etc.), which is constructed with the plural adjective, Elohim Hayiym אלהים חיים but still takes singular verbs.
In the Septuagint and New Testament translations Elohim has the singular ὁ θεός even in these cases, and modern translations follow suit in giving "God" in the singular. The Samaritan Torah has edited out some of these exceptions.
Abraham's "the gods caused me"
In Gen 20:13 Abraham, before the polytheistic Philistine king Abimelech, says that "the gods (elohim) caused (plural verb) me to wander". The Greek Septuagint (LXX) and most English versions usually translate this "God caused", possibly to avoid the implication of Abraham deferring to Abimelech's polytheistic beliefs.
Angels and judges
In a few cases in the Greek Septuagint (LXX), Hebrew elohim with a plural verb, or with implied plural context, was rendered either angeloi ("angels") or to kriterion tou Theou ("the judgement of God"). These passages then entered first the Latin Vulgate, then the English King James Version (KJV) as "angels" and "judges", respectively. From this came the result that James Strong, for example, listed "angels" and "judges" as possible meanings for elohim with a plural verb in his Strong's Concordance, and the same is true of many other 17th-20th century reference works. Both Gesenius' Hebrew Lexicon and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon list both angels and judges as possible alternative meanings of elohim with plural verbs and adjectives.
The reliability of the Septuagint translation in this matter has been questioned by Gesenius and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. In the case of Gesenius, he lists the meaning without agreeing with it. Hengstenberg stated that the Hebrew Bible text never uses elohim to refer to "angels", but that the Septuagint translators refused the references to "gods" in the verses they amended to "angels."
The Greek New Testament (NT) quotes Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:6b-8a, where the Greek NT has "ἀγγέλους" (angelous) in vs. 7, quoting Ps. 8:5 (8:6 in the LXX), which also has "ἀγγέλους" in a version of the Greek Septuagint. In the KJV, elohim (Strong's number H430) is translated as "angels" only in Psalm 8:5.
Sometimes when elohim occurs as the referent or object (i.e. not subject) of a sentence, and without any accompanying verb or adjective to indicate plurality, it may be grammatically unclear whether gods plural or God singular is intended. An example is Psalm 8:5 where "Yet you have made him a little lower than the elohim" is ambiguous as to whether "lower than the gods" or "lower than God" is intended. The Septuagint read this as "gods" and then "corrected" the translation to "angels", which reading is taken up by the New Testament in Hebrews 2:9 "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man." (full quote and compare)
Other plural-singulars in biblical Hebrew
The Hebrew language has several nouns with -im (masculine plural) and -oth (feminine plural) endings which nevertheless take singular verbs, adjectives and pronouns. For example, Ba'alim "owner": "He is lord (singular) even over any of those things that he owns that are lordly (plural)."
Jacob's ladder "gods were revealed" (plural)
In the following verses Elohim was translated as God singular in the King James Version even though it was accompanied by plural verbs and other plural grammatical terms.
And there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed [plural verb] himself to him when he fled from his brother.— Genesis 35:7, ESV
Here the Hebrew verb "revealed" is plural, hence: "the-gods were revealed". A NET Bible note claims that the Authorized Version wrongly translates: "God appeared unto him". This is one of several instances where the Bible uses plural verbs with the name elohim.
The Divine Council of Elohim
AV Psalm 82:1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods. [...]
I have said, Ye [are] gods; and all of you [are] children of the most High.
But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.— Psalm 82:1, 6-7 (AV)
Marti Steussy, in Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament, discusses: “The first verse of Psalm 82: ‘Elohim has taken his place in the divine council.’ Here elohim has a singular verb and clearly refers to God. But in verse 6 of the Psalm, God says to the other members of the council, ‘You [plural] are elohim.’ Here elohim has to mean gods.”
Mark Smith, referring to this same Psalm, states in God in Translation “This psalm presents a scene of the gods meeting together in divine council...Elohim stands in the council of El. Among the elohim he pronounces judgment:...”
In Hulsean Lectures for..., H. M. Stephenson discussed Jesus’ argument in John 10:34–36 concerning Psalm 82. (In answer to the charge of blasphemy Jesus replied:) "Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods. If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?" – "Now what is the force of this quotation 'I said ye are gods.' It is from the Asaph Psalm which begins 'Elohim hath taken His place in the mighty assembly. In the midst of the Elohim He is judging.'"
Sons of God
The Hebrew word for a son is ben; plural is bānim (with the construct state form being "benei"). The Hebrew term benei elohim ("sons of God" or "sons of the gods") in Genesis 6:2 compares to the use of "sons of gods" (Ugaritic b'n il) sons of El in Ugaritic mythology. Karel van der Toorn states that gods can be referred to collectively as bene elim, bene elyon, or bene elohim.
In Jewish tradition, the Torah verse, that was the battle-cry of the Maccabees (Hebrew: מקבים Machabim), "Mi chamocha ba'elim YHWH" ("Who is like You among the heavenly powers, YHWH"), is an acronym for "Machabi" as well as an acronym for "Matityahu Kohen ben Yochanan". The correlating Torah verse, The song of Moses and the Children of Israel by the Sea, makes a reference to elim, but more with a mundane notion of natural forces, might, war and governmental powers.
In Mormonism, Elohim is a name occasionally used to refer to God the Father. Elohim is a being that is separate from Jesus Christ or "the Lord" of the Old Testament. Elohim is the physical father of Jesus, whose name before birth is said to have been "Jehovah".
English Bible translations
Hebrew elohim in English translations of the Bible is generally rendered as gods when occurring with a plural verb or referring to pagan deities, and as God when occurring with a singular verb or referring to the God of Israel.
- Glinert Modern Hebrew: An Essential Grammar Routledge p14 section 13 "(b) Agreement "
- Gesenius A Grammar of the Hebrew Language
- K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst (eds), Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible (revised 2nd edition, Brill, 1999) ISBN 90-04-11119-0, p. 274, 352-3
- Mark S. Smith, God in translation: deities in cross-cultural discourse in the biblical world, vol. 57 of "Forschungen zum Alten Testament", Mohr Siebeck, 2008, ISBN 978-3-16-149543-4, p. 19.;
Smith, Mark S. (2002), "The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel" (Biblical Resource Series)
- Moses Maimonides. "Guide for the Perplexed" (1904)
- Article "Eloah" by Dennis Pardee in Karel van der Toorn; Bob Becking; Pieter van der Horst, eds. (1999). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2 ed.). p. 285. ASIN B00RWRAWY8. After a discussion of the use of "ilh" and "ilhm" in Ugaritic texts, he says, "The term expressing the simple notion of 'gods' in these texts is ilm...". In Ugaritic, vowels are not written except after a glottal stop, so "ilm" represents ilīm.
- John Day Yahweh and the gods and goddesses of Canaan, p.23
- H. H. Schmid, Der Sogenannte Jahwist (Zurich: TVZ, 1976)
- Brian B. Schmidt Israel's beneficent dead: ancestor cult and necromancy in ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition, Forschungen zum Alten Testament 11 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1994). Page 217 "In spite of the fact that the MT plural noun 'elohim of v.13 is followed by a plural participle 'olim, a search for the antecedent to the singular pronominal suffix on mah-to'ro in v.14 what does he/it look like? has led interpreters to view the 'elohim . . . 'olim as a designation for the dead Samuel, "a god ascending." The same term 'elohim ... He, therefore, urgently requests verification of Samuel's identity, mah-to'"ro, "what does he/it look like?" The .... 32:1, 'elohim occurs with a plural finite verb and denotes multiple gods in this instance: 'elohim '"seryel'ku I fydnenu, "the gods who will go before us." Thus, the two occurrences of 'elohim in 1 Sam 28:13,15 — the first complimented by a plural ...28:13 manifests a complex textual history, then the 'elohim of v. 13 might represent not the deified dead, but those gods known to be summoned — some from the netherworld — to assist in the retrieval of the ghost.373 ...
- Gesenius Hebrew Grammar: 124g, without article 125f, with article 126e, with the singular 145h, with plural 132h,145i"
- Richard N. Soulen, R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of biblical criticism, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-664-22314-4, p. 166.
- Benamozegh, Elia; Maxwell Luria (1995). Israel and Humanity. Paulist Press International. p. 104. ISBN 978-0809135417.
- Hamilton, Victor P. (2012). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Baker Academic. ISBN 978-0801031830.
- e.g. Gen. 20:13 התעו אתי אלהים מבית אבי (where התעו is from תעה "to err, wander, go astray, stagger", the causative plural "they caused to wander")
- LXX: ἐξήγαγέν με ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τοῦ οἴκου τοῦ πατρός; KJV: "when God caused me to wander from my father's house"
- Brenton Septuagint Exodus 21:6 προσάξει αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ πρὸς τὸ κριτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ
- The Biblical Repositor p. 360 ed. Edward Robinson - 1838 "Gesenius denies that elohim ever means angels; and he refers in this denial particularly to Ps. 8: 5, and Ps. 97: 7; but he observes, that the term is so translated in the ancient versions."
- Samuel Davidsohn An Introduction to the New Testament 3 1848 p282 "Hengstenberg, for example, affirms, that the usus loquendi is decisive against the direct reference to angels, because Elohim never signifies angels. He thinks that the Septuagint translator could not understand the representation ..."
- "Hebrews 2:7 with Greek". Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- "Psalm 8:5 with Greek (8:6 in the LXX)". Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- "Elohim as angels in the KJV only in Psalm 8:5 (8:6 in LXX)". Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- "Elohim as "judges" in the KJV". Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- NET Bible with Companion CD-ROM W. Hall Harris, 3rd, none - 2003 - "35:14 So Jacob set up a sacred stone pillar in the place where God spoke with him.30 He poured out a 20tn Heb "revealed themselves." The verb iVl] (niglu), translated "revealed himself," is plural, even though one expects the singular"
- Haggai and Malachi p36 Herbert Wolf - 1976 If both the noun and the verb are plural, the construction can refer to a person, just as the statement “God revealed Himself” in Genesis 35:7 has a plural noun and verb. But since the word God, “Elohim,” is plural in form,8 the verb ..."
- Psychology and the Bible: From Genesis to apocalyptic vision p243 J. Harold Ellens, Wayne G. Rollins - 2004 "Often the plural form Elohim, when used in reference to the biblical deity, takes a plural verb or adjective (Gen. 20:13, 35:7; Exod. 32:4, 8; 2 Sam. 7:23; Ps. 58:12),"
- Steussy, Marti. "Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament"
- Smith, Mark. "God in Translation:..."
- Stephenson, H. M. (1890) Hulsean Lectures for... lecture 1, page 14
- (e.g. Genesis 6:2, "... the sons of the Elohim (e-aleim) saw the daughters of men (e-adam, the adam) that they were fair; and they took them for wives..., "
- Marvin H. Pope El in the Ugaritic texts Supplements to Vetus Testamentum Vol. II Leiden, Brill, 1955. Pp. x—l-116, p49
- Scherman, Nosson (ed.) ; contributing editors, Yaakov Blinder, Avie Gold, Meir Zlotowitz ; designed by Sheah Brander (1998). Tanakh = Tanach : Torah, Neviʼim, Ketuvim : the Torah, Prophets, Writings : the twenty-four books of the Bible, newly translated and annotated (1st student size ed., Stone ed.). Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah Publications. pp. 171–172. ISBN 1578191092.
- Exodus 15:11
- What does "Maccabee" mean? - Ask the Rabbi
- First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "The Father and the Son", Improvement Era, August 1916, pp. 934–42; reprinted as "The Father and the Son", Ensign, April 2002.
- grammar clarification
- Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament theology, vol. 1, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995, ISBN 978-0-567-09735-4, 147–149.