Elohim: Singular or Plural?
Throughout the Old Testament the Hebrew word “Elohim” is used 2,570 times. It is the word translated “God”. It is a strange word.
The Old Testament is very sure that there is only One God, but what is intriguing is that the word “Elohim” is a plural noun that technically should be translated “gods”. So if we were to read Genesis literally it would start, “In the beginning gods created the heavens and the earth.… Then gods said, let there be light.”
Thankfully all translations ignore the plural. Why do they do that? Because the other intriguing thing is that this plural noun takes on a singular form of the verb. So we read, “Gods is patient and kind.” The people of Israel called God, “Gods” plural, but knew him to be singular and used only singular pronouns. They called God a HE not a THEY. Strange use of grammar in any language!
Before we try to resolve the conundrum, let us check out Israel’s neighbors. The singular form of Elohim is El. In the Ancient Near East, the name El was applied to one god, and Elohim, the plural, to more than one God.
The name El comes from the idea of “being strong, having power, being great.” El or Elohim was not a personal name so much as the generic title for any and all gods in that ancient world.
But El was also used to refer to the God behind all other gods. People knew that if you have many gods then you have to have at least one God who is their king, to solve disputes between them. This supreme ruler of the gods was often called “The Most High God.” This High God was the chief of the pantheon of lesser gods.
Now back to the puzzle, Why the plural name for the God of Israel?
1. The Plural of Majesty
Some have suggested that it is not the plural of mathematics, but instead is “the plural of majesty.” It is the practice of monarchs to use this kind of language. Queen Victoria was heard to say after a dismal performance, “We are not amused.” A parent, when asked by a child for a favor, might say, “We’ll see.” This is the plural of majesty and authority.
2. The Plural of Intensity.
Others believe it is a “plural of intensity.” When an Israelite wanted to express certainty to indicate something was really so, you could double up a word.
So God says to Adam, “In the day that you eat of the fruit of the tree, dying you will die!” meaning, you will really die! When they wanted to indicate the superiority of a King, they called him King of Kings or Lord of Lords, meaning he was the kingliest of kings and the most exalted of lords.
When they wanted to create the same impression using a different expression, they could simply make the word plural, which served the same function as adding two versions of the same word side by side. So when there was a desire to exalt one God over another, he was given the intensified form “Elohim”. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh was called “My Gods” because he was seen to be the supreme god over any other gods that his people served.
When Israel used the plural form of God they were inferred that all the fullness of being God rests in our God, and in Him alone.
3. The Plural of Inclusion.
There is a third reason for using the plural name for God. In that ancient world there were gods galore. Each of these gods had a very specific function. People in that ancient world would appeal to several gods depending on their needs at the moment. If crops were the concern they would speak to Dagon. If war was on the agenda they would pray to Moloch. If rainfall was on their minds they would call on Baal.
To Israel, the message was clear: there is only One God. And in the God of Israel all the powers of all the other so-called-gods are included. He includes within himself all that is divine.
And if this is its intended use, that is a good enough reason for using a plural name. It says not only that God is a great King with authority and God over all other gods, but it also says that God is the only God we will ever need!
4. The Plural of Complexity
There is a final explanation for the use of the plural name of God. It was not conceived of by the people of the Old Testament, but later would be seen as a very fitting reason for the plural name for the One God. The Christian Church would begin to perceive that the God who is One is not a “Simple One”, but a “Complex One”. He is a Trinity of “persons” who said “Let us make humanity in our own image after our own likeness.” The church has never claimed to understand this complexity in God, but have always known that this complexity in God is best referred to as “Trinity” and “Elohim’.
Of course the question comes, so what? What value is this discussion to us trying to live out our lives in meaningful ways in the early days of this new millennium? Several things need to be said.
First, there is a God who shares life with us in this universe. We are not alone.
Second, this God is a being who is totally awesome and worthy of our worship.
Third, no other “being” has a right to first allegiance in our lives. If there is a contest between the authority of God and any other power, (family, community, national government, peer pressure, personal desires, etc.) whose side will you be on? It is a question worth asking.
Think it Through…
Read the following passages from the book of Psalms.
- Psalm 95:3 For the Lord is a Great God, and a great King above all gods.
- Psalm 96:4 Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised,
he is to be feared above all gods, for all the gods of the peoples are idols.
- Psalm 97:7-9 Let all those be ashamed who serve graven images,
who boast themselves of idols. Worship Him, all you gods….
For you are the Lord most high over all the earth;
You are exalted far above all gods.
How does the word “Elohim” put all the other so-called-gods in their place?
Can you think of other reasons why God may prefer the plural use of the word rather than the single?
Take Action. ..
Take some time this week to reflect upon the awesomeness of God that the word “Elohim” brings to mind. Remember the word means “to be strong, to have power, to be great.”
For the Small Group Leader…
Discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity are very complex and often cause confusion. Someone has said, “Denying the Trinity can cause you to lose your soul; trying to understand the Trinity can cause you to lose your mind.” As small group leader you may want to focus on a parallel theme: “God is as complex to us, as we are to an amoeba.” How does this help us understand the doctrine of the trinity?
Published in Light and Life , November-December, 2000.