The notion of divinity underwent radical changes in the early period of Israelite identity and development of Ancient Hebrew religion. 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.
Grammar and etymology
Elohim is a grammatically plural noun for “gods” or “deities” in Biblical Hebrew. In Hebrew, the ending -im normally indicates a masculine plural. However, when referring to the Hebrew God, Elohim is usually understood to be grammatically singular (i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective). 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 derived from eloah, the latter being an expanded form of the Northwest Semitic noun ’il. 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 term 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 Ugariticʾlhm, 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”).
“El” (the basis for the extended root ʾlh) is usually derived from a root meaning “to be strong” and/or “to be in front”.
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 ‘ilhm, the Ugaritic equivalent to elohim. 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. (KTU 2 1.4.VI.46).
The Hebrew Bible uses various names for God. According to the documentary hypothesis these variations are the products of different source texts: Elohim is the name of God in the Elohist (E) and Priestly (P) sources, while Yahweh is used in the Jahwist (J) 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 a later editor.
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 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 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, …”
With plural verb
In 1 Samuel 28:13, elohim is used with a plural verb. The witch of Endor told Saul that she saw elohim ascending (olim עֹלִים, plural verb) out of the earth.
In Genesis 20:13, Abraham, before the polytheistic Philistine king Abimelech, says that “Elohim (translated as God) caused (התעו, plural verb) me to wander”. Whereas the Greek Septuagint (LXX) has a singular verb form (ἐξήγαγε(ν), aorist II), most English versions usually translate this as “God caused” (which does not distinguish between a singular and plural verb).
With singular verb
Elohim, when meaning the God of Israel, is mostly grammatically singular, and is commonly translated as “God”, and capitalised. For example, in Genesis 1:26, it is written: “Then Elohim (translated as God) said (singular verb), ‘Let us (plural) make (plural verb) man in our (plural) image, after our (plural) likeness'”. 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.
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 elohimwith 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.
The KJV translates elohim as “judges” in Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8; and twice in Exodus 22:9.
Angels and Fallen angels cited in the Hebrew Bible and external litterature contain the related noun el (אֵל) such as Michael (archangel), Gabriel and Samael.
Sometimes when elohim occurs as the referent or object (i.e. not the 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, Baalim, Adonim, Behemoth. This form is known as the “honorific plural”, in which the pluralization is a sign of power or honor.
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”. An 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
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 “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.
Latter Day Saint movement
In Mormonism, Elohim refers to God the Father. Elohim is the father of Jesus in both the physical and the spiritual realms, whose name before birth is said to be “Jehovah”.
The Book of Abraham, which members of the Latter Day Saint movement hold to as divinely inspired scripture revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith, contains a paraphrase of the first chapter of Genesis which explicitly translates Elohim as “the Gods” multiple times; this is explained to indicate a plurality of power (omnipotence) rather than a plurality of being.
- Moses Maimonides. Guide for the Perplexed (1904 translation by Friedländer). Starting from the beginning of chapter 2.
- 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, ISBN978-3-16-149543-4, p. 19.;
Smith, Mark S. (2002), “The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel” (Biblical Resource Series)
- Glinert, Modern Hebrew: An Essential Grammar, Routledge, p. 14, 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) ISBN90-04-11119-0, p. 274, 352-3
- 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. ASINB00RWRAWY8.s.v. “Eloah” “The term expressing the simple notion of ‘gods’ in these texts is ilm…”.
- van der Toorn, Karel (1999). “God”. In van der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; van der Horst, Pieter (eds.). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd ed.). Brill. p. 360. ISBN90-04-11119-0.
- John Day (2008). 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”, N. 11 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr Siebeck, 1994), p. 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 complemented 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 …
- Benamozegh, Elia; Maxwell Luria (1995). Israel and Humanity. Paulist Press International. p. 104. ISBN978-0809135417.
- Hamilton, Victor P. (2012). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary. Baker Academic. ISBN978-0801031830.
- e.g. Gen. 20:13 Hebrew: התעו אתי אלהים מבית אבי (where התעו is from Hebrew: 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”
- 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, ISBN978-0-664-22314-4, p. 166.
- 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, Vol. III, 1848, p. 282: “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.
- “Samael” 
- Exodus 21:34, 22:11, Ecclesiastes 5:10, 7:12, Job 31:39
- Genesis 39:20, 42:30, 42:33, I Kings 16:24
- Job 40:15
- Mark Futato (2010). “Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?“.
- 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 …”
- J. Harold Ellens, Wayne G. Rollins, Psychology and the Bible: From Genesis to apocalyptic vision, 2004, p. 243: “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 (2013). Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament. Chalice Press. ISBN9780827205666.
- Smith, Mark (2010). God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. William B. Eerdmans. ISBN9780802864338.
- 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, p. 49.
- 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.
- Talmage, James E. (September 1915). Jesus the Christ.
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