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“Elohim” in Biblical Context
by Paul Sumner
The word most often used for God in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim. The word is a topic of frequent theological discussion and defining. But what is often lacking is accurate and detailed information based on the biblical contexts in which the word is found.
The following study is organized into two sections:(A) Summary of Biblical Usage
(B) Eight Biblical Patterns
Extensive detailed information is found in the separate file: "Elohim" in Context: Part 2 (Details). Word surveys are based on: Avraham Even Shoshan, Qonqorkantzyah Hadashah (Jerusalem, 1981) and J.R. Kohlenberger and J.A. Swanson, Hebrew English Concordance to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: 1998).
Section A — Summary of Biblical Usage
In the Hebrew Bible there are four words translated "God": El, Elah, Elo'ah, Elohim.
- "Elohim" is found 2602 times in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh, Old Testament). (It is not used in the Greek New Testament.)
- The word is used for: the true God, false gods, supernatural spirits (angels), and human leaders (kings, judges, the messiah).
- The "–im" ending denotes a plural masculine noun. Most of the time, however, when the noun is used for the true God it has singular masculine verbs. This is contrary to rules of Hebrew grammar.
- When used of the true God, "Elohim" denotes what is called by linguists a plural of majesty, honor, or fullness. That is, he is GOD in the fullest sense of the word. He is "GOD of gods" or literally, "ELOHIM of elohim" (Deut 10:17; Ps 136:2).
- In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), where elohim refers to the true God, the singular theos is used.
Genesis 1:1 Hebrew — "In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth."
Genesis 1:1 Greek — "In the beginning, Theos made the heavens and the earth.
- The New Testament (which is in the same Koiné Greek as the Septuagint) does not have different words for or spellings of "God." That is, no singular or plural forms of theos. When the NT quotes passages from the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Septuagint that contain the word "God," it always has the singular noun.
- The oldest Semitic word meaning "God" is El. Linguists believe its base meaning is strength or power. "El" is the Strong One, or the Deity (God). It occurs 238x in the Bible, and is first used in Genesis 14:18 in the phrase "God Most High" [El Elyon].
The Canaanites called their chief deity El, the Mighty Bull. After the Israelites entered Canaan, they adopted this generic word "El" for their God, though "Elohim" took precedence. In some Canaanite myths, one of El's sons was the notorious Ba'al, the nemesis of the true God throughout much of Israel's history.
In the Bible, El is often combined in proper names: Isra-El; Shmu-El (Samuel); El-ijah; Immanu-El; Jo-El; Dani-El; Beth-El. It's also found in compounds: El Shaddai, El Elyon, El Roi, El Olam.
- Elah is the Aramaic word for "God" used in the Aramaic portions of Daniel and Ezra and one verse in Jeremiah (10:11). Its plural form Elahin is used at least once for the true God (Dan 5:23).
Most English Bibles do not distinguish between the four words for "God." But Joseph Rotherham's Emphasized Bible (1902) used different font faces for each.
- The word Elo'ah is used some 57 times, mostly in the book of Job. It is likely the singular form behind Elohim.
- The generic term Elohim refers to the true "God" (2507x), as well as to "gods," "goddesses," and things divine or mighty. In total, it occurs 2602 times in the HB.
Section B — Eight Biblical Patterns
With a Hebrew Bible and Hebrew concordance [Note 1] in hand, we can discover several patterns that explain the unusual nature of this key word.
The first thing to note is that the phenomenon of pluralizing certain nouns is common in the Bible. Thus, the plural Elohim should be interpreted in light of these language patterns. Here is a summary of what these patterns and realities reveal.
Pattern 1 — The Only or True Elohim
Biblical usage suggests that Elohim reflects a "plural of honor" or "plural of fulness." The plural ending gives greater honor to God. It's like capitalizing the word, instead of printing "god." Or it's analogous to printing GOD or GOD, though Hebrew has no capital and small letters.
The Hebrews believed theirs was the only deity who embodied all definitions of the title God, Deity, Supreme Power. So they amplified the noun. Elohim doesn't mean "Gods" but something like "the Greatest God of all."
Bible usage suggests the plural form of Elohim indicates honor and respect. It's like saying, "God of gods."
Pattern 2 — Other Elohim
About 250 times elohim designates angels (non-human servants of the one God) or foreign, pagan deities. The Bible affirms that many beings exist in the same "elohim class" as the one supreme Elohim. That is, there are supranatural, semi-divine beings other than God. So "elohim" seems to mean simply "Deity" or "deity(ies)." And the term does not, inherently, tell us if they are good or evil.
The first of the Ten Commandments says, "I am YHVH your Elohim . . . you shall have no other elohim in my presence" (Exod 20:2-3). Should "other elohim" be rendered "other gods" or "other God"? The ambiguity is likely intended. Moses says God is "GOD of gods" or literally, "Elohim of elohim" (Deut 10:17).
It's important to notice that in Scripture individual gods and one goddess — such as Dagon, Chemosh, Baal, Ashtoreth — can be called an elohim (1 Sam 5:7; 1 Kgs 11:33; 18:24; 1 Kgs 11:5).
Pattern 3 — The Lord of Lords
The pluralizing impulse extends beyond elohim. Typically, when God is called "Lord" or "Master" (Adon) the word usually occurs as a plural: Adonim or Adonai (the distinctions are discussed in Section C). As with Elohim, God is LORD in the fullest sense of the word: Master of all.
As Deuteronomy 10:17 tells us Elohim is supreme over all elohim, it also says he is "Lord of lords: Adonim of adonim" — whether the lords are divine or human.
Pattern 4 — Other Plural Nouns used of God
Some nouns are occasionally pluralized in the Bible: Holy One (kedoshim), Teacher (morim), Maker (osim), Husband (baalim), Most High (elyonin, Aramaic).
Yet in other passages these words are singular. [See the details in Part 2.] So we assume there were special reasons why a plural form was chosen in specific passages. Careful contextual analysis might provide insights into those reasons.
Who Are Elohim in the Bible?• the true God—Gen 1:1; Isa 2:3; Ps 50:1
• false or foreign gods and goddesses—Exod 20:3; 32:1
• angels (supernatural spirits)—Ps 8:6; 97:7; 138:1
• Samuel's afterlife "shade" or hologram—1 Sam 28:13
• Moses (as God's agent rep)—Exod 4:16; 7:1
• the shoftim (judges-governors)—Exod 21:6; 22:7, 8, 27
• the Messianic king—Ps 45:7
Pattern 5 — Human Elohim
Moses is Elohim to pharaoh because he stands as God's representative in the court of Egypt (Exod 7:1). He is also Elohim to his brother Aaron (Exod 4:16), i.e. in God's place of authority.
The messianic king may be called Elohim in Psalm 45:6: "Your throne, O Elohim, is forever and ever." But the Hebrew can be translated as: "Your throne is Elohim forever and ever" [kisacha elohim olam va'ed].
Isaiah uses the ancient word El in two messianic titles: Immanu-El ("with us is El"; 7:14, 8:8) and El Gibbor ("El is a warrior" or a "Divine warrior"; 9:5).
Pattern 6 — Human Adonim
When "Lord" (adon) is used of individual men in positions of authority, power, or honor, they too are often called an adonim, out of respect. This plural seems to mean "sovereign of all, great lord, honorable master." Abraham, Joseph, David and Elijah are each called an adonim. Even the pharaohs in Genesis are so named.
The royal marriage song — Psalm 45 — directs the bride: "The King will desire your beauty; because he is your adonim, bow down to him" (v. 11, Heb. v. 12).
Pattern 7 — Animals With Mass
In poetic portions of the Bible, certain creatures take on mythically large, menacing dimensions. Behemoth and Leviathan are the most ominous. The word Behemoth is the feminine plural of behemah, the common word for cattle or wild animals. The great multi-headed sea serpent Leviathan is also known as Tanninim or Tannim (plurals; Gen 1:21; Isa 51:9; Ezek 32:2; Ps 74:13; Job 7:12).
Pattern 8 — Multifaceted Objects and Continous Actions
Physical things like "water" or "sky/heaven" or a human "face" are plural in Hebrew because they have several dimensions to them. They aren't static but always moving, always expressive of new, changing facets. There are different kinds of water (mayim) and sky (shamayim). And your face (panim) can convey numerous frames of mind.
Some action nouns, when viewed as a series of activities, are spoken of in plural terms. For example, the words "deliverance" (yeshuah), "parental love" (racham), or "steadfast love" (hesed) at times appear as yeshuot (feminine plural), rachamim, and hasadim. These describe bundles of God's works on behalf of his people.
Summary of Eight Biblical Patterns
These eight pattern categories show us that pluralizing Hebrew nouns extends from Heaven to earth: from God to human beings and the surrounding creation.
In the Bible "God" is the fulness, greatness, or totality of deity. In him reside all the powers and manifestations embodied in the word "God." To call him Elohim emphasizes his supreme stature as deity. He is also supreme Lord (Adonim) over all human creation. But his sovereignty is also personally experienced by a faithful child of his, who can call him "my LORD" (Adonai).
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is known as Elohim in relation to non-Israelites. To his covenant people he further revealed himself through his personal name (YHVH). Then, in the New Testament, he expanded the revelation of his covenant name through his Messiah who wore his name in person.
Elohim in the New Testament?
Because the NT comes to us in first-century Greek, it does not contain the Hebrew word Elohim. Instead it uses the normal Greek word for "God": Theos. (This is also true of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, begun in 250 BCE.)
In the NT theos never occurs as a plural noun when it refers to the God of ancient Israel, the Father of Yeshua of Nazareth, or to Yeshua himself. There was no effort to duplicate the Hebrew pluralizing pattern in Greek.
Likewise, the word "Lord" (Grk, kurios) is always singular when referring to God or to Yeshua. There was no attempt to duplicate the Hebrew Adonim in the NT.
Theological Interpretations of Elohim
Some Christian interpreters have seen in Elohim a multivalent allusion to what they call the "composite," "compound," or "triune" nature of the deity. They believe the plural points to a plurality of divine persons.
But there is no scriptural evidence that the Hebrews conceived of or used the word Elohim to convey an idea of plurality in the Godhead.
Some say the references to "us" and "our" when Elohim speaks in Genesis imply a doctrine of composite unity. But in another study, I propose that the Genesis Plurals have no grammatical or theological relation to the plural Elohim. Rather, the plural pronouns allude to the heavenly council that surrounds Elohim.
The NT View is the Hebrew View
As in the Hebrew Bible, there is no trace in the NT that "God" refers to a Godhead of multiple persons. Typically, the word theos distinguishes the Father from Yeshua, his son.
"There is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Yeshua Messiah" (1 Cor 8:6). "There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Messiah Yeshua" (1 Tim 2:5). The "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" or "God of our fathers" is the Father of Yeshua they have in mind (Acts 3:13; 5:30).
A few times, Yeshua is called "God" (John 1:1; 20:28; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1, etc.). But these verses must be viewed within the overall patterns and message of the New Testament in which Yeshua, as God's Son, Lord, and Messiah, is the Father's representative embodiment. He is "God" because he is God's image (Col 1:15; 1 Cor 11:7). And God's "image" is his Son (as it was on a smaller scale with Adam: Gen 1:26; Luke 3:38, "Adam, the son of God"; 1 Cor 11:7).
to open a new document covering these topics:
(1) Elohim, El, Elah
• Grammar Note
• El is Elohim
• Messiah as Elohim
• A Throne for Messiah?
• Messiah as El
(2) Other Elohim
• Angel Elohim
• Demon Elohim
• Elohim Used for Singular Foreign Gods
• When "Elohim" is not enough honor
(3) The Lord of Lords
• Adon, Adonim, Adonai, Adonai YHVH
(4) Other Plural Nouns Used for God
(5) Human Elohim
(7) Objects & Actions
• Multidimensional, Repeated Activities
(8) NT Concordance Data
John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson. The Hebrew English Concordance to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing, 1998.
G. Lisowsky. Konkordanz Zum Hebraischen alten Testament. 3rd. ed. New York: American Bible Society, 1993.
George V. Wigram, ed. The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament. 5th ed. London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, orig. 1843, 1963.
[Return to footnote marker]
A. B. Davidson. Introductory Hebrew Grammar: Hebrew Syntax. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901, 1981. §16, c: "The plur. of eminence or excellence (majesty) also expresses an intensification of the idea of the sing.; e.g. Elohim, God. . . ."
Paul Jouon. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Trans. T. Muraoka. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1994.
Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt. Basics of Biblical Hebrew: Grammar , 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007.
Bruce Waltke and Michael O'Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990. §7.4.3 "Honorifics and the Like."
Ronald J. Williams. Hebrew Syntax: An Outline. 2nd ed. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1984. He says the Hebrew plural can be used "to indicate respect" (§ 8).
Elohim in Biblical Context: Part 2
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