When I was a new Christian the Bible held many fascinating mysteries. I had so many questions and I quickly discovered that the Christian world had many answers. However, I would also come to discover that many answers were simply insufficient. The problem with some questions about the Bible is that the answer is just inaccessible to the common person. This is why most seminaries are required to teach the Biblical languages and most M.Div. programs still require graduates to learn them. A perfect example of such a biblical quandary is the use of the name/title Elohim. What is the purpose of the name Elohim being plural? Is it significant? Is there an etymological reason why a name would be plural?
I recall attending a Bible study sometime about 2002 where this topic came up and there seemed to be a consensus that the plural name for God was some kind of hint at the trinity and the nature of God’s plurality. This type of teaching is common among those who learned how to use a Strong’s Concordance but are not actually familiar with the Hebrew language. I was unconvinced in 2002 because the name YHWH was not a plural. Moreover, the same word, Elohim, was also translated as “gods” in the OT. So it seemed to me that there was some linguistic reason for this plural construction, not a spiritual one. To my surprise, even through Bible college and then seminary I was not fully prepared to solve the mystery. It was not until I studied the history of the Hebrew language and read the primary religious texts from the Proto-Hebrew (pre-Hebrew) and Akkadian cultures that I was able to provide any kind of educated answer. The answer provided in this article is going to reach deep into Canaanite religion and culture and examine a few options for resolving the mystery. Below is a list of options to explain plural construction of God’s name.
- The plural is a form of majesty (similar to the royal “we”)
- An evolution from polytheism to monotheism in Canaanite culture
- Some linguistic function (like an abstraction)
What about the royal we or majestic plural?
It is sometimes suggested that Elohim is an example a royal we. A royal we is a common feature during papal speeches. The general idea behind a royal we is that a king or a superior can refer to a collection of people, subservient to them but including the speaker, by referring to both he and the collective as “we”. This would be akin to a mother or a father speaking for their children through the use of “we”. For example, at a restaurant a parent might say “we will all take waters to drink”, even though the children likely had no say in the matter. With leaders, the use of we shows authority over a group of people. The “we” is used to speak on behalf of those people. Nevertheless, the royal “we” goes back very far in the Christian tradition. Augustine of Hippo believed that Elohim was a form of royal “we” which referred to the trinity. “On the Trinity”. New Advent. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
However, the “we” usage by the pope and others often referred to a singular person. When the pope says “we” it is common for him to really be speaking for himself and not his people. How do we make sense of this? The solution to this quandary is found in a spiritual reality. When the pope say “we” it often means “God and I”. In other words, the other member of the “we” is the Lord. Thus, the pope is referring to himself and his role as mediator for God.
Is this related to the use of Elohim rather than El? I do not believe it is. First, Elohim is a title/name and not a pronoun. The royal “we” speaks in the 1st person (IE. we, us, I, me) whereas Elohim has no personhood. Therefore, it certainly would not fit the mold of a royal we.
Some have suggested that Elohim is a case of a majestic plural and not a royal we. For many these terms are interchangeable but in reality they are not. A royal we specifically refers to a person talking in first person. A majestic plural is a reference in 3rd person. Thus, I could refer to God as Lord and use the plural form of Lord(s). In this case it would qualify as a majestic plural. However, both the majestic plural and the royal we are modern language tools. There are no examples from antiquity of such things. We must avoid pushing modern language functions onto ancient languages.
El and his 70 sons (Polytheism to Monotheism)
One of the more popular answers among academics of the 21st century is that Elohim simply means “gods” but when monotheism took hold in Israel, worship of the gods was changed to worship of “god” (singular). To understand the concept we need to understand the religion of northern Canaan. The ancient northern Canaanites from the Middle Bronze Age worshipped a pantheon of gods. Some of these deities are recognizable by biblical readers. El was the high god and also the father of Ba’al and his sister Anat. His consort was named Asherah. The geography of Canaan is littered with cities named after such deities. Likewise, many Israelites were named after such deities. Some examples are listed below.
- Kiryat Baal[City of Baal]
- Joshua 15:60, 18:14
- Gur/Tur Baal[Dweeling/Mountain of Baal]
- 2 Chronicles 26:7
- Joshua 13:5; 11:17; 12:7
- Numbers 25:3, 5
- Deuteronomy 4:3
- Psalm 106:28
- Hosea 9:10
- Baal Shalishah
- 1 Samuel 9:4
- 2 Kings 4:42
- Kiryat Baal[City of Baal]
- 1 Chronicles 5:5
- Baal Meon
- 1 Chronicles 5:6
- 1 Chronicles 8:34, 9:40
- 1 Chronicles 8:33, 9:39
- 1 Chronicles 14:7
- Genesis 36:38, 39, 1 Chronicles 27:28
- Judges 6:32, 7:1, 8:29, 35, 9:1, 5, 16, 19, 24, 28, 57, 1 Samuel 12:11
- 2 Kings 1:2, 3, 6, 16
- Jeremiah 40:14
- Beth-Anath[house of Anat]
- Joshua 19:38, Judges 1:33
- Anathoth[meaning uncertain but could just be the plural form of Anat]
- 2 Samuel 23:27, 1 Chronicles 6:60, 7:8-9, 11:28, 12:3, Jeremiah 1:1; 29:27; 32:7-9, Nehemiah 7:27 11:32, Ezra 2:23, Joshua 21:18, 1 Kings 2:26, Isaiah 10:30
- Beth-Anath[house of Anat]
- 1 Chronicles 8:30-34, Nehemiah 10:19, Judges 3:31, 5:6
- Shemesh/Shemash [the sun god and also shemesh is Hebrew for “sun”]
- Beth-Shemesh[house of Shemesh]
- Joshua 15:10, 19:22, 38, 21:16, Judges 1:33, 1 Samuel 6:9, 12-20, 1 Kings 4:9, 2 Kings 14:11, 13, 1 Chronicles 6:59, 2 Chronicles 25:21, 23, 28:18
- En Shemesh
- Joshua 15:7, Joshua 18:17
- Ir Shemesh
- Joshua 19:41
- Beth-Shemesh[house of Shemesh]
- Beth-el[house of El]
- El Paran
- Israel [Contends with El/God]
- Too many to list
- El Elohe Israel [Means “El is the God of Israel” name of an alter, not a person]
- Genesis 33:20
- El-yon [God almighty]
- Genesis 14:18–20, 40.17, Psalms 78:35, 97:9, Numbers 24:16, Deuteronomy 32:8, Isaiah 14:13–14, 2 Samuel 22:14
- Toru El [Bull El (Does not appear in most English translations)]
- Deuteronomy 32:8
- Hosea 8:5–6
- El-Shaddai [God of the field or mountain]
- Genesis 17:1, 35:11, Exodus 6:2-3, Ezekiel 10:5, Job 5:17
- Eliphaz [El is pure gold]
- Job Chapters 4-5, 15, 22
- El Olam [God everlasting]
- Gen 21:33, Psalm 90:1-2
- Israel [Contends with El/God]
There are many more examples but the list above is a good demonstration for the point being made. Canaanite religion is pervasive in the geography and even within families of the Old Testament. According to Canaanite religion, El and Asherah had 70 sons who could be collectively referred to as the Elohim or Asherat. In semitic languages like Hebrew the “-im” and “-at/ot” endings indicate a plural construction. These two plural constructions would be Els (plural) or Asherahs (plural) in English. They appear in Ugaritic texts numerous times to refer to children of the El and Asherah. Most references are generic saying “sons of El or Asherah” but some go as far as numbering them as “70 sons of El or Asherah”.
But why would their sons be called Elohim or Asherat? The practice of referring to offspring by their parent’s names is quite common in ancient languages we still use it today. For example, when referring to someones children it would not be uncommon to refer to them as smaller versions of their parents. Before I had a son people asked me if I would be having any little Justins. The idiom is demonstrating that children are essentially genetic copies of their parents. Such idioms are found in the ancient texts discovered in Ugarit during the 1920s.
These 70 sons of El and Asherah were a common feature in Canaanite and Phoenician literature but do they make an appearance in the Bible? We know that Asherah is featured in the Old Testament but we have to look a little deeper to see the 7o sons of God. Perhaps the clearest example comes from Deuteronomy 32. The Old Testament authors spoke of the division of the nations according to the 70 sons.
Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
For the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.
The idea of the 70 sons overseeing the 70 people groups was accepted by the Jewish people of later days also. Targum Pseudo-Johnathan (c. 400 CE earliest) comments on Deuteronomy saying the following:
When the Most High made allotment of the world unto the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations with whom is the revelation to oversee the city, even at that time He established the limits of the nations according to the sum of the number of the seventy souls of Israel who went down into Mizraim.
Like Deuteronomy 32, in the Ugaritic Baal cycle (an extra biblical text) we see also the sons of God having the nations of the earth divided among them. KTU 2 1.4.VI.46 There are a number of english Bibles that do not use the phrase “sons of God” such as the KJV, NIV 1984, NLT, NASB, and a few others. This is because the Masoretic Text (MT) has altered the passage to say sons of Israel rather than sons of God. All of the ancient versions of this passage say “sons of God”. This is attested in the Greek Septuagint (LXX), Qumran fragment, 4QDeut,30, Symmachus, the old Latin MSS, Syro-Hexaplaric manuscript, and Cambr. Or. 929.31. Despite the MT having a strong representation in many of the early Hebrew texts from Qumran, the passages pertaining to the sons of God all read “sons of God” and not sons of Israel. Thus, it appears that the MT scribes adjusted the passage down the road.John Day, Yahweh and he Gods and Goddesses of Canaan: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplemental 265, (2002 Sheffield Academic Press) pp23.
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, we see mention of El and his Elohim as his council.
Who is like Yahweh among the sons of El? In the council of the holy ones, El is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.
Psalm 89 is a special case because it appears to equate Yahweh with El. Certainly, early Israelite religion assimilated the two names. This is best seen in Exodus 6.
God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord [יְהוָֽה]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty,[בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י] but by my name the Lord[יְהוָֽה] I did not make myself fully known to them.
These 70 sons are also referenced in 1 Enoch during a vision of the 70 shepherds over their sheep (the nations). However, they are seen as bad shepherds. In the end they are judged and cast in to the abyss. It is hard to not see this vision in 1 Enoch as a parallel to Psalm 82.
And I saw till those shepherds in their appointed time pastured the sheep and began killing and destroying many in excess of what they had been commanded; and they abandoned those sheep into the hands of the lions.
(1 Enoch 89:65)
Then those seventy shepherds were judged and found guilty; and they were cast into that fiery abyss.
(1 Enoch 90:25)
God (Elohim) presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods” (elohim):
“How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
“The ‘gods’ (elohim) know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
“I said, ‘You are “gods” (elohim);
you are all sons of the Most High.’
But you will die like mere mortals;
you will fall like every other ruler.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.
The passage from Psalm 82 refers to the sons of god as Elohim while simultaneously being called elohim themselves. This type of idiom is not exclusive to the offspring of the deities. It is also used to refer to their idols. The Bible does this repeatedly when it refers to the Ba’als and Asherahs. However, in these instances the text is referring to the idols associated with the deities and not their children.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs
So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the LORD only.
(1 Samuel 7:4)
Obviously there are not multiple Ba’als or multiple Asherah’s. The word is going used to refer to idols created to represent or embody the deity. Thus, as the theory goes the origin of the words “El” and “Elohim” are derivatives of northern Canaanite religion. The theory suggest one of two possibilities for the plural form (Elohim) becoming a reference to a singular god. The first is that the onset of monotheism during the Iron Age in the Levant created a situation in which many sacred texts were edited and compiled in a way that changed references from “the gods” to “the god”. The second is that at a very early date (probably around Abraham’s time) the use of El and Elohim became generalized to refer to god/gods by title, not by name. This is a type of abstraction and it happens rather organically. To give an example of how this kind of abstraction occurs, I will give an example from recent history. For a large portion of my life the word Xerox could both a brand and a verb. If someone asked me to xerox something it was understood that they wanted me to copy something. But Xerox is a brand and not really a verb. Nevertheless, since Xerox was essentially the first company to mass produce copiers, the act of copying became abstracted to xeroxing something. Likewise, the name El eventually became used as a god in general even though it started as a name and not a title or a noun.
This second theory is more compelling for the following reasons. Early Semitic texts from Egypt, Canaan, and Syria all use the plural form referring to singular objects. In fact, some of the Amarna letters from Canaan refer to the Pharaoh as an Elohim. The form also appears in religious and narrative texts. These texts long predate the time period where Israel theoretically transitioned from henotheism to monotheism. This assumes the academic assumption that monotheism was a late development caused by the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. However, if we take the Biblical texts on face value, the switch to monotheism was quite early and can still account for the language adjustment. Proponents of this theory point to remnants still in the Hebrew Bible. For example, in Genesis the creator refers to the gods, saying “we” and “us” rather than “me” or “I”.
Then God said, “Let Us(plural) make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;
Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us(plural), knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”
Come, let Us(plural) go down and there confuse(plural verb) their language
Certainly, more could be made of this particular topic but one must ask the question: who is “us”? When God refers to “us” is he referring to himself and other gods or a sub-category of beings? Monotheistic Christian doctrine would dictate that it’s refrain to God and created beings. However, to abide by such a dictate one must deal with with Genesis 3:23 where God declares that “man has become like one of Us”, after eating from the tree of knowledge. The implied meaning of this passage is that the tree of knowledge has made man the same as whoever Us is. Thus, we have one criterion of “Us” which is that they know good from evil. This requirement seems rather unrestrictive and unlikely that it’s only referring to the supreme deity. Nevertheless, the word “us” indicates that God is not alone so some heavenly being with knowledge of good and evil is being referenced.
Genesis 1:26, however, is more conclusive. When God creates “man” he exclaims that man is to be made in “Our image”. This demands that either multiple gods exist or that the lesser beings are similar enough to God that they are in God’s likeness. However, there is some gray area here. For starters, Psalm 8:5 says “Yet you have made them a little lower than the gods”, which indicates some tiered system where God or gods are on top and then man is below. But could this psalm be referring to “the gods” separate from God? Or is this lumping “the God” with “the gods”? It is not entirely clear.
Nevertheless, an early shift to monotheism fails to take into account the use of this plural construction outside of Israel, even among more dominant cultures. In one Assyrian clay cylinder from the Temple of Sin in Ur (Babylon) King Nabonidus uses the plural form of the god Sin, indicating a collection of deities with Sin as the “godhead”. He also refers to the lesser deities as Sins (plural), just as we see with the Elohim.
that ziggurat had become old and on the ancient foundations which Ur-Nammu and Šulgi his son had built, that ziggurat, as in former times, with bitumen and baked bricks I repaired its damaged parts and for Sin, the lords of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, the king of the gods, the “gods” of the gods, who dwells in the great heavens, the lord of Egišnugal, which is in Ur, my lord, I built anew.
O Sin, my lord “gods”, king of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, “gods” of the gods, who dwells in the great heavens, when you joyfully enter that temple, may good recommendations for Esagila, Ezida. Egišnugal, the temples of your great godhead……
(Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur)
It stands to reason that if non-monotheistic cultures used a plural construction for a singular deity that the plural form might have a linguistic function rather than being an evolutionary shift as a result of monotheism. Certainly, they would not have a reason to make such a shift. If the plural-singular format isn’t an example of a shift to monotheism, then what is it? As noted earlier it is possible that the plural usage derived from some formal use of the name El, but what linguistic function could this have? Today many researchers and scholars have sided with the idea that Elohim is an example of a concrete abstraction.
Elohim As A Concrete Abstraction
In recent years, Joel S. Burnett has put forth the idea that Elohim is an abstraction of the singular form of El. An abstraction would be using a plural to describe a state of being. For example, the Hebrew word for father is “av/ab” but the abstraction of fatherhood is “avot”, the plural form of father. Another example is the Hebrew word zequnim, “elderly” as the abstraction of zaqen, meaning “old”.Joel Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Atlanta, Ga.; Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 7–24. If this theory hold true then we might expect the word Elohim to refer to an abstraction of the name El. Thus, in the proper context Elohim would be translated as “divinity” or even as simply “deity” (the being-ness of a god). This would explain the many times Elohim is used with the definite article as well as why Elohim never occurs as a conjunction with a proper now, such as Isra-el. The combination with the definite article would translate to “the divine” or “the deity”.
This type of abstraction is seen in English many times. Words like “lordship” are constructed using the word “lord” to indicate the status of one that is a lord. We also have words like “holiness” used to refer to a religious leaders as “your/his holiness”, demonstrating a state of being. Another example is the word “success” as a derivative of the verb succeed. Success is essentially used to refer to an object or a state of being, yet the root word was a verb. How we create concrete abstractions in English varies but the ancient Semitic languages had a more precise formula.
If we accept that Elohim is an abstraction, this means that referring to God as Elohim is less about his name being Elohim and more about referring to him as a divine being. If this theory is true we should see this abstraction occurring in other Semitic dialects. As Burnett has documented it appears that we do have many examples of this phenomenon. Not only that but the abstraction should be able to be demonstrated with words other than “gods”. Even more compelling is that the emergence of this feature beings in the northwest Semitic regions like Phoenicia and Lebanon. This is significant because it is the region most affiliated with the cult dedicated to El and his Elohim.
Burnett gives literally dozens of compelling examples of how the plural abstract is used in Hebrew. In the Hebrew Bible we see used to transform the word “virgin/בְּתוּלָ֕ה” to mean “virginity/בְּתוּלִֽים/בְּתוּלֵ֧י”. The Hebrew word for “virgin” is בְּתוּלָ֕ה which is singular and feminine. Examples of this word being used in the abstracted construction can be found in Deuteronomy 22:14-17 and Lev 21:13.
The woman he marries must be a virgin [בִבְתוּלֶ֖יהָ] (Leviticus 21:13)
and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity 1בְּתוּלִֽים]5] then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin בְּתוּלֵ֧י]. 16] Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. 17 Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin[בְּתוּלִ֔ים] .’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.”
In the virginity example, references to “virginity” or the state of being a virgin are constructed using the plural form of the word for virgin. The final reference in Deuteronomy 22:17 leaves no doubt that בְּתוּלִ֔ים is a state of being and not a simple noun. “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin[בְּתוּלִ֔ים]”.Burnett, Reassessment, 22.
Burnett also tracks the specific cases of the abstraction of El (Elohim) outside of the Hebrew language. It appears in nearly all Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Semitic dialects. In one Akkadian letter in the Amarna collection (EA 151) a striking example of the semantic range of the Akkadian plural [DINGIR.MEŠ] is seen in just a single sentence. The singular version of DINGIR.MEŠ is simply DINGIR. What is interesting in this example is that it is clear that the letter is addressing a single person, the Pharaoh. However, the word “my god” is actually plural. In this case it appears to function like an abstraction.
To the king, my Sun-god(DINGIR), my god(DINGIR.MEŠ): Message of Abi-Milku, your servant.William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters, English-language ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 238.
Perhaps even more striking is the use of this abstraction with words not related to gods. The word for “dust” in standard Akkadian is a plural abstraction for obvious reasons. Dust is a collection of particles (EA 233:7, 234:5, 235:6, 241:5). Likewise, EA 5:9 refers to Pharaoh’s house in the plural abstraction form, most likely meaning “dwelling”.Burnett, Reassessment, 19-20 Another example of such an abstraction stands out due to the fact that the sentence would make no sense unless DINGIR.MEŠ is an abstraction, meaning deity.
In your mind, you have an urge to disregard the divine(DINGIR.MEŠ) ordinancesBurnett, Reassessment, 44.
The sentence could be crudely translated as “ordinances of the gods” but the grammar points to an abstraction because DINGIR.MEŠ is not in the genitive form. For those who don’t know what a genitive is, a genitive construction is how we express the word “of” in English. Thus, the sentence must mean “divine ordinances”. Burnett, Reassessment, 44. Much more can be said on this topic since these abstraction are pervasive throughout ancient Levantine texts. For further examples, I highly recommend Burnett’s book on this matter.
Another form of abstraction that one might notice when studying Hebrew comes from the word for temple prostitutes. The title given to them is often “קָדֵ֖שׁ/קְדֵשִׁים” which roughly means “holy ones/one”. One might ask what in the world a temple prostitute has to do with the root word for holy (קָדַשׁ Kadash). Well, the temple was a sacred/holy place and since these people were in service to the holy place, they became know as holy ones. This is a case where the title for something was named after their function. It’s an abstracted title. This can also be applied to how Elohim is used to describe the divine being.
Elim or Elohim?
There are some reading this article that already know ancient Hebrew and are wondering why the plural of El is Elohim and not simply Elim. The answer is that there was some more language evolution at play. As already noted, languages have regional dialects and particular ways of forming words. There are a few instances of Elim in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 15:11, Daniel 11:36, Psalm 29:1 and Psalm 89:7). In Exodus and Daniel the word is used to describe other foreign gods. In the Psalms it is used to describe the heavenly beings surrounding God.
In the ancient Ugaritic texts we see the form Elim (ilm) as the standard plural form. Thus, the phrase “sons of God” appears as “bn ilm” (vowels not represented). So there is a precedent for such a plural construction at least in the ancient texts even if their occurrence is rare in the Hebrew Bible. But Biblical Hebrew is 1,000-1,500 years separated from ancient Ugaritic. Just for comparison, the English of the King James 1611 Bible is only slightly more than 400 years apart from today and certain letters were used completely different. The U and the V were interchangeable for example. In addition, the letter J is represented with an I. In 1611 the I could have a hard or soft sound. The hard sound was similar to the J sound of today…. which is how we got the j. The two sounds were eventually given their own letters and that is why the I/i and J/j appear so similar. In another 500-1,000 years there will be similar adjustments. Nevertheless, this isn’t the full explanation about how Elim became Elohim.
Elah & Eloah
The form Eloah is the 2nd most used plural form of El used in the Hebrew Bible. It occurs 57 times and is exclusively used in Hebrew poetry.ibid, pp 10 In nearly all uses it’s used to represent the name of God and not the generic word translated as God. The word shows up in a few ancient Bible verses but mostly in later post-exilic texts. The relationship with the post-exilic period is explained by the fact that Aramaic was more or less thrust upon the people of the Levant during the westward expansion of the Assyrian and Babylonians. In Aramaic Elah is the pronunciation of El. It is very similar to the Arabic Allah. Given the widespread use of Aramaic among the Semitic speaking peoples, it is no surprise that Elah and Eloah appear in texts referring to El. Note both Elah and Eloah are masculine singular constructions but from varying regions and time periods.
The question should be raised as to whether or not Elohim is a plural of El or a plural of Eloah. It stands to reason that Elohim would be the natural morphology of Eloah. The “ah” suffix assimilating to a single “h” and then adding the standard “im” suffix. If this is true, we should see some progression in the timeline of ancient texts, from Elim to Elohim. The older texts preferring the Elim and the later the Elohim form. We might also see the intermediate and late texts using Eloah for singular references. However, the use of the word Elohim appears to occur much earlier in history than Eloah. Therefore, there is no agreement on whether or not Elohim came from Eloah, El, or Elim.
Elh & Elhm
Another example of the continually changing nature of semitic words exists with he forms Elh (singular) and Elhm (plural). However, this form is rare in extant Ugaritic texts and even less seen in Hebrew. As such it is hard to determine if this is just a regional variant that found its way into the language or if it had a special function. From the few time this construction appears in extant texts it appears as though it’s used as an appellative and not a proper name. Thus, the name of the god El would simply just be “El”. However, references to him as “god” could be done using Elh. As such referring to his sons would be constructed as Elhm. The foremost scholar on this topic, Marvin Pope, suggests that it is possible that Elohim is the plural of Elh as the construction Elhm.ibid, pp 7-8. If true, this would explain the widespread use of Elohim before the rise of Aramaic.
The interesting thing here is that Elhm in the Ugaritic texts does not get used to refer to El. It’s strictly designated to a plurality of gods. So it is possible that the Hebrew culture was the first to use Elhm (Elohim) to refer to a singular deity. Pope suggests that this is a plural of majesty, however, there seems to be little evidence that ancient Hebrew contained such a literary device. For example, Deuteronomy 3:34 refers to both Yahweh and an unnamed foreign god with the same word (Elohim). It seems a bit strange that Yahweh would speak of himself with a majestic plural as well as another deity.
At some early stage, El and Elohim was simply the names for the deities. During the Bronze Age the names were abstracted in the north west Semitic languages. Once abstracted it became much easier to refer generically to god or the gods. Continued usage of the abstraction allowed it to evolve functionally into a simple noun. Thus, one could say “Elohim” while referring to a state of being or a noun. Therefore, Elohim can be translated as “god”, “gods”, “deity”, “divine” and a number of other ways depending on the context of the passage. There is no relation between the plural name and the trinity, nor is there a case of a majestic plural.
Burnett, Joel A., Reassessment of Biblical Elohim. Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Harvard University Press, 1997.
Dever, William G., Did God Have A Wife? Archeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
Gibson, John C. Canaanite Myths and Legends. T. & T. Clark Publishers, Ltd., 1978.
Hadley, Judith M., The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Kapelrud, Arvid Schou. The Violent Goddess: Anat in the Ras Shamra Texts. Oslo: University Press, 1969.
Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Pope, Marvin H. El in The Ugaritic Texts: Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. E. J. Brill, 1955.
Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Wyatt, N. Religious Texts from Ugarit. Sheffield Academic Press, 2003.
|↑1||“On the Trinity”. New Advent. Retrieved 7 February 2014.|
|↑2||KTU 2 1.4.VI.46|
|↑3||John Day, Yahweh and he Gods and Goddesses of Canaan: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplemental 265, (2002 Sheffield Academic Press) pp23.|
|↑4||Joel Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Atlanta, Ga.; Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 7–24.|
|↑5||Burnett, Reassessment, 22.|
|↑6||William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters, English-language ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 238.|
|↑7||Burnett, Reassessment, 19-20|
|↑8||Burnett, Reassessment, 44.|
|↑9||Burnett, Reassessment, 44.|
|↑10||ibid, pp 10|
|↑11||ibid, pp 7-8.|
4 thoughts on “Why Is The Name “Elohim [אֱלֹהִים]” Plural?”
After thi great posting of mind altering comments a drink is fortcoming….or should i say drinks!
I concur that Elohim was and still should be as you conclude: “god”, “gods”, “deity”, and “divine”. However, if we view the Trinity as an expression of the completeness of God and not solely the concrete “Three in One”, then the Trinity fits into the concept of Elohim as an expression of the completeness of God, with Elohim being not limited to the Trinity.
Bottom line: I believe the (later) concept of Trinity fits within the (earlier) concept of Elohim, but Elohim is not solely the Trinity. In mathematical terms where A ⊆ B, we view Trinity ⊆ Elohim.
If you’d accept ideas for further study, I would like to see anything you come up with regarding numbers as concepts/expressions, i.e., 3 (complete), 7 (fully complete), 7 –> 70 (super-complete), 12 (12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Disciples, 12 members of the Qumran council) 42 (“a time, two times, and half a time”), etc.
Rick, if I understand your idea fully, you’re suggesting that the idea of what Elohim means functionally (a generic form of divinity[ies]) overlaps with the idea behind the trinity, namely a plurality of deities? While in a very abstracted way certainly there is no reason why the two concepts should disagree (so yes I think I agree with you), I think the question I was aiming to answer was whether or not the Biblical authors (or God) intended the word to point towards something greater (like a plural nature of God) or if it was merely a word derived naturally from the evolution of a language. I personally think the latter is more plausible and has been sufficiently demonstrated.
As for biblical numerology…..there is certainly a plethora of what I would call numerical mysticism floating around the internet that should be held in check. While it’s quite true that the biblical writers believed certain numbers were unique, I am not sure that God intended the Bible to turn into a secret numerology map XD.
I like your suggestion. I still start a post explaining some of the origins of biblical numerology. I have done extensive research on the matter of the divine 7 and so that one is easy to explain. But I have not gotten around to the others. I will begin work on that.
thanks for reading and commenting.