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Frequently the word Elohim (the Hebrew word for God) is used to assert that God is plural. Naturally, this occurs because the word Elohim is plural in form. In Hebrew the “-im” ending indicates a plural like the “-s” ending in English. However, language is a tricky thing. Sometimes one will come across a word that ends in an “s” but is not plural (like “news”). The same occurs in Hebrew. Even so, rather than make the case myself (since my understanding of Hebrew is very limited), I have found a number of excellent Bible dictionary entries that make the point very well. Please note that most of these entries were written by people who believe in the Trinity, but even so, they do not use the plural form of the word Elohim to make their case.

J. Schneider, “God, Gods, Emmanuel” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Vol. 2, ed. Colin Brown, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), p. 67.

Elohim, though plural in form, is seldom used in the OT as such (i.e. gods). Even a single heathen god can be designated with the plural Elohim (e.g. Jdg. 11:24; 1 Ki. 11:5; 2 Ki. 1:2). In Israel the plural is understood as the plural of fullness; God is the God who really, and in the fullest sense of the word, is God.

Right, so if Yahweh is a plurality then so is Dagon, Chemosh, and Baal since the word Elohim is applied to them as well. So, either all of the gods of antiquity mentioned in the Bible are plural or we have to make an exception for Elohim by saying it is “the plural of fullness” rather than a numerical plural.

A. J. Maclean, “God” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible (one volume edition), ed. by James Hastings, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), p. 299.

Elohim, the ordinary Hebrew name for God, a plural word of doubtful origin and meaning. It is used as an ordinary plural, of heathen gods, or of supernatural beings (1 S 28.13), or even of earthly judges (Ps 82.1, 6, cf. Jn 10.34); but when used of the One God, it takes a singular verb. As so used, it has been thought to be a relic of pre-historic polytheism, but more probably it is a ‘plural of majesty,’ such as is common in Hebrew, or else it denotes the fulness of God.

If we concluded that Elohim is in fact a numerical plural, then we would have to translate it as “Gods.” This would lend to polytheism not trinitarianism.

Gordon H. Clark, “God” in Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Harrison, Bromiley, and Henry, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), pp. 238-239.

The first word for God in the OT is Elohim. It is also the most general and least specific in significance. Thus it would correspond to Theos in Greek and to God or Deity in English. Unlike Jehovah, explained below, Elohim can be used for pagan gods (Gen. 31:30; Ex. 12:12).

Since it is so used and since it is a plural noun, some critics have seen in it an indication of an original polytheism. This theory is not well founded because the singular form Eloah, is poetic and rare. In prose the plural has to be used, whether polytheistically or monotheistically, because there is no other suitable word. Therefore, its use cannot prove an underlying polytheism in biblical religion.

On the other hand, some Christians have explained the plural as an anticipation of the Trinity. But again, without a commonly used singular no one in OT times could have developed trinitarian ideas from the word alone. The plural would suggest polytheism more readily than trinitarianism were it not for hints other than the word itself being used with a singular verb. This is not to say that material in the OT cannot hint at some distinctions within the Godhead

The plural form is better understood as indicating a plenitude of power. Though the etymology is obscure, the word may have come from a root meaning strong.

Did you see that? This is an evangelical dictionary and it says, “no one in OT times could have developed trinitarian ideas from the word alone.” Of course they back pedal a bit to say that the OT does “hint at some distinctions within the Godhead,” but apparently these hints are limited to other things apart from the word Elohim.

F. F. Bruce, “God, Names of” in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. by J. D. Douglas and N. Hillyer, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 429.

Though a plural form, Elohim can be treated as a singular, in which case it means the one supreme deity, and in English versions is rendered ‘God.’ Like its English equivalent, it is, grammatically considered, a common noun, and conveys the notion of all that belongs to the concept of deity, in contrast with man (Nu. 23:19) and other created beings.

The word Elohim when referring to a single God is always translated as a singular in all Bible translations. When Elohim refers to a group of gods it is translated into English as “gods.” In other words, the way one determines how to translate Elohim depends on context and the verb. (In Hebrew the verb contains information about whether it is singular or plural). So, in conclusion, we ask our trinitarian friends to stop using Elohim to support their doctrine. This argument is not compelling and it is not being used by the top trinitarian scholars anymore.

11 Responses to “Elohim: Singular or Plural?”

  1. on 08 May 2008 at 8:56 amRonald

    ELOHIM is also used of Moses in Exodus 7:1. One would wonder, if, ELOHIM means a plurality of persons in God, then, is Moses a plurality of persons?

    Some also like to point to Psalm 45:6 in an effort to prove that Jesus is Yahweh. In this verse, it is supposed that Jesus is prophetically spoken to as ELOHIM. If so, and, if ELOHIM means a plurality of persons in one being, then, according to this line of reasoning, this would Jesus himself a plurality of persons in one being. In Psalm 45:7, another ELOHIM is mentioned who anoints the one mentioned in verse 6. Therefore, if ELOHIM in Psalm 45:7 is the Father, then following the reasoning that would alledge that ELOHIM means a plurality of person, then the Father Himself is a plurality of persons. Again, following the alleged idea that ELOHIM means a plurality of persons, then one plurality of persons anoints another plurality of persons.

    Actually, the plural form of several words in Hebrew, including the word ELOHIM, when used in a singular setting, simply intensifies the meaning, similar to the English superior form (more), or superlative form (most), depending on the context. Many scholars refer to this as the plural instensive usage of a word.

    Christian love,
    Ronald
    http://godandson.reslight.net

  2. on 09 May 2008 at 6:06 amErich Matthew Janzen

    Hi, Sean,

    Excellent post on the word Elohim. I’ve found that people almost seek to disregard their own trinitarian scholars when presented with quotes as these. It is truly amazing how tradition can be so strong in a person.

    I’ve recently listened to your on-air debate with Mr. Dizdar and I have to say that you did a superb job. Anyone who listens can tell that you were well prepared and spoke with simplicity yet at the same time detail. Great job!

    One more point, I was in the local Christian bookstore yesterday and picked up the NASB (update) study Bible. I flipped to Genesis 1:26 and realized that they had the exact same footnote there as the NIV study Bible. I’d heard others remark about this footnote in the NIV, but I wasn’t sure if anyone knew this same footnote was in (at least some) NASB study Bibles.

    Keep up the good work!
    Matthew Janzen

  

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