HOUSMAIL HM#094 Revised 6 Aug 2002
ELOHIM - The Hebrew Word for God - Singular or Plural?
This paper arose out of a need to explain to my 10 and 12 year old grandchildren how it happens that the most common Hebrew word for "God", (Elohim) can be claimed by Trinitarian theologians to be plural, but is NOT. How can it appear to be plural and yet still be singular?
One of the ongoing effects of the confusion of languages, which invaded the world at the tower of Babel, is that we often find words and concepts which do not obey the normally expected "rules of grammar". We call these "exceptions to the rule". This can be further complicated by differences in "thinking patterns", which exist in different cultures. Sometimes these can be so different that there is no exact "cross cultural equivalent" in other languages.
My own "mother tongue" (Aussie English) is like that. Local Aussie usage can be quite different to the "Queens English". (spoken now only in parts of England). And for English speakers from other countries, sometimes the USA "dialect" can be even more difficult!!
It should not surprise us therefore, to encounter the same sort of problems with Biblical Hebrew!
The Hebrew word we are considering is "Elohim". In the OT it is translated more than 2300 times as "God" (singular) and only about 240 times as "gods" (plural). Same Hebrew spelling -- different meaning!
Normally we would expect that the presence of the suffix "IM" should indicate that the word is PLURAL!
However "Elohim" is different!
"Elohim" can be used as either singular or plural! In the Hebrew OT it is most frequently used with singular verbs and/or pronouns. Scholars call this "plural intensive". But don't be fooled by the word PLURAL. Plural intensive isn't really plural at all ! In Hebrew grammar, it is one of those "scholar's big words" which make things sound more complicated than they really are. In simpler layman's language, all it says is that Elohim looks plural but is being used in a way that actually means singular!
is also sometimes used with plural verbs and pronouns. In those cases it
means plural, and the context clearly refers to something OTHER than the
True God. (Deut 6:4-5).
(However we should also take note that there are just a few places where the immediate context tells us that, in spite of plural verbs and pronouns, Elohim actually does refer to the ONE God of Moses. We must not allow allow these few cases to divert our attention from the the vast majority of other uses of Elohim where it is clearly singular in meaning. In those few cases, translators allow the context to control the translation -- NOT the plural verbs and pronouns. They are recognised as unusual cases of "Plural Intensive", and therefore translated as singular.)
The common mistake made, especially by Trinitarian theologians, is to fail to distinguish between these TWO different uses of "Elohim" just described above. And THAT leads to all sorts of illogical conclusions! (Such as the Trinity, or Oneness, or Arianism)
Although there is no direct equivalent for "plural intensive" in English, we could use "sheep" singular and "sheep" plural, to illustrate the important point that words in English can have identical spelling, but be either singular or plural in meaning. We have no way of knowing which is intended until we read the verb and/or pronoun which accompanies the word. Then we can tell at a glance. i.e.
If we say "the sheep IS in the field", the SINGULAR verb tells us that there is only ONE!
But if we say "the sheep ARE in the field", the PLURAL verb tells us that there is MORE than one.
For simplified practical layman's purposes, that is how it is with the great majority of appearances of ELOHIM in the Hebrew Old Testament.
APPENDIX 1 - ILLOGICAL ABSURDITIES COMMONLY ENCOUNTERED
Trinitarians claim that because the most common Hebrew name of God is "ELOHIM" -- and because the word ends in "IM", it must always be the PLURAL form of "ELOAH" -- and it must therefore mean that God is more than one person! To "explain" this, they often resort to desperate and totally illogical examples.
One of these is water! They say it can be in the form of "water, steam, or ice". Therefore Q.E.D. the Trinity! But how does that even begin to "explain" three co-existent, co-eternal, equally infinite, equally omniscient, and equally all powerful beings, in ONE single essence?
Another is "eggs" -- "shell, yolk, and white". Hey -- you can separate an egg from its shell! And, like poor old Humpty Dumpty in the nursery rhyme, it often finishes up scrambled, uncooked, and never put back together! But -- how does it help to make the Trinity even a remote possibility?
Even more illogical still is the absurdity which they call "compound unity"! (That's the one where the incredibly credulous are invited to scramble their brains with the mathematically preposterous 1+1+1=1!)
If you get too awkward about any of those, they simply retreat behind saying that it is "impossible to understand" -- although of course they still insist that believing this illogical "mystery" is essential for salvation! Alas ..... that doesn't get even close to worshipping God with all our mind ..... does it?
APPENDIX 2 - STATISTICS AND EXAMPLES
STATISTICS - From Strong's and Young's concordances:
Elohim appears in the Hebrew text, about 2600 times.
It is translated as God (Singular, and most often with an upper case "G") 2346 times, and as gods (plural with a lower case "g") 240 times, goddess 2, judges 5, *great 2, *mighty 2,
* Inexact translations, e.g. of a noun by a verb or adjective, of an active by a passive.
EXAMPLES OF SINGULAR USE
Translated With An Upper Case "G":
Always about the ONE LORD of the Shema - THE ONE TRUE GOD who Jesus calls Father. (John 17:3)
Deut 6:4-5 - The Shema -"Hear O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.
That means - The LORD (YHWH)
is ONE (Echad). Our God (elohim) is ONE (Echad).
[Note - Echad is Hebrew for the number ONE. It means exactly what it says -- ONE.
It does not, and cannot ever mean, that God is somehow mysteriously 1+1+1=1!]
This greatest commandment of all, is repeated by Jesus for disciples, in Matt 22:38.
45:21,22 - There is no God (elohim) else beside me; .....
for I am God, (elohim)
and there is none else.
Translated With A Lower Case "g":
Exodus 4:16 and 7:1 - about Moses, speaking as God's representative to Aaron and Pharoah.
About idols - god, goddess
11:33 - Referring to Ashtoreth the goddess (elohim-singular)
of the Zidonians, Chemosh
the god (elohim-singular) of the Moabites, and Milcom the god (elohim-singular)
of the children of Ammon.
EXAMPLES OF PLURAL USE
Translated With A Lower case "g"
About Men -
Psalm 82:6 - The word translated as "gods", is Elohim
Psalm 8:3-4 - The word translated in the KJV as "angels", is Elohim.
About human judges
Exodus 22:8,9 - The word translated in the KJV as "judges", is Elohim - Referring to men appointed as God's human representatives to administer the laws of God
Exodus 34:15,16; Deut 12:30; 1 Kings 11:2; - The word translated as "gods" is "elohim" - Referring to the idols of the nations surrounding Israel.