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Genesis 20:13 (ESV)

And when God caused me to wander


ויהי כאשר התעו אתי אלהימ

Another question asked about the translation of אלהימ (‘elohim) using the singular God. The answers indicated that this is appropriate because adjectives and verbs attached to it are generally singular. However, when a plural verb is used, the answers indicated that a group of gods should be understood. In the verse above, אלהימ (‘elohim) is used with a plural verb.

This question has a bunch of subquestions:

  1. Is “gods” instead of “God” a possible translation?
  2. Is there anything in the text that suggest that singular God is the right translation?
  3. Is it possible that Abraham recognizes the existence of many gods, namely Abimelech's gods?

The gist of this question is that the word elohim here is followed by plural words. While it makes sense to translate elohim followed by singular words as god, elohim followed by plural words imply that the elohim is plural rather than singular.

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Among traditional Jewish Scholars there is a dispute about this verse. Onkelos (the aramaic translator of the Pentateuch) translates the verse to mean "when my people were led astray after gods I was forced to leave my fathers house" (וַהֲוָה כַּד טָעוּ עַמְמַיָּא בָּתַר עוֹבָדֵי יְדֵיהוֹן יָתִי קָרִיב יְיָ לְדַחַלְתֵּהּ מִבֵּית אַבָּא). Other scholars, such as Seforno, similarly understand the verse to be referring to the service of idolatrous gods in Abraham's home which caused him to leave.

On the other hand, Rashi and Ibn Ezra explain the verse to be referring to God singular and the plural to be referring to the multiple times that Abraham was forced to move from place to place.

Finally, I found one scholar, Samuel David Luzzatto, that explains that Abraham was speaking in the terms that he thought would be better understood by his audience. So although Abraham personally understood that all powers in the universe came from one God, he used the plural for an audience that would have otherwise been confused.

All sources are commentaries on this verse.

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Because in it is considered poor grammar not to have subject-verb agreement.

From the text of the Pentateuch and Torah as a whole, it is clear that all occurrences of Elohim (plural) and Yahweh (singular) are discussing the same deity. In verses like Deuteronomy 6:4, Literally, this would translate as "Hear and Obey O Israel, the LORD your Gods are one!" The rules of English and context would dictate that you change the translation to "lord your God is one".

Furthermore, the Old Testament is not just a book for Christians, but also a book for Jews. Since Jews do not believe in the Trinity (largely because of Deuteronomy 6:4) it also makes more sense to translate Elohim singular in all occurrences because God is one. Whichever convention is adopted in situations like Deuteronomy 6:4 and Genesis 1, the convention is always used in all occurrences throughout the Torah for the sake of consistency by translators and textual critics throughout the entire translation process (with the exception of where elohim refers to a group of actual lords, kings, or pagan gods.)

Furthermore, It appears in 20:13 that the diety(s) which are the subject in this verse are Yahweh, not Abimilech's gods based on verse 11. In verse 11, there is no fear of "elohim" on the part of Abimilech and Abraham posits Abimilech may kill his wife because of his deception. Clearly Abimilech would fear his own "elohim," so this can only be Abraham's "elohim" who's power is unknown to Abimilech. Since 20:13 is part of the same speech by Abraham and there was no subject change or mention of any pagan or heathen "elohim", it is clear that the "elohim" in v 13 is the same "elohim" as in v 11 (God.)

Therefore, it might be appropriate to translate this as "Gods", but never "gods". Abraham probably recognizes the existence of Abimilech's gods and that these gods have some power, but they are not the God that Abraham follows or is discussing here and are not as powerful Yahweh.

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You miss the point of the question. In Genesis 20:13, the word elohim is followed by plural words. Hence both the subject and the verbs are plural suggesting plural gods. – Sharen Eayrs Aug 11 '14 at 11:05
But Jim's point is that it is usually not followed by plural words. He is asking if there is any special significance (or different meaning) in the fact that in this particular instance it takes a plural verb. – Colin Fine Sep 9 '15 at 23:27
Deut 6:4 is a very bad example. There is no verb in the subordinate clause, so we have no way (grammatically) of knowing whether to translate "gods" or "God". – fdb Sep 10 '15 at 8:01
That's correct. It's not usually followed by plural words. In fact, the way hebrew gramar works, I heard, is that it is usually followed by a singular word suggesting that the elohim refer to single entity. – Sharen Eayrs Sep 17 '15 at 17:04
That's all well and good, but you are still losing sight of 20:11 which indicates it is the same God because the subject has not changed. We may not have a way of knowing grammatically from v13 alone, but we do have a way of knowing contextually when 13 is viewed in light of 11. – James Shewey Dec 10 '15 at 16:44

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