Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I mean Elohim is a plural form of God. So the correct translation would be gods.

Now, perhaps the word elohim is followed by singular words and hence the word Elohim must mean plural.

So what? That doesn't change the fact that elohim is plural.

Why isn't 'Bereshit bara Elohim' (Gen 1:1) translated as, "In the beginning gods create"?

Yes I know that it means the words does not match the subject. So what? The words doesn't match the subject in the original text. Shouldn't the translation preserve the grammatical error?

Why not translate the bible as faithfully as possible and let the readers decide themselves what it really mean.

Or is there a translation that translates these nuances exactly as it is in the original texts?

I see that even Young Literal Translation is not literal enough with this.

share|improve this question
>"Shouldn't the translation preserve the grammatical error?" It's not an error. It's the way Hebrew works. To translate it the way you propose would be a failing. Would this also apply to verbs? Biblical Hebrew verbs don't have tense in the way that English verbs do. How would that be shown? – Frank Luke Feb 18 '14 at 22:43
Another thing to consider is that Hebrew word order in a sentence is different than English (so is Greek, but that's another topic). Would that need to be preserved also? That leads to ambiguity in English BUT (and this is important) not in Hebrew. Hebrew grammar tells us things that English does through word order. Hebrew moves words around in the sentence for emphasis. That's not how English works, though, so we put them in English order. The goal of translation is to put the source document into the destination language. That requires more than wooden literalness. – Frank Luke Feb 19 '14 at 15:11
I see. So following a plural word elohim with a singular verb is gramatically correct in hebrew. It just means something special. What does it mean? "Royal we?" – Jim Thio Apr 2 at 14:58
up vote 16 down vote accepted


As pointed out in the original question, the verb or adjective actually tells the reader if a noun should be understood as singular or plural, regardless of what form the word actually takes.

So even though 'elohim is technically the plural form of the noun, because the verbs or adjectives attached to that noun are consistently in the singular, the noun must be understood as referring to a singular subject/object: usually, God.

On the occasions when 'elohim is attached to verbs that are in the plural form, we must understand that as referring to a group: gods.

Using plural-form nouns for singular subjects and objects is not uncommon in Hebrew grammar. Several other nouns are found in the plural form even though they refer to a single subject/object. For example:

  • Shamayim: literally 'heavens', but can refer to 'heaven', e.g. Genesis 1.8
  • Chayim: literally 'lives', but can refer to a single 'life', e.g. Genesis 27.46
  • Panim: literally 'faces', but can refer to a single 'face', e.g. Genesis 43.31
  • Behemoth: plural of behemah, but can refer to an individual animal, e.g. Job 40.15ff

This is comparable to the English word 'news'. The word 'news' is the plural form of 'new', but it is often used with a singular verb. In English, we don't say 'What are the news', we say 'What is the news'.

In his commentary on Genesis, Kissling writes:

The word for "God" here and throughout Genesis 1:1-2:4 is the Hebrew word אֱלֹהִים (ʾĕlōhîm). This is not a personal name like Yahweh, but the generic Hebrew word for God. Although the form appears to be plural (masculine nouns in Hebrew normally form their plurals by adding im) it is usually used with a singular verb or adjective (as throughout this chapter). The plural is probably a plural of majesty or intensification. ... Often in the history of Christian interpretation of the noun ʾĕlōhîm there has been an attempt by those not thoroughly conversant with Hebrew to argue that the plural form of this word implies a plurality in the godhead. ... Unfortunately the grammatical form of a word in Hebrew does not necessarily tell us anything about whether the word should be understood in English as a singular or a plural.1

Accurate, faithful, literal translation goes beyond just translating each individual word by its contextless definition in the dictionary. Accurate, faithful, literal translation takes into account grammar, context, and meaning.

The absolute majority of the time, 'God' is the most accurate, faithful, and literal translation of (singular verb) + 'elohim, because the grammar, context, and meaning of the full sentence requires it.


Before wrapping up, I want to briefly address one comment from the original question, because it is a question of translation philosophy:

Why not translate the bible as faithfully as possible and let the readers decide themselves what it really mean.

Most readers are completely ignorant of Hebrew. They don't know the vocabulary, or the grammar, or even the alphabet. Accurate translation is a scientific process, not a personal decision. If an individual has no knowledge of how biblical Hebrew functions as a language, they have no authority to decide what a word 'really means' against the consensus of the scholarly community.


1 Paul J. Kissling, Genesis, Volume 1, p. 83.

share|improve this answer
And the Hebrew for "water" is also in the plural but translated as singular. My Hebrew I prof used to make a joke about the Hebrew for "face" not being in the singular when referring to that of a person. He said, "So according to the Bible, all people are two faced." – Frank Luke Feb 18 '14 at 19:15
I see. So the pattern of elohim followed by singular words do imply monotheistic claim. Am I correct? – Jim Thio Apr 2 at 15:00

The Hebrew language has numerous words that are grammatically plural but understood as singular.

For example, the word חיים (chaim), meaning "life."

See "The Various Uses of the Plural Form" in Gesenius' Grammar:

share|improve this answer

protected by Susan Jan 5 '15 at 0:52

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.