Genesis 20:13 (ESV)

And when God caused me to wander


ויהי כאשר התעו אתי אלהים

Another question asked about the translation of אלהים (‘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, אלהים (‘elohim) is used with a plural verb.

This question has a bunch of sub questions:

  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.

  • Question why does my book Strongs concordance I remember reading say ELOHIM is a UNI-PLURAL but i can't seem to find this on any online sources always says just plural. – Our Talk Blog Mar 16 at 15:22

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.

  • And, who did S.Luzzatto think Abraham’s (Moses?) ‘audience’ was? – Dave Mar 16 at 17:32
  • @Dave Avimelech and his court. Abraham is talking to Avimelech in this verse. – conceptualinertia Mar 17 at 18:24

I think we have to put a new (but, really, very old) spin on this verse understanding.

J. Chang asked:

"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 answers:

  1. Yes, it is possible, on condition that we define correctly what the term 'gods' suggests.

  2. No, there's not.

  3. This is immaterial, since if even Abraham was a monolatric worshipper surely he did not believe were the Abimelech's gods asking him to leave Ur...

    Maybe, the correct explanation revolves around the fact that the Hebrew word אלהימ sometimes has the meaning of 'divine ones' > 'angels'.

    Albert Barnes [Notes on the Bible] wrote: "The Septuagint indeed translates אלהימ in several instances by [...] angeloi Psa 8:6; Psa 97:7; Psa 138:1." [on Gen 1:1 note]. Also, in the same text (on Psa 8:6 note) " 'Than the angels' - So this is rendered by the Aramaic Paraphrase: by the Septuagint; by the Latin Vulgate; by the Syriac and Arabic; and by the Epistle to the Hebrew Heb 2:7 [...] אלהימ may be applied to angels, or even men, as in Psa 82:1; Psa 97:7; Psa 138:1; Exo 21:6; Exo 22:8-9. The authority [...] of the Aramaic, the Septuagint, the Syriac, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrew, would seem sufficient to show that that meaning may be attached to the word here with propriety, and that somehow that idea was naturally suggested in the passage itself."

    This explanations implies that Abraham aknowledged God's messengers (angels) were used by Him to deliver messages, orders, and other 'words' by the Creator, and, in particular, angels were utilized by God to invite him to leave Ur.

    I think this is the best explanation of this term, inside this peculiar context, but, as usual, I let everyone make up his own mind.

  • The word for messengers is Malak. That is the same word with Arabic malaikat I think – user4951 Apr 16 '19 at 8:21
  • MLAK is the commoner Bible term for 'angel", pointing the role of messenger of G – Saro Fedele Apr 16 '19 at 8:28
  • (continues). Instead, the seldom usage of ALEIM to indicate angels was made to point their powerful and elevated positions, compared to men's relative 'position'. – Saro Fedele Apr 16 '19 at 8:32

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.

  • 2
    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. – user4234 Aug 11 '14 at 11:05
  • 3
    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
  • 1
    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. – user4234 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

It seems that there are a few examples in the OT where Elohim, with reference to the true God, is used with plural verses respectively. The Trinitarian' community will reject the idea that the correct translation is Gods, because one cannot address or make reference to God as Gods, because there is only one God. It is therefore concluded that the translation should be God, where the Hebrew plural equivalent, is treated as a collective singularity (which makes it a singular noun) and call it a plural noun. How would you respond to that conclusion on the part of those who believe in the trinity?

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The question doesn't specify a specific religious viewpoint. Most of the other answers are from an ancient Israelite, Hebrew perspective (and rightly so).

But from a Christian point of view, the answer can be quite different.

The translators of the Revised English Version provide a long and potentially useful discussion of Elohim:

The first verse of the Bible says, “In the beginning God….” The word “God” is translated from the Hebrew word Elohim, and it refers to our one God. However, some Trinitarians teach that since the word Elohim is plural it implies a compound unity when it refers to God.

They describe "Elohim" as a uni-plural noun.

The word Elohim is always found in the plural form and is often called a uni-plural noun. A uni-plural noun is a word that appears in the plural form but is used for singular and plural subjects alike. “Deer” and “fish” are examples of uni-plural nouns in English.

Trinitarians consider themselves monotheistic, and so reject the concept of the three persons being treated as anything but a single God. So, despite the apparent plural nature of the word, they would reject the idea of its being translated into anything other than a singular form.

On the other hand, Binitarians recognize the Son and the Father as two fully separate beings. Together they form a single family or godhead, but they are still two distinct beings, as supported by the use of the plural form Elohim.

This position is further supported by verses such as Genesis 1:26: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ...".

But like Trinitarians, Binitarians would also retain the singular "God" translation when it is referring to the God family. Saying "In the beginning, the gods created ..." would lose the connotation of a singleness of purpose and will.

A quotation from the Binitarianism Wikipedia entry describes this concept:

...there are a fairly consistent linkage and subordination of Jesus to God 'the Father' in these circles, evident even in the Christian texts from the latter decades of the 1st century that are commonly regarded as a very 'high' Christology, such as the Gospel of John and Revelation. This is why I referred to this Jesus-devotion as a "binitarian" form of monotheism: there are two distinguishable figures (God and Jesus), but they are posited in a relation to each other that seems intended to avoid the ditheism of two gods" (Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 2003, pp. 52–53).

  • I am not sure Trinity is already an issue in torah. – user4951 Apr 18 '19 at 13:35
  • You ignore that the verb used in Genesis with the subject אלהים is conjugated with a singular verb. Also when referring to a single god of other nations, the word אלהים is used. I don't think that these nations believed in a triune god. – aefrrs Nov 8 '20 at 3:04

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