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Elohim is a very confusing word in Hebrew for me.

Sometimes it means "God", sometimes it means "gods". Then it can also mean "angel", even though Hebrew has another word for angels, namely mal’ak.

Then scholars do not agree either. Atheist scholars say that elohim always means "gods" or some singular super-god, and Christians often translate as "angels" when the "gods" are many to maintain their mainstream theology. Christians obviously disagree.

And we're supposed to know that from "context" and the verb that follows it.

Okay, so what does the context say on this?

http://biblehub.com/text/genesis/6-4.htm

834 [e] ’ă-šer אֲשֶׁ֨ר when Prt 935 [e] yā-ḇō-’ū יָבֹ֜אוּ came in Verb 1121 [e] bə-nê בְּנֵ֤י the sons Noun 430 [e] hā-’ĕ-lō-hîm הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ of God Noun 413 [e] ’el- אֶל־ unto Prep

’ăšer bənê hā-’ĕlōhîm ’el-

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    While your question is passage specific, a general handling of the underlying question may already have an answer at hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/8395/… – r m Jan 8 '17 at 15:27
  • This question is passage specific. In particular I want to know the reason of translation choice on this exact phrase. – user4951 Jan 8 '17 at 15:37
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    not duplcate. This one ask "who the elohim" is. Basically asking how to apply principles on those other questions on this actual specific passage. – user4951 Jan 11 '17 at 7:58
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A fair assumption

Thus far in Genesis 1-5, elohim has consistently been used to refer to the singular creator 'God'.

In Genesis 1, this is evident by the use of verbs in the singular form, as discussed in this answer to a previous question. In Genesis 2-4, the term elohim is found in tandem with Yahweh, specifying a single deity, 'Yahweh God'. Genesis 5, where elohim is used alone (that is, without the tandem 'Yahweh'), picks up themes and ideas from Genesis 1; it is evident that elohim in this chapter is again the singular creator God.

When we arrive at Genesis 6, I think it is fair for readers to initially assume that ha elohim here is referring to the same singular creator 'God'. The redactor unifying the alternate source traditions in Genesis 1, 2-4, and 5 would certainly have intended as much.

As safe as this assumption would be to make, we want actual evidence, if there is any available.


Intertextuality of Genesis 6.1-4

Genesis 6.1-4 is identified as part of the Yahwist narrative that begins in Genesis 2-4.

In Genesis 2-4, the narrator regularly calls the lone creator deity by the name Yahweh elohim ('Yahweh God'). However, in 3.1-5 the creator is called elohim, without Yahweh. This happens again in Genesis 4.25.

This gives us explicit precedent that even in the Yahwist source, Yahweh elohim may be identified as simply elohim.


'Sons of God' elsewhere

The phrase 'sons of God' appears at other points in the Hebrew bible, with slight variations on the wording.

The variants bene elohim (Deuteronoy 32.8; Job 38.7) and bene elim (Psalms 29.1; 89.7) both translate to 'sons of God'. The variant bene elyon (Psalm 82.6) means 'sons of the Most High'.

The specific phrasing of Genesis 6.1-4, bene ha elohim, is found in Job 1.6 and 2.1. In Job 1-2, we are introduced to the individual supreme God by the name elohim, and he is consistently attached to singular verb forms. In this context, when 'sons of God' is used, elohim is best understood as referring to that individual supreme God who is seen presiding over the sons of God.

Thus the only identical verbal parallel to Genesis 6.1-4 has elohim as a singular deity, not a pantheon.


Cultural backdrop

In Canaanite literature we find use of the phrase bn ʾil. Here, ʾil is the individual deity El, who at one point was identified by the Canaanites as the supreme creator deity, as Yahweh is presented in these early chapters of Genesis.

The story found in Genesis 6.1-4 has no known parallels in Canaanite literature, but the essential equivalency between Ugaritic bn ʾil and Hebrew bene ha elohim (and variants) suggests the ancient Israelites took up the phrase and used it in a similar way.

Hence, the argument of Ronald Hendel, 'The Nephilim Were on the Earth', The Fall of the Angels (Auffarth, Stuckenbruck, eds.), 18:

The implication of divine parentage contained in the phrase "Sons of God" is best regarded as an archaism, derived from the older Canaanite phrase "Sons/Children of El" (bn ʾil), and the concept that the active gods are all, or nearly all, the offspring of the high god El (lit. "God").

In other words, the authors of the Yahwist source, received the phrase, originally about the individual god ʾil, and applied it to their own individual god Yahweh, which they have already identified as elohim throughout the preceding stories found in Genesis 2-4.


Conclusion

The term elohim in this instance almost certainly is meant to be understood in as a singular, i.e. 'God'. The swath of evidence available heavily points in that direction.

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    You said that elohim must be followed with singular verb to mean a singular entity rather than pantheon. What is the verb that follows elohim on Genesis 6:4? None. Just wanting to make sure – user4951 Jan 9 '17 at 18:02
  • I made that point in relation to Genesis 1, not Genesis 6.4. – user2910 Jan 9 '17 at 21:42
  • Ah ya. And you think Genesis 1 is written by the same original source as Genesis 6:4. If from Genesis 6:4 itself, are there any indication that the ha elohim here refer to just one god instead of many gods? is that one god something like maha deva (super god) in hindu? A god that's simply supreme over others? – user4951 Jan 10 '17 at 2:30
  • so the sons of god here are probably like hermes, athena, etc. which are sons of zeus. so ancient israel believe that there are many gods and those "gods" are simply sons of either elohim, el, or elyon? – user4951 Jan 10 '17 at 2:32
  • I don't know where in my answer here you are getting those from. I didn't say any of those things. – user2910 Jan 10 '17 at 5:35
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The short answer:

No-one knows. The best we can do is to lay out the options.

My explanation of this:

Since 6:1-4 looks like a continuous paragraph, I'd suggest bene ha elohim means the same in v4 as in v2.

6.1-2 is a single sentence, so we either read "sons of God" as in contrast to "men" — which would push us to see the bene ha elohim as supernatural beings — or as a subset of "men" in which case we might interpret them as powerful men ("men of god" seems unlikely just because their behaviour doesn't look too godly.)

Reasons for choosing one over the other are based on our beliefs—hopefully founded on some facts—about the author & culture behind Genesis:

If we assumed a very similar culture behind Genesis as the rest of the middle east, then we could go with "sons of gods" or "demigods" which is a english word having the idea, available in Greek, Egyptian, Ugaritic (that's a bit north of Israel), Hurrian (that's further north still), and Mesopotamian (that's heading towards Iraq) of 'offspring of a god and a human' [1]

But if we instead note that there is such a strong divide between the theology of Genesis and of all-other-middle-eastern-theogenies then we might say, "but Genesis describes heavenly beings as just lights in the sky, so the idea of them mating with humans is silly." And that would push us to "powerful men" as a translation.

Perhaps there is some third option better than either of these two. Gordon Wenham's Word commentary on Genesis refers to D. J. A. Clines (JSOT 13 [1979] 35) suggesting a combination of interpretations: the sons of God may be "both divine beings and antediluvian rulers." But I haven't got the Clines article and I'm not sure it's really a third option.

Permit me an aside on your opening sentence:

Consider a hebrew speaker saying, "god is a very confusing word in English for me. Sometimes it means el, sometimes it means elohim, sometimes malach (even though angel also seems to mean malach except for when it means seraph or teraph (even though they also have this word idol for teraph!)), and then there's the phrase 'false god' which also seems to mean elohim just as much as 'god' does…

As an English speaker you probably know when to use 'false god' or 'god' or 'idol'. The only really good way a hebrew speaker can answer the question, "should I translate as el, elohim, teraph or something" is to learn English. There are no simple rules you can give except rules that start with (1) first learn to speak fluent English and (2) learn the complete cultural background of English.

Mastering enough classical Hebrew to confidently translate Genesis is not altogether impossible, but it is a decades-long project.

[1] Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 1

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