I would appreciate some help and I thank everyone in advance for generously assisting. I don't know Hebrew at all. I'm trying to understand Gen. 31:53. The Names of God translation has this: 53 May the Elohim of Abraham and Nahor—the Elohim of their father—judge between us.”

Adding the Hebrew it would be: May the Elohim (אֱלֹהֵ֨י)of Abraham and Nahor (וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י)—the Elohim (אֱלֹהֵ֖י) of their father—judge between us.”

The Holman has this: The God of Abraham, and the gods of Nahor—the gods of their father—will judge between us.”

The Holman differentiates between singular and plural in the deity of Abraham vs. that of Nahor and Terah, but the Names of God translation uses the one word "Elohim". Is there a differentiation in the Hebrew? How did the Holman come up with that?

1 Answer 1


The words אֱלֹהֵ֨י, וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י and אֱלֹהֵ֖י in Genesis 31:53 are the same noun, elohim in three slightly different forms:

  1. אֱלֹהֵ֨י, elohei is the noun elohim in associative form, "the deity of" with a readers mark indicating a rising tone at the beginning of a clause
  2. וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י, weylohei, is the same as above with the conjunction "and" prefixed, and a readers mark indicating a high penultimate tone before the end of a clause pause tone
  3. אֱלֹהֵ֖י, elohei, is the same as (1) above, but with a readers mark indicating falling tone before a major clause break, an atnachta.

The meaning is "the deity of" or "the gods of", in this context. This is not a name of God, the LORD, as the words are spoken by Lavan, who does not worship God and who has come to recover his idols from Jacob.

In this verse Lavan expresses the sincerity and severity of the oath between himself and Jacob by referring to the gods of Abraham, and the gods of Nahor. The and before "the gods of Nahor" shows that Lavan sees them as being different, though he refers to them in the same breath, making no distinction between them, even though we, the readers, already know by this point in the narrative that there is world of difference between the God of Abraham and the gods of Nahor. It is this lack of distinction that indicates that Lavan is not referring to "The God of Abraham" but rather to "the gods of Abraham". At this point the verse is ironic, causing us to raise an eyebrow. But then Lavan heightens the seriousness by using a common Semitic form of oath, invoking the father - not only the gods of Abraham and Nahor, but their daddy's gods as well! The bathetic humor at this point in the verse is not lost on native Hebrew or Arabic speakers. The text is laughing at Lavan.

The Names of God translation seems to have misunderstood this throughout the verse, used the capitalized transliteration "Elohim", a moniker for God, where the Hebrew says elohei, and also eliding the elohei of Nahor into the elohei of Abraham leaving only two eloheis where the MT has three.

The Holman translation is better but interprets the first אֱלֹהֵ֨י that is associated with Abraham as אֱלֹהֵ֨י in the sense of a name of God, possibly following the classical Jewish interpretation brought by Rashi which, IMHO is a mistake. Indeed, "the God of Abraham" is a common moniker for God, but not in this context where the speaker is Lavan the idol worshiper who does not distinguish between God and gods.

The word elohim, is a plural form that can have either singular or plural meaning in Hebrew, whose meaning in English is best understood as the singular "deity". It can refer either to either

  1. the deity or deities in a general sense that are the object of someones worship
  2. God, the LORD, when the identity of the speaker or the context indicates that this refers to God

When referring to God, Elohim, "the Deity", is a moniker, like "the God of Abraham" or "the Fear of Issac" (see the end of Genesis 31:53), and not a proper name like the tetragrammaton, which is often rendered in English as "the LORD" or YHVH, Jehovah and similar.

In most instances in the OT the context adequately distinguishes between elohim, the deity, and Elohim, the Deity. In some verses it is not clear. My own translation of Genesis 31:53 would be:

"The gods of Abraham and the gods of Nahor, [even] the gods of their fathers will judge between us!", but Jacob swore in the name of the Fear of his father, Isaac.

Note that I change the MT word order slightly, as I believe that the subject of "will judge between us" is the subsequent "the god of their fathers" combined with the the previous "the gods of Abraham and the gods of Nahor". This parsing is consistent with both of the translations quoted in the OP.

  • I notice the way in which you use the word 'Deity' and I agree. The term 'God' in English is often taken to be a personal name, which I regard to be not the case. It is a matter, in my view, of nature; not Person. And 'Deity' would be a better way of making reference to a matter of nature (Deity as distinct from humanity) than the word 'God'. The word 'Deity' in English should be understood as expressing nature, which may be a singular matter or it may be a plural matter, just as (I understand) Hebrew uses the word 'elohim'.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 14, 2017 at 18:02
  • Thank you very much. I appreciate how detailed this was. I would appreciate if you would clarify these issues: 1. It sounds like Laban was saying that the deity of Abraham and the deity of Nahor was the same as the deity of their father. Is that correct? 2. There is nothing in this that makes the word "deity" plural or singular except context, or how we think they meant it. It could be "the god of Abraham and the god of Laban - the god of their father" or it could just as correctly be translated "the gods of Abraham and the gods of Nahor - the gods of their father". Right?
    – user14423
    Dec 15, 2017 at 15:09
  • @Lan Thanks for your comment. I re-wrote extensively to try to answer your questions.
    – user17080
    Dec 16, 2017 at 18:14
  • +1 Thank you for offering your own translation - it makes the most sense. This seems to have bearing on a related question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/8751/… and am curious what your thoughts are on the fear of Isaac. Dec 16, 2017 at 18:51
  • 1
    @RevelationLad I side with the ESV in viewing "The Fear of Isaac" as a true moniker for God, that should be capitalized in translation. I see no alternative, because this is by whom Jacob swears, and who is contrasted with the confusion of gods by whom Lavan swears. It would be problematic in this verse to have Jacob swear by the God of Abraham when Lavan has already referred to the gods of Abraham, so the text uses an alternative moniker. Subsequent phases of the Hebrew language support this, e.g. the hymn of penitence Anenu
    – user17080
    Dec 16, 2017 at 23:03

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