The verses in the main question refer to the golden calves of Jeroboam I and Aaron, respectively. The term at issue is elohim. Does the phrase "behold elohim" refer to "the gods" or "God." If the latter, a secondary question is whether the calf was understood by its creators to be the seat of God (as with the golden cherubim in the Temple) or an actual symbol of God. In 1 Kings we read:

So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28)

In the Exodus story it's only one calf but the declaration is virtually identical:

And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)

A related question is whether the "two calves" of Jeroboam refer to two calves at Bethel, or one at Dan and another at Bethel. I presume the latter on the basis of 1 Kings 12:29 - "he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan." But the main question is: was the Golden Calf a symbol of "the gods" or of "the God of Israel"? If the latter, why do the majority of translators insist on "the gods" rather than "God" for elohim?

Among more than 40 translations I've consulted I find only one that renders the Exodus version as "God."

HCSB - He took the gold from their hands, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”

The same holds true for the version in 1 Kings. Only the HCSB translates elohim as "your God."

Update: the above survey searched for God with a capital "G." The singular "god" is used by several other authorities, including NASB, Darby, CEV, EHB, AMP, CEV, GNT, ISV and others. So the singular interpretation is more common that I previously thought.

It seems to me that the story in Exodus involves the improper worship of the God of Israel, not "gods," because the the next verse says:

Aaron... built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

In the case of Jeroboam I, there is a similar reason for "God" rather the "the gods" being the better translation, because he prefaces the unveiling of the golden calves with the statement: "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem." In other words the people had been making their pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship God, and it was simply more convenient for them to worship Him at Bethel. In addition, in the first telling of the story, the sin of Israel does not appear to be idolatry, but worshiping God somewhere other than Jerusalem. In verse 30 we read: "And this thing became a sin, for the people went to the one at Bethel and to the other as far as Dan." It seems they accepted Jeroboam's argument that it was acceptable to worship God closer to home; they were not actually worshiping the calf as God, let alone "the gods."

Because nearly all translators use "the gods" instead of "God" for elohim here, I would like to know what the hermeneutical basis is for "the gods," as well any arguments for "God" that I might have missed.

  • This is much debated and you are likely to attract theological votes to any answer because the Arins will vote down anything that faintly resembles anything other than their dogma, no matter how well researched. The question is much debated even in scholarly circles.
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 23:43
  • I don't understand why people would vote down a well posed question when they can answer it as they want to. I wasn't kidding when I asked to know the hermeneutical basis for "the gods." It seems to me the main reason is 'merely' traditional. Yet the translators are practically unanimous against my understanding here. Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 0:52
  • The situation is simple - I did not suggest that Arians would vote down the question but answers. The semantics here involve the noun Elohim which is grammatically plural. However, because of the strident monotheism of the Jews, the noun, when referring to YHWH is always translated in the singular. In any other circumstance, it should be translated as it reads in the plural, else one robs Hebrew of any way of expressing the plural "gods".
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 1:00
  • 1
    we should avoid a prolonged discussion here but the question the would be why the translators get it "right" in this case and wrong everywhere else. My argument is that its not other dieties but the God of Israel that people are invited to worship here. I'd be interested in how you'd answer it. I'm also bewildered by your use of the term Arians in this context. Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 1:41

2 Answers 2


This one is actually pretty easy to settle grammatically, without appeal to tradition or theology (and I won't attempt to give a theological explanation at all here).

Grammatically, these are unambiguously plural "gods".

So in this verse we see the word אלהיך, which as you have correctly identified, is the word אלהים/"God/gods" (H430), with the possessive ך suffix being added (and replacing the otherwise final letter ם) to denote "your God/gods" instead of just "God/gods".

This word, as you have identified, can be translated as either a singular "God" (referring to the one God named יהוה) or plural "gods" (referring to other gods). This is true both in its base form and with the possessive suffix (we can find undisputed examples of both grammatical forms for both meanings).

The key for distinguishing between these two meanings in a purely textual analysis is to look for surrounding words that grammatically link to it, such as verbs or pronouns, that have either a singular or plural conjugation. We will see the singular forms when referring to יהוה and the plural forms when referring to plural gods.

In this case, in Exodus 32:4 we have the word אלה/"these" (H428) as the beginning of the phrase אלה אלהיך/"these [are] your gods". This is unambiguously plural, as אלה/"these" (H428) is always paired with plural antecedents, is almost always translated as "these", and is defined by Brown-Driver-Briggs as "pronoun plural masculine & feminine; these".

Interestingly in 1 Kings 12:28 we have a different phrase, beginning with the word הנה/"behold" (H2009), which doesn't give us a singular/plural hint as the Exodus verse did. Instead we have the more ambiguous translation of the phrase: הנה אלהיך/"behold your God/gods".

However, when we look to the next phrase in the 1 Kings 12:28, we get a clearly plural verb for the verb translated as "brought you up". That is, we have the word העלוך, which is a conjugated form of עלה/"go up/ascend" (H5927). It is conjugated with:

  • a leading ה which helps mark it as a causative form (which has come to be called "hiphil" or "hifil" by modern grammarians)
  • a trailing ו which displaces the weak ה letter in the root, and in this case marks the verb as having a plural third-person subject (i.e. "they", with the antecedent being the plural "gods")
  • a possessive ך suffix, which in this kind of verb form denotes a pronoun for the object of a transitive verb (i.e. "you", the ones being caused to go up).

Thus, the conjugated verb, examined by itself, literally denotes "they caused you to go up", which is translated more fluidly as "they brought you up".

Note that this same verb form is also present in the Exodus 32:4 phrasing, so we have two plural indicators for that verse, and one plural indicator in 1 Kings 12:28.

Hence, in both verses, the grammar indicates that we should translate as plural "gods".

  • Very good answer. +1.
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 7:05
  • Yes... good answer. +1 but I am not certain it is correct. I was almost ready to accept it, but I just discovered that several more translators than I originally thought use the singular "this is your god." Not being an expert in Biblical Hebrew I cannot just if this is improper. My original survey searched for God with a capital "G." The singular with a small g is results be several translations, including NASB, Darby, CEV, EHB, AMP, CEV, GNT, ISV and others. Also, the story in Kings uses the word "hee-nay" [behold] not "these" or "this." Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 21:34
  • Sorry for slopping typing above... I rarely notice my typos until the 5 min editing deadline has passed.! I can't event tell what I meant to say in one sentence. I think it was that the singular "god" is used by several translations.... Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 21:44
  • "Also, the story in Kings uses the word "hee-nay" [behold] not 'these' or 'this.'" Yes, I mentioned this in my answer, so that plural indicator is only present in the Exodus verse. But both verses have the verb with plural subject for "brought you up" - so we have that unambiguous plural indicator on both verses.
    – retrace
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 22:02

It's a mistake to assume Biblical Hebrew follows English grammar (or even modern Hebrew grammar) when it comes to singular and plural, as there are other uses of the plural form besides counting:

  1. To denote majesty/intensity. This is often called a "majestic" or "excellent" plural, and in academic works, an "intensive" plural. This is often the category into which Elohim falls. For example in Proverbs 1.20: “Wisdom [חָכְמוֹת - plural] cries out in the street”. Wisdom is plural, but this is a plural of excellency and good translations render it singular, as the verb "cries out" is singular. Proverbs 26.1 "A man of strife [מִדְיָנִים - plural]". Habbakuk 2.7 "Become a plunder [לִמְשִׁסּוֹת - plural]". Psalm 45.16 "rejoicing [שְׂמָחֹת - plural] and gladness".

  2. For nouns that do not have a natural number (such as youth, childlessness, etc). In this case, the plural form is used when it has a more natural sound or meter than the singular form. This primarily (but not exclusively) happens in poetry and is sometimes called a poetic, and in academic works, "abstract" plural. For example, Judges 9:27: "made celebration [הִלּוּלִים - plural]" or Gen 37.3 "he was the son of his old age [זְקֻנִים - plural]". Psalm 23.2: "He leads me beside waters of rest [מְנֻחוֹת - plural]". Job 21.30 "day of wrath [עֲבָרוֹת - plural]".

Therefore Hebrew has numeric, abstract, and intensive plurals and there are several steps to distinguish between these1:

(1) First and foremost is the existence or absence of a countable singular sense2 for the noun. If such exists then it is highly probable, though not certain in view of the limitations of data, that a countable plural will also be attested. Contrariwise, should there be no such singular count noun, then a countable plural sense is unlikely, the improbability increasing in proportion to the frequency with which the plural form is attested.

(2) The issue of agreement is also a potential factor. Countable plurals will be adjoined to plural verbs, participles, and adjectives. As concerns intensive and abstract plurals the singular is often found in the agreeing parts of speech. [...] Since plural agreement is also sometimes found with uncountable plurals, this is not an infallible guide. The presence of singular agreement, however, does unquestionably eliminate the possibility of the associated noun being a numerical plural.

(3) It is also worthwhile consulting the testimony of the ancient versions. Again this is no sure guide, but it may provide corroboration alongside other factors. [...]

(4) Modern versions and commentaries, particularly those treating philological issues, may offer some justification for taking a particular form one way or another. [...] Lexicons, which typically distinguish entries according to the various senses, are especially helpful in this respect. For the noun חֶרְפָּה, for instance, we find separately listed the countable sense of “taunt, reproach”, besides the uncountable meaning “shame, disgrace” (Clines 1996:321).

(5) When the term in question appears within a specific grammatical construction, analogous constructions elsewhere can sometimes help determine the nature of a plural. Such uncountable plurals, whether of intensification or abstraction, frequently occur as the governed item in a construct chain. Here the construct term may be “man-of”, “woman-of”, “son-of”, “God-of”, “year-of”, “day-of”, or similar. [...] Often this is best rendered adjectivally in translation. Typical examples of this would be יֶלֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִים (Jer 31:20), “child of delightfulness”, that is, “delightful child”, and שְׁנַת שִׁלּוּמִים (Isa 34:8), “year of recompense”. The frequency of uncountable plurals in such constructions helps in determining the nature of נְקָמוֹת in the phrase אֵל־נְקָמוֹת (Ps 94:1). Since the non-count singular is common, the plural is evidently one of intensification, “vengeance”, rather than the countable “acts of vengeance” or the plural of abstraction.

(6) Lastly, the context may on occasion give some indication as to whether a plural is numerical or not. Here we speak of context very broadly. It could be the general sense derived from the whole statement, or the narrower linguistic environment. With regard to מַעֲדַנִּים (Lam 4:5), for example, the fact that it is to conjoined as direct object to the masculine plural participle “eat” (הָאֹכְלִים) necessitates it being a countable entity, “delicacies”, since an uncountable abstraction, “pleasantness”, obviously cannot be eaten.

We can apply these rules to the examples above.

  • For 1 Kings 12.28
  1. There is a countable sense for gods/god so this will not be an abstract plural
  2. Elohim is adjoined to a plural verb הֶעֱל֖וּ -- "brought up"
  3. Ancient versions - LXX also has plural - θεοί

So this should be translated as "gods".

  • Ex 32.4:
  1. There is a countable sense
  2. Elohim is adjoined to a plural verb, to bring up, הֶעֱל֖וּ - and has a plural demonstrative, אֵ֤לֶּה
  3. Ancient translations also use θεοί

So also plural.

Don't be that person who insists "all the Hebrew translations are wrong/biased, I am the one who understands what this passage says and will give you the real translation". Knowledge of Hebrew and access to a morphologically tagged resource is not a justification to start "fixing" translations. Biblical Hebrew has been studied intensively by experts for thousands of years and there is a wealth of information out there used by professional translators.

This is not to say that there aren't difficult passages or possible textual issues in which there is genuine doubt and thus wide disagreement among major translations, but the cited passages do not fall into this category.

  1. Lunn, Nicholas P. “Differentiating Intensive and Abstract Plural Nouns in Biblical Hebrew.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 42, no. 1 (2016): 81–99.

  2. For example, "childlessness" does not have a countable sense. One does not talk of 1, 2, 3 childlessnesses. But "soldier" has a countable sense, one can count soldiers. Same for child/children.

  • I don't see evidence of a "countable sense" in this text. Can you provide it in your answer.. or let me know if I missed it? Also please note that I discovered several more bibles that use the singular "this is your god"... which I missed when I looked for the singular with a capital G. (see most recent version of the question) I definitely do NOT want to be "that person" -- I have little expertise in biblical Hebrew... sincerely want to learn here on this point. Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 21:40
  • @DanFefferman the countable sense should be obvious - it doesn't make sense for childlessness to have a count, but "child" has a countable sense, namely 2 children, 3 children, 1 child, etc.
    – Robert
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 21:42
  • I'm clearly missing something. elohim is usually translated as God. I'm questioning basis is for it being "gods" in most translations here. If you mean that it COULD be gods I agree. Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 3:29

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