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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.

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  • 8
    >"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
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 22:43
  • 1
    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
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 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?"
    – user4951
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 14:58

6 Answers 6

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There are two reasons:

  1. A mismatch between the plural noun and the singular verb and so God singular created singular is justifiable.
  2. Theology which says "God" cannot be plural; therefore אֱלֹהִ֑ים may only be translated as plural gods, judges, rulers, or angels and never as Gods.

Obviously the second reason becomes the deciding factor from the Second Temple period forward. That is, only after the entire Old Testament has been given and after the people have gone into exile for worshipping other gods, is אֱלֹהִ֑ים understood as never meaning Gods.

And said אֱלֹהִ֑ים, "Let us make man in our image..." Genesis 1:26)

אֱלֹהִ֑ים in verse 26 should be understood as plural because the noun and verb are both plural. If grammar was the determining factor, אֱלֹהִ֑ים would be understood as plural.

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  • Why downvotes? Could it be gramatical error?
    – user4951
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 8:39
  • @user4951 Downvotes are often the result of disagreeing with the theological implications of an answer. The grammar of Genesis 1:26 is not in question, but the implications of “Gods” is. The “elephant in the room” is the belief אֱלֹהִ֑ים can never mean “Gods” regardless of context or grammar. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 17:49
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Answer

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.


Side-Note

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.


Reference

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

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  • 4
    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
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 19:15
  • I see. So the pattern of elohim followed by singular words do imply monotheistic claim. Am I correct?
    – user4951
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 15:00
  • Sometimes translating elohim followed by plural words into angels instead of gods is a bit farther than just translating. It's interpreting.
    – user4951
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 7:11
  • "because the verbs or adjectives attached to that noun are consistently in the singular" - you provided no evidence of that. You also ignore the plural pronoun.
    – Cynthia
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 14:18
  • I provided a blockquote from a source that specifically discusses the Hebrew grammar of the text in question. What he wrote is representative of essentially the whole of scholarship on ancient Hebrew texts. If that isn't enough evidence, I submit every English translations done by professional scholars; they're all operating from this information.
    – user2910
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 20:20
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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: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gesenius%27_Hebrew_Grammar/124

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There is only one heaven immediately apparent to humanity. But the Hebrew expresses it as a plurality. Then, in revelation, it becomes clear that there is more to be understood. There are heavens.

Likewise with the word 'Elohim'.

God created; and the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters; and the Word of God uttered - Let there be light.

And God said 'Let us make . . . .'

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I will quote – preliminarly - an amount of commentators that agree with the presence of a non numerical plural (that is, ‘honorific’, ‘majestic’, and alike) in the Hebrew Bible (bold is mine):

Bruce K. Waltke & Michael Patrick O’Connor: “Most honorific plurals in the Bible involve the God of Israel, and the most common of these is אלהים, used about 2,500 times. When used of the God of Israel, this term usually takes singular agreement, צדיק אלהים, ‘a just God’, Ps 7:10); when used of various gods it takes plural agreement (אחרים אלהים, ‘other gods’, Exod 20:30; cf. Exod 12:12).” [An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 7.43]

George Bush [cited in John Wesley Haley - Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, pages 60-61];

Franz Delitzsch [cited in John Wesley Haley - Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, pages 60-61];

English Standard Version: “Although the Hebrew word for ‘God’, ‘Elohim’ is plural in form (possibly to express majesty), the verb ‘create’ is singular, indicating that God is thought of as one being.” (on Gen 1:1)

Gesenius, Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm [A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament including the Biblical Chaldee, p. 37], and Gesenius, Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm & Kautzsch, Emil [Gesenius‘ Hebrew Grammar, as edited and enlarged by the late E. Kautzsch, pages 398-399]; cited also in John Wesley Haley - Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, pages 60-61];

Ernst Wilhelm Theodor Herrmann Hengstenberg [cited in John Wesley Haley - Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, pages 60-61];

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [II:1265];

NKJV Study Bible (on Gen 1:1, note): “God: this standard Hebrew term for Deity, Elohim, is in the form called the plural or majesty or the plural of intensity. In contrast to the ordinary plural (gods), this plural means ‘the fullness of Deity’ or ‘God―very God.”

Ernst Jenni & Claus Westermann, Theologisches Handwörterbuch zum Alten Testament [pages 136 and following];

NLT – Illustrated Study Bible (on Gen 1:1, note): “The common name for God (Hebrew ‘elohim) emphasizes his grand supremacy. The word ‘elohim is plural, but the verbs used with it are usually singular, reflecting the consistent scriptural proclamation of a single, all-powerful God.”

Paul Joüon & Takamitsu Muraoka [Grammaire de l'Hébreu biblique (§136d), mentioning the ‘plural of excellence or of majesty’];

Marco Sales (La Sacra Bibbia, 1926): “Dio (ebraico ‘Elohim, plurale maestatico dal singolare ‘Eloha […])” [namely: “God (Hebrew ‘Elohim, majestic plural from the singular ‘Eloha […])”]. [on Gen 1:1]

Franz Zorell, regarding אלהים: “In the Holy Scriptures especially the one true God, Jahve, is designated by this word;… ‘Jahve is the [one true] God’ Deu 4:35; 4:39; Jos 22:34; 2Sa 7:28; 1Ki 8:60 etc.”[Lexicon Hebraicum Veteris Testamenti, Rome, 1984, p. 54; the square bracket is author’s].


Moreover, we do not forget the incontrovertible fact that all the translators (the vast majority) who convey Gen 1:1 as “God […]” implicitly assert that the plural factor inside the term אלהים (included in this passage) must be understood as a non numerical, whether they call it ‘majestic’, ‘of excellence’, ‘honorific’, ‘of intensity’, or in other ways.


Granted, other users could quote an amount of other commentators who – engaged in a confrontation - state the opposite of the conclusions above mentioned, namely, that there’s no proof of a majestic plural in the Bible Hebrew text. However, there are other two factors that we must consider.

First Factor – Even if the vast majority of times, related to this controversy at issue, are based on the term אלהים, the Hebrew Bible text contains other terms inside this linguistic expression frame. Read please, the passage of Qoeleth (Ecclesiastes) 12:1: “Remember also thy Creators [בּ֣וֹרְאֶ֔יךָ] in days of thy youth…” (Young). In the whole Bible text we constantly find that who created humankind was a single person, namely, Lord Jehovah (see the comment above by NLT – Illustrated Study Bible).

Why, so, Young translated the Hebrew term (I’ve bracketed) with a plural? Because, that term is grammatically plural. But, since all the Bible context indicates that exists only one Creator, it is evident that - again – we are here faced with another occurrence of a ‘special’, namely, not numerical plural, yes, a majestic/honorific plural. Indeed, the overwhelming numbers of Bible translations take on account this Hebrew peculiarity, translating בּ֣וֹרְאֶ֔יךָ (a technical plural) as ‘Creator’ (a real singular noun)!

Second Factor – In the Bible Hebrew text, the discriminating factor to identify a majestic plural in a given passage, seems to be the grammatical number of the verbal forms involved (if they are present).

Only one Bible example could be enough to grasp this concept. Before to read the following passages we’ve to remember – too - that all the terms אלהים here quoted by me are identical, also regarding the so-called Masoretic ‘vocalization’, so to say אֱלֹהִים.

1 Sam 3:17 (“May God [אֱלֹהִים] do so to you [יעשׂה, 3 sing.; see Davidson 333] and more also…” [ESV]); 1 Kin 2:23 (“God [אֱלֹהִים] do so to me [יעשׂה, 3 sing.; see Davidson 333] and more also…” [ESV]);

to counterbalance with

1 Kin 20:10 (“The gods [אֱלֹהִים] do so to me [יעשׂון, 3 plur.; see Davidson 333] and more also…” [ESV]).

It is clear – in these above examples - how the grammatical numbers (namely, singular or plural) of the related verbal forms (in this cases of the verb עשׂה) have been the key to understand the numerical valency of the term אלהים, that, as I’ve said yet, is the same in all this instances.

Conclusion

So, all the proof seems to indicate that the Hebrew Bible includes some 'non numerical' plural (namely, ‘honorific’, ‘majestic’, and so on), mainly related to the term אלהים (aleim), but sometimes related to different terms.

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  • The "plural of majesty" label is a crutch used by those who are too limited in their understanding to see other options. However, Hebrew is full of nouns that appear plural until their verbs and adjectives are seen to be singular. Heavens, waters, and faces, for example, have no singular form in Hebrew and are always plural. Are these "plurals of majesty" too? Is everyone's face so majestic that we must plural it when speaking? If its verb is plural, the noun is plural; if its verb is singular the noun is singular: simple Hebrew grammar.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 1:33
-1

Plural used as collective

The Hebrew word for Jewish is {יהודי YHUDI}. It is a collective noun derived/related from/with the plural form {יהודים YHUDIM}.

Plural-Singular forms

{לאך LAKh} = task. {מלאך MLAKh} = causative, committed to task. Could mean the adverbial description of committing a person with task. Or presumptively mean the person being committed with task.

Therefore the plural, {מלאכים MLAKhIM} could mean either

  • a collection of commitments of task to one (or more) person
  • multiple/plural agents being committed with any task.

{אכל AKhaL} = eat.

  • {אוכל OKhEL} = active, eat
  • {אוכלים OKhLIM} = plural masc active = many people eating
  • {אכול EkhOL} = passive singular, being eaten = food
  • {אכולים EkhOLIM} = passive plural masc, being eaten by many = food
    • could also mean many types of edibles

{אל EL} = toward/forward

  • {אלוה ELOHa} passive singular masc = being regarded/respected as in the forward/lead

    • with a presumed descriptee, a person who is regarded as in the lead. A leader, god.
  • {אלהים ELOHIM} passive plural masc = receiving plural regards as in the forward/lead.

    • Someone who receives plural amount of respects as being in the lead. G'd.
    • Or, plural number of {אלוה ELOHa}, gods.

{האלהים the ELOHIM} - this phrase, found at least 350 occurrences in the Bible, should be taken to mean "the one who receives plurality of respects as being in the lead".

{יי אלהים YHWH ELOHIM} - also a frequent phrase, should be taken to mean, YHWH who receives plurality of respects as being in the lead.

There are grammatical dynamics in Hebrew, of how plural forms could be used to refer to a singular, collective or multiple entities.

Singular verbs used with {אלוהים ELOHIM}

{אלוהים ELOHIM} when referring to the One G'd is always used with singular-person verbs. E.g.

  • {ויומר אלהים} = so says Elohim.

This is the strongest reinforcement of the "Singular entity passively receiving plural actions" concept.

Plural pronouns used with {אלוהים ELOHIM}

Genesis 1 and 3, is when the singular Elohim theories break down.

  • Gen 1:26 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

    • So says Elohim man be-made in our shadow and our life-force.
  • Genesis 3:22

    • וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם.
    • so says "YHWH who is multiply regarded as leader", thus the man is as one from us, to know good and evil and henceforth consequently will stretch forth his hand to take also from the tree of life and eats and lives forever.

Why are there two cases of plural pronouns of Elohim in Genesis? But yet all the verbs performed by Elohim are singular?

Is there any paleo incidence archaeologically available to us, where plural pronouns are used for singular persons?

Does this mean, G'd being singular, has a cohort of beings that too had the status of humankind made "like Him, in His shadow". So that the plural pronouns actually refer to Him and His cohorts?

Notes:

  • *the biblical Hebrew word {צלם} also/primarily means shadow.
  • {דמות} is derivative/cognate of {דם} blood - as well as considering the prohibition against eating blood because blood is the life-force of an animal.*

  • without allowing any willy-nilly adjustments Gen 3:22 more likely says "the man having been one from us is now contaminated with the knowledge of good vs evil." i.e., G'd Himself rejects perceiving thro the lens of good vs evil. {היה} used just in Gen 3:1 "the serpent having been cunning", not "the serpent has become cunning".

  • Zechariah Sitchin's attempt to use biblical Hebrew to prove his ridiculous UFO gods hypotheses had been done without understanding biblical Hebrew.

  • Also, so-called paleo-linguists supposed the findings of shards and fragments with EL, in pagan regions, simply jumped to conclusion that "EL" must have been the name of a pagan god. That quick and enthusiastic rush by those paleo-linguists to create a god EL out of thin-air is like saying

    • there must have been a king named {מלך MeLeKh} because that word is found in so many regions.

    • So why don't they presume {מלך MeLeKh} as originally name of a particular person, but yet so enthusiastic to presume EL is originally the name of a pagan god?

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    This is dense with misleading or mistaken information, but there's only one outright falsehood that needs addressing: El is mentioned all over Ugaritic texts. And the virgin Anat replied: "Your decree, O El, is wise: Wisdom with ever-life your portion. Your decree: 'Our king's powerful Baal, our ruler, second to none.'" or Then said the virgin Anat: "Ask for life, O Aqhat the Youth. [...] I'll make you count years with Baal, you shall count months with the sons of El." or At El's feet she bows and falls down, prostrates herself and does him honor. El was not a modern invention.
    – user2910
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 15:49
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    @CynthiaAvishegnath Using ad hominem rhetoric is not acceptable on this site. Please keep your remarks focused on the topic, not the people discussing the topic.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 15:10
  • In Sanskrit sa^gsara = mundane Mallay borrowed the word into sengsrta to mean misey. So you decree iwas mortally illegal that Malay changed the meaning, as you believe it is morally irresponsible that Hebrew applied its own grammar amd meaning to EL?
    – Cynthia
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 5:39
  • 2ndly, Ugarit was more primitive than Hebrew. They couldn't come up with a name for their god other than "dear supreme leader". Ancient Israelis aka Jews were culturally more advanced.
    – Cynthia
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 5:43

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