Genesis and The Use of Elohim

The Hebrew and Lexical Foundation

Genesis 1:1, states: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Here the word for God is ’Elohim, having a plural form as though it meant “gods.” As a Trinitarian, I am biased in wanting this to prove that the Trinity was in writing prior to all other texts, from the beginning. A careful investigation of the actual use of this word in the Jewish Scriptures decisively shows that ’Elohim, while plural in form, is singular in concept. In biblical Hebrew, many singular abstractions are expressed in the plural form, e.g., rachamim, “compassion” (Genesis 43:14, Deuteronomy 13:18); zekunim, “old age” (Genesis 21:2, 37:3, 44:20); n‘urim, “youth” (Isaiah 54:6, Psalms 127:4).

This is not a blow to my trinitarian knowledge or belief but rather my urge to stay true to the text, the meaning, and purpose of God’s written word. This concept of staying true to the text, context, culture, and language is vital to maintaining any true hermeneutic.

And anywhere ’eil denotes holiness [as in a Name of God], [it is] because [it connotes] ‘strength’ [see Proverbs 8:28] and ‘great power’ [Isaiah 40:26]. (Commentator Rashi]”

That is, ’El generally means “God,” and, particularly the God of Israel, because He is the sum of all possible power, but it can also refer to other “powers,” whether symbolic or real, as well (e.g., human authorities, angels, idols). The Scriptures show us that ’Elohim is an honorific title, which expresses the plural of majesty and fullnessF. The underlying reason for the grammatically plural form ’Elohim is to indicate the all-inclusiveness of God’s authority as possessing every conceivable attribute of power.

The use of the plural for such a purpose is not limited merely to ’Elohim, but also applies to other words of profound significance. For instance, Isaiah 19:4 uses ’adonim (“lords”) instead of ’adon (“lord”):

Into the hand of a cruel lord” (literally “lords,” even though referring to one person),1 and Exodus 21:29 reads: “Its owner [literally be‘alav, “its owners”] also shall be put to death.” Thus, we see that the plural of a noun is sometimes used to signify one person, as a mark of honor and distinction or for emphasis.

The first few verses of Genesis simply do not show the plurality of persons of God, this is now how Israel would have received it and there is seemingly no correction on God’s part. If you believe the words are inspired, which you should, then you know Elohim was chosen on purpose to show the theological importance of power, not plurality.

We see something else when looked at from the human authority standpoint. We read in Exodus 22:8: “Both parties shall come before the ’elohim [“judges”], and whom the ’elohim [“judges”] shall condemn, he shall pay double to his neighbor.” However, Jacob wrestles with one being, yet that being is referred to as ’elohim (Genesis 32:31); and the angel that appears to Manoah, the father of Samson, is also referred to as ’elohim (Judges 13:22). Note the words used by the woman in speaking to Saul when, upon seeing Samuel, she exclaims: “I see’elohim coming up out of the earth” (1 Samuel 28:13). Here, ’elohim is followed by the verb in the plural. Yet only a single individual is referred to, as is seen from verse 14: “And he said to her: ‘What is his appearance?’ And she said: ‘An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.’” Thus, even joined to a plural verb the noun may still refer to a single individual.

The context also refers to pagan deities. ’Elohim means “gods” only when the Bible applies this plural word to pagan deities. The pagan Philistines apply the title ’elohim to their god Dagon (Judges 16:23-24, 1 Samuel 5:7). The Moabites, likewise, used the word ’elohim to describe their god Chemosh (Judges 11:24). If trinitarian Christians are correct in their argument that the use of ’Elohim with a singular verb means there are three coeternal, coequal persons in one god, then the same thing must be true for the Philistine god Dagon and the Moabite god Chemosh. They must be respectively a plurality of persons in one god. How else could trinitarians explain the Philistines saying of Dagon: “Our god [’eloheinu] has delivered” (Judges 16:24)? Here, the verb is singular, yet the subject is, literally, “our gods” in the plural. We see further in Judges 11:24: “Will you not possess that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess?” Chemosh is in the singular number, and in apposition with it is ’elohecha (literally “your gods”), which is in the plural number (see also Judges 6:31: “If he [Ba‘al] is a god [’elohim]”).

To further compound this, we see in 1 Kings 18:39 all the assembled Israelites cry out: “Y-H-V-H — He is God [’Elohim]” (1 Kings 18:39) that is to say “YHWH He is the ultimate God, the only God!” again, if you believe in the inspired scriptures, you know this wording is on purpose.

This article hopefully has shown you why context, language and culture all matter when reading a Scripture. The original author and audience intent is key for understanding the truth of God’s word.