ELOHIM AND THE PLURAL PASSAGES

by

Daniel Segraves

Symposium on Oneness Pentecostalism

January 11-13, 1996

The first time the word "God" is mentioned in Scripture (Genesis 1:1), it is translated from the Hebrew ELOHIM. This word, which appears 2250 times in the Old Testament, is translated "God" when used in reference to the one true God1, but it is also translated "god" when used in reference to a false god2 or "gods" when referring to a multiplicity of false deities, "god" or "gods" in reference to human beings4, "angels,"5 "judges."6 mighty," in reference to a human prince7 and to thunder8, and "great,": in reference to Rachel's competition with her sister.9

To understand how ELOHIM is used of the true God, it is essential to understand how it can be used in such a variety of ways. ELOHIM is a masculine plural noun. ELOHIM, the singular form of the word, appears 54 times and is also used in reference to both the true God and to false gods. ELOAH is from the Hebrew EL, which appears 226 times. EL signifies strength and power.

The "im" ending on a Hebrew word (as in ELOHIM) makes the word plural, like putting an "s" on the end of many English words. But, unlike the English language, the plural form of a Hebrew word may not signify more than one. Though the Hebrew plural can certainly refer to more than one (and the Hebrew language also has a dual ending, signifying two), the Hebrew also uses plural forms when only one subject is in view, to indicate intensity (something like the "est" ending on some English words), fullness, something that flows, or multiplicity of attributes.

C. L. Seow points out that when ELOHIM is used "as a proper name, or when referring to Israel's God, it is treated as singular. Elsewhere it should be translated as 'gods.'"10 When ELOHIM is used is used of Israel's God, "the form of the noun is plural, but the referent is singular. This is sometimes called 'plural of majesty.'"11 Though ELOHIM is plural, it must be accompanied by plural modifiers and plural verb forms to function as a plural noun. If accompanied by singular modifiers and singular verb forms, it functions as a singular noun.12

ELOHIM can be accurately translated two ways: the singular "God" (or "god") or the plural "gods." If it is translated "gods," and in this case the plural form of the word must not be taken to indicate a plurality of gods, but a plurality of the majestic attributes of the one true God and that He is the supremely powerful one. The plural ending either makes a word plural, meaning more than one, or it makes a singular referent more intense. The latter is the case where Elohim refers to the one true God. Grammatically, then, ELOHIM does not suggest that Israel's God is plural or more than one. If the reason for the plural ending is to indicate more than one, the word must be translated "gods." This is not acceptable to the monotheism of the Old Testament. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 6:4.)

Whenever ELOHIM refers to the one true God, it is always accompanied by singular verbs, although ELOHIM is plural. Whenever ELOHIM refers to more than one false god, it is accompanied by plural verbs. This is significant. Grammatically, when ELOHIM refers to the one true God only, although the word is plural. If the reason ELOHIM is used of the true God is to indicate He is more than one, plural verbs would have to be used.

For example, in the first verse of the Bible, the third person masculine singular verb "created: is used with ELOHIM. Since the verb is singular, it is required that He who did the creating is singular. In this case, the only option left to explain the plural form of ELOHIM is that ELOHIM refers to the fullness and intensity of the many majestic attributes of the one true God.

In Exodus 32:4, where ELOHIM is used of a plurality of false gods, the verb "brought...up out: is third person common plural. The plural verb demands that ELOHIM be referring to more than one false god. Although in this case only one golden calf was made, it apparently represented to the Israelites the worship of cows, considered sacred by the Egyptians. Thus the one calf represented to them more than just itself; it represented the gods of the Egyptians. In Deuteronomy 4:28 a series of third person masculine plural verbs, "see," "hear," "eat," and "smell," are used to describe the inabilities of false gods (ELOHIM) This demonstrates that if the intention of Elohim is to indicate more than one, plural verbs will be used. If the intention of ELOHIM is to indicate only one, singular verbs are used.

It is helpful to note that when the inspired Greek of the New Testament quotes from an Old Testament reference where ELOHIM is used of the one true God, the Greek THEOS (God) is singular. (See Psalm 45:6-7; Hebrews 1:8-9.) When the New Testament quotes an Old Testament reference where ELOHIM refers to people or false gods, the plural form of THEOS is used. (See Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-35 and Exodus 32:1; Acts 7:40.) The Greek languages does not use plurals in the same way as the Hebrew, that is, to indicate intensity, fullness, and plurality of attributes. Since both the Hebrew and the Greek are inspired, if the point of ELOHIM, when used of the true God, was to indicate God is more than one, the Greek would use the plural form of the noun. The fact that the Greek uses the singular THEOS where the Hebrew scriptures use the plural ELOHIM of the true God settles any question as to the singularity of the true God. Indeed, in the example of Psalm 45:6, ELOHIM is used of the Messiah alone. There is only one Messiah, but the plural noun is used to indicate His immeasurable majesty.

All of this helps us to understand the plural "us" in Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; and Isaiah 6:8. Some might suppose that these plural pronouns indicate more than one god or that God is somehow more than one. But the grammar of the passages indicates otherwise.

In Genesis 1:26, ELOHIM (plural) said (third masculine singular), "Let us make13 (first person common plural) man (noun masculine singular) in our image ("image" is a masculine singular noun with a first person common plural suffix), after our likeness ("likeness" is a feminine singular noun with a first person common plural suffix)."

Grammatically, the words, "make," "us" and "our" in this verse cannot refer to Elohim alone, for the verb directly connected with ELOHIM ("said") is singular. The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration means the Bible is inspired, even to its very words, and inspiration extends to every word in the Bible. This means even verb tense and number is inspired. If ELOHIM had intended here to include only Himself in His address, He would have used a singular verb and pronouns. If ELOHIM were more than one, it would be appropriate to use the plural form of "make" and the plural pronouns "us" and "our, " but in that case, the verb "said" would be plural as well.

Thus, the grammar makes clear that when the singular ELOHIM spoke, He included someone else in His statement. The Jewish people, who are of course strictly monotheistic, have long held that in Genesis 1:26 ELOHIM addressed the angels in a courteous consideration for the attendants at His heavenly court when He said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." This is not unreasonable, for Job 38:7 indicates the angels were present at creation, rejoicing in the works of God. Others suppose we should take the plural pronouns, like the plural ELOHIM, as "plural of majesty." Ezra 4:18 is appealed to for support. Here, in response to a letter, King Artaxerxes says, "The letter which ye sent unto us hath been plainly read before me." The letter was to Artaxerxes alone, and in the same breath he uses both a plural and a singular pronoun of himself. Historically, kings of the earth have used plural pronouns of themselves. Perhaps that is the use the Great King makes of a plural verb and plural pronouns in the few verses of Scripture where they appear. But if so, one is left to wonder why, in thousands of cases, ELOHIM uses singular verbs and pronouns of Himself, and why He would use plural verbs and nouns in only four verses in the entire Bible. Why would He not use either singular verbs and pronouns exclusively or plural verbs or pronouns exclusively? The sparse use of plural verbs and pronouns must indicate some specific, limited purpose. The simplest explanation, and the one which agrees with the inspired grammar most closely, is that in these few verses ELOHIM is graciously including others, angelic beings, in His address. Angels did not actually make man, any more than believers today actually work miracles (see John 14:12; Matthew 10:8); God has graciously allowed us to be laborers together with Him (I Corinthians 3:9).Perhaps there is some similarity here to the way God included the angels in His work.

But regardless of the exact meaning of Genesis 1:26, it cannot mean ELOHIM is more than one. In Exodus 20:2, the one God of Israel declared, "I am the LORD your God." The word "LORD" is "YHWH," the third person singular form of the Hebrew verb "to be" (HAYAH). "YHWH" means "He is." Again, a singular word is connected to ELOHIM, which is plural. Grammatically, the meaning of "I am the LORD your God" cannot be, "I am the 'He is gods.'" A singular word cannot have a plural object, unless-in keeping with common Hebrew usage-the point of the plural is to indicate intensity, fullness, or multiplicity of attributes, not plurality of persons or things.

Since every verse leading up to Genesis 1:26 uses singular verbs and pronouns (see the singular pronouns in verses 5 and 10) exclusively of the creative work of God, and a singular verb ("said") in verse 26, the introduction of a plural verb ("make") and plural pronouns ("us" and "our") in verse 26 must signify the fact that the singular God is including others in His address. Since there were no other intelligent beings created up until that time except the angels, His words must have been addressed to them.

Genesis 3:22 has a grammatical construction similar to 1:26. The LORD (third person singular form of YHWH) God (ELOHIM) said (third person masculine singular), "Behold, the man is become as one of us (first person common plural), to know good and evil." Grammatically, the "us" must include someone other than God, for a plural pronoun cannot have a singular antecedent. Again, He must have included the angels in His address; they certainly were aware of matters of good and evil, since Lucifer had rebelled against God prior to this. (See Ezekiel 28:11-16.) The fact that, after His statement "man is become as one of us," God placed cherubim (angels) at the east of the garden of Eden with a flaming sword to prevent men from returning to the garden supports the idea that God used the plural "us" to include angels in His conversation.

The grammar of Genesis 11:6-7 is even more telling. Here, ELOHIM does not appear. Yahweh (translated "LORD"), whose name is the third person singular form of the verb "to be," is recorded as having said (third person masculine singular), "Go to (second person masculine singular), let us go down (first person common plural) and there confound (first person common plural) their language." It is fascinating to note that the word translated "go to" (HAVAH) is an imperative, a command. It is a second person masculine singular imperative, which is understood to mean "YOU (second person singular) go to." It could also be translated "come," as in an imperative command, "YOU come." The understood "you" is singular, not [plural. Grammatically, at this point Yahweh is speaking to another person, giving that person a command. There is nothing here, according to the grammar, to indicate one divine Person is speaking to another. It would seem strange indeed if one divine Person COMMANDED another divine Person to do something. Instead, Yahweh is speaking to someone else. When Yahweh says, "Let us go down," the verb form is first person common plural. Thus, when Yahweh (the one true God whose name is a third person singular verbal form) goes down to confound the language of the people, He is accompanied by someone else. In this case, He was apparently accompanied by only one angel.

This should not be thought strange, for in Genesis 18 Abraham was visited by three "men" (verse 2), one of whom turned out to be the LORD ("Yahweh" [a theophany; God in angel form]) (verses 10, 13-15, 17) and the other two of whom were angels (verse 16; 19:1). If God wishes to be accompanied by angels in any of His activities, that is His prerogative. If He wishes to speak to them, to include them in His activity, He will doubtless use plural words to do so.

The only other case in Scripture where a plural pronoun is used in a way some think implies plurality in God is Isaiah 6:8. Here Isaiah says, "Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send (first person common singular), and who will go for us (first person common plural)?" The plural pronoun "us" cannot have the singular "I" as its antecedent. It seems apparent from the context of Isaiah 6:1-7 that there is a great deal of angelic activity in this vision. Apparently, the one true God is again including the heavenly angelic court in His address. It is significant that only He, God, does the sending, but someone is needed to go on behalf of all heaven's inhabitants. God does not say, 'Whom shall we send," but "Whom shall I send." The angels' concern for God's holiness in the context underscores the fact that Isaiah's mission to backslidden Israel was of interest to them as well as to God. Indeed, the conversation Isaiah heard in verse 8 was apparently the Lord addressing the angels. In Isaiah 6;7, an angel speaks directly to Isaiah. There is no indication in verse 8 that the Lord was speaking directly to him. Instead, the Lord is addressing His heavenly court, and Isaiah volunteers his service. This strengthens the view that in Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7, God is addressing angels.

That God does indeed address His heavenly court is indicated by I Kings 22:19-23. Here, Yahweh is sitting on His throne with all heaven's host (angels) standing on His right and left. Yahweh asks, "Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth- gilead?" Various angels answered in different ways, until one came forth and stood before Yahweh and said, "I will persuade him." Yahweh answered, "Wherewith?" The angel responded, 'I will go forth, and I will be a laying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets." Yahweh answered, "Thou shall persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so."

The grammar of Scripture is inspired. When ELOHIM refers to the one true God, singular verbs and pronouns are used. When the one true God reaches out to include others in His activities, plural verbs and pronouns are used. These do not indicate any plurality of gods or that the true God is more than one. "When [ELOHIM] refers to the God of Israel it is always singular in concept, even though it has a masculine plural ending."14

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • 1. In the first five books of the Bible, ELOHIM is used 682 times. In hundreds of these references, it is to the one true God of Israel.
  • 2. Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 32:39
  • 3. Genesis 31:30, 32; 35:2, 4; Exodus 12:12; 18:11; 20:3, 23; 22:28; 23:13, 24, 32-33; 32:1, 4, 8, 23, 31, 34:15-17; Leviticus 19:4; Numbers 25:2; 33:4; Deuteronomy 4:28; 5:7; 6:14; 7:4, 16, 25; 8:19; 10:17; 11:16, 28; 12:2-3, 30, 31; 13:2, 6-7, 13; 17:3; 18:20; 20:18; 28:14, 36, 64; 29:18, 26; 30:17; 31:16, 18, 20; 32:17, 37.
  • 4. Exodus 7:1; Psalms 82:6.
  • 5. Psalm 8:5.
  • 6. Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9.
  • 7. Genesis 23:6.
  • 8. Exodus 9:28.
  • 9. Genesis 30:8.
  • 10. C. L. Seow, A GRAMMAR FOR BIBLICAL HEBREW (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), p. 19.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Page H. Kelly, BIBLICAL HEBREW: AN INTRODUCTORY GRAMMAR (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1992, p. 32.
  • 13. The word "make" is translated from the Hebrew ASAH ("to make" or "do") as opposed to BARA ("to create"). God allowed the angels to participate in the sense of ASAH, but not in the sense of BARA.
  • 14. Ethelyn Simon, et. al., THE FIRST HEBREW PRIMER FOR ADULTS, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: EKS Publishing Company, 1983), p. 48.