Pastor Raymond Woodward: Elohim and Echad

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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.