Understanding Elohim, the Hebrew word most often translated as “God”

The most common Hebrew word translated as “God” in the Old Testament is the word אלהים (Elohim). This is the plural form of the word elo’ah. If you do a cursory study on this word, you will find that this word is used 2606 times, but it is not always translated as “God.” In fact this very word is translated a variety of different ways.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1, ASV)

And Rachel said, With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed: and she called his name Naphtali. (Genesis 30:8, ASV)

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3, ASV)

Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever. (Exodus 21:6, KJV)

For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. (1 Kings 11:5, ASV)

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalm 8:5, KJV)

The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. (Psalm 80:10, KJV)

So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of Jehovah. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city, of three days’ journey. (Jonah 3:3, ASV)

And did he not make one, although he had the residue of the Spirit? And wherefore one? He sought a godly seed [literally in the Hebrew: seeking the seed of Elohim]. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. (Malachi 2:15, ASV)

In order to fully comprehend the real meaning of the word Elohim we will need to understand its grammar and use within a sentence. The “iym” at the end is a suffix that identifies this noun as a masculine plural and therefore literally means “ones of power and authority.”

In Hebrew, a plural does not have to be more than one though, it can mean a “great one.” Other words associated with this noun will help to identify if the noun is being used in a singular or plural sense. For instance, in Genesis 1:1 the word Elohim is the subject of the verb ברא (bara, usually translated as “create”). Each verb identifies the gender and number of the subject. In the case of the verb baraidentifies the gender as masculine and the number as singular-he created. Therefore, the word Elohim must be understood in a singular sense.

And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-El; because there God [Elohim] was revealed unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother. (Genesis 35:7, ASV)

In this verse the word God is again the Hebrew Elohim, but this time preceded by the definite article ה (ha, meaning “the”) – “the Elohim.”  “The Elohim” is the subject of the verb niglu, which identifies the subject as masculine plural. Therefore the correct translation of this verse is “And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-El; because there the gods were revealed unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.”

So that men shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: Verily there is a God [Elohim] that judgeth in the earth. (Psalm 58:11, ASV)

Because the verb shophtiym (judges) identifies the subject, which is the word Elohim, as masculine plural, this verse should be translated as “So that men shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: Verily there are gods that judgeth in the earth.” When the translators ignore the grammar of the sentence and translate the text according to their theology, they are deceiving the readers and preventing them from seeing what the text actually says.

The plural noun Elohim, when used in a singular sense such as we saw in Genesis 1:1, does not always apply to the Elohim of Israel, it can also be used in a singular sense for a god of another nation such as in the passage below.

Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god [Elohim] giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever Jehovah our God [Elohim] hath dispossessed from before us, them will we possess. (Judges 11:24, ASV)

In Genesis 31 Jacob wrestles with, what is called, a messenger of Elohim. This messenger then tells Jacob “I am the El of Beytel.” Beytel is the name of a city in Canaan and therefore, this messenger is claiming to be the El (mighty one) of that city. In Deuteronomy 33:26 we read, “There is none like the El of Yeshrun.” Yeshrun is a symbolic name for Israel and this El is claiming to be the El of that nation.

The monotheistic view that there is only “one” God forces the reader to assume that every occurrence of “the god of” some city or nation is the same God and prevents us from seeing what the text is actually telling us, there are many gods of different cities and nations. And the translations don’t help either as they are being translated from a monotheistic view as well. But when we remove the veil of the translations and look at the Hebrew text for what it says, we find that there is more than one El.

And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them. (Exodus 6:3, KJV)

This translation supports the monotheistic view that there is only one God, but if we examine the Hebrew for what it says, we find a very different opinion of what God or gods are being identified in this verse.

And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob with the El of Shaddai, and my name is Yahweh, I did not make myself known to them.

The “I” that is speaking is Yahweh and claims to have appeared to Abraham with the El of Shaddai. All of the translations ignore the grammar of the Hebrewb’El shaddai which can only be translated as “in the El of Shaddai” (which contextually does not make sense) or “with the El of Shaddai.” The King James Version actually inserts the words “the name of” in an attempt to “fix” the text. “Shaddai was an Amorite city on the banks of the Euphrates river in Northern Syria and this El who is with Yahweh, is identified as the El of that city. Could this Yahweh and the El of Shaddai be two of the three “men” that “appeared” to Abraham in Genesis 18:2? Most translations use “angel” but the Hebrew word literally means “messenger.” It is pretty clear from the text that Yahweh was one of the three as only two of the men, later identified as messengers in Genesis 19, arrived in Sodom, while Yahweh remained with Abraham.

One thought on “Understanding Elohim, the Hebrew word most often translated as “God”

  1. Pingback: The Ugarit Text and Israel’s Polytheistic Roots | unSpy

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