In yesterday’s article, I examined °E~l (la@) as the basic Semitic word used in the sense of “God” and, in particular, as the name of the chief Creator Deity. Today I will be looking at the related word °E_lœhîm (<yh!ýa$).
Almost certainly this word is related in some way to the more primitive °E~l (°Il[u]); however, the precisely relationship, and the origins of its usage, remain rather uncertain. The simple plural form of °¢l—°¢lîm (<yl!a@)—is rare in the Old Testament (4 times), and only twice is it certainly a plural (in Exod 15:11 and Dan 11:36, cf. Cross pp. 45-46). By comparison, the plural form °§lœhîm (<yh!ýa$) is widely used (more than 2500 times)—both as a literal plural, and in a singular sense for “God” generally, or the Israelite Deity (Yahweh/El) in particular. The somewhat unusual application of this plural form for God definitely requires comment, and will be discussed below. One common theory to explain the form of the word is that the simple plural of a biconsonantal (two-letter) root la, i.e. <yl!a@ has been expanded (with the letter h [h]) to fit the pattern of a triconsonantal (three-letter) root (such as lwa or hla). In other words, the form °¢lîm becomes °§lœhîm. While not without certain difficulties, this is probably as good an explanation as any.
By the time the Old Testament Scriptures were written—i.e., in the period between c. 1200 and 500 B.C.—the plural form °§lœhîm had all but completely replaced the older °¢l as the basic word corresponding to “God” in English. This may not have been so much the case in the early part of the period, as we find vestiges of the older use of °¢l in (the archaic) portions of the Psalms, etc; but, certainly it is true in the later Kingdom period. In the ordinary plural sense, °§lœhîm would be translated straightforwardly as “mighty (one)s”, i.e. gods, when referring to the (divine) powers as understood by the ancient (polytheistic) religions of the time. In this plural sense, it can be used three ways in the Old Testament:
- As “mighty ones” generally, i.e. a descriptive term which could refer either to human or divine beings—Exod 22:7-8; Psalm 82:1, 6, etc
- For divine beings, in the basic sense of supernatural, heavenly beings (i.e. “Angels”) who reside in the heavenly court of God—Psalm 8:6, et al, where it is generally synonymous with the old Semitic expression “sons of God” (b®nê °¢l, or b®nê °¢lîm)
- For (pagan) deities worshiped by the (Canaanite, etc) peoples surrounding Israel (i.e. “other gods”)—cf. Exod 20:3; 23:13; Josh 24:2, etc
More commonly, however, °§lœhîm refers to “God”, that is, to Yahweh/°E~l in Israelite religion. How did this plural word come to be used for the singular “God” in this sense? A completely satisfactory explanation to this question has not yet been offered. There are two which seem to me reasonably plausible:
- As a collective—i.e. “(all) the gods”. This might be a shorthand way of referring to God as the Creator of (all other) divine beings. Note the specific use of °§lœhîm throughout the Creation account in Gen 1:1-2:4, as well as the (apparent) fundamental meaning of the name hwhy (Yahweh) connected with the creation of the heavenly beings (cf. the next article, on “Yahweh”). There may be a rough parallel in Egyptian religion, where the Creator is called by the name Atum (i.e. the “All”). In a monotheistic context, it was a natural development that all other divine names and forms would be seen as embodied in the one true God.
- As an intensive—i.e. “the Mightiest“. This use of the plural is attested in Hebrew, primarily in the Psalms and other poetic passages, as in Psalm 21:7; 68:7; 76:11; Isa 32:18; 40:14, 26, etc. For more examples, cf. GKC §124 e. There is some evidence that, in the earliest strands of Israelite religion, Yahweh/°E~l was emphasized as the “Mightiest” or “Greatest” of all deities or divine beings, and, as such, was the one who should be worshiped. Over time, this would have developed into a more distinct and precise monotheism—i.e. God is the only Mighty One, the only divine Being. Once this monotheistic outlook came to dominate Israelite society completely, it was hardly necessary to qualify God (Yahweh) in this manner, and the “Mightiest” (°E_lœhîm) was simply understood as synonymous with (the one) God.
Probably the second of these two explanations is more likely than the first. To see how the names °E~l and °E_lœhîm were related in early Israelite tradition, we should turn to the formula in Gen 33:20, associated with the altar dedicated by Jacob near the city of Shechem. Here °E~l is identified as the “God” (°E_lœhîm) of Israel—”°E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra°¢l“. In a similar manner, Yahweh (hwhy) is identified as the one (true) God (°E_lœhîm) in the Creation Account of Genesis 1-2. The name °E_lœhîm is used throughout 1:1-2:4a, and Yahweh in chapter 2, but they are joined together in the transitional line 2:4b—”in the day (when) Yahweh °E_lœhîm made the heaven(s) and earth”.
In the New Testament, most of these distinctions have disappeared. When the basic Greek word qeo/$ (theós) is used, which more less corresponds with °§lœhîm, it is assumed that the reference is to the one God, the God of Israel (Yahweh/El), God the Father and Creator. This hardly needed to be explained to Greek-speaking Jews and Christians of the time. The word qeo/$ occurs more than 20 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (but only once in Matthew, at 1:23). It is especially prominent in the Angelic announcement to Mary (5 times in 1:26-37), the hymn of Zechariah (1:64, 68, 78), and the Angelic appearance to the shepherds (2:13-14, 20). Several of these passages will be discussed in the notes.
In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “GKC” = Gesenius-Kautsch-Cowley, i.e. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, edited/expanded by E. Kautsch, 2nd English edition by A. E. Cowley (Oxford University Press: 1910).