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Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים , אלהים) is a Hebrew word which expresses concepts of divinity. It is apparently related to the Hebrew word ēl, though morphologically it consists of the Hebrew word Eloah (אלוה) with a plural suffix. Elohim is the third word in the Hebrew text of Genesis and occurs frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible. Its exact significance is often disputed.

In some cases (e.g. Ex. 3:4 ...Elohim called unto him out of the midst of the bush...), it acts as a singular noun in Hebrew grammar (see next section), and is then generally understood to denote the single God of Israel. In other cases, Elohim acts as an ordinary plural of the word Eloah (אלוה), and refers to the polytheistic notion of multiple gods (for example, Ex. 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.). This may reflect the use of the word "Elohim" found in the late Bronze Age texts of Canaanite Ugarit, where Elohim ('lhm) was found to be a word denoting the entire Canaanite pantheon (the family of El אל, the patriarchal creator god).

In still other cases, the meaning is not clear from the text, but may refer to powerful beings (e.g. Gen. 6:2 the sons of Elohim saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them for wives..., Ex. 4:16 and you [Moses] will be as Elohim to him [Aaron], Ex. 22:28 Thou shalt not curse Elohim, or curse a ruler of your people, where the parallelism suggests that Elohim may refer to human rulers). See Sons of God for more insight into this suggestion.

Hebrew Grammar

Elohim has plural morphological form in Hebrew, but it is used with singular verbs and adjectives in the Hebrew text when the particular meaning of the God of Israel (a singular deity) is traditionally understood. Thus the very first words of the Bible are breshit bara Elohim, where bara ברא is a verb inflected as third person singular masculine perfect. If Elohim were an ordinary plural word, then the plural verb form bar'u בראו would have been used in this sentence instead. Such plural grammatical forms are in fact found in cases where Elohim has semantically plural reference (not referring to the God of Israel).

In most English translations of the Bible (e.g. the King James Version), the letter G in "god" is capitalized in cases where Elohim refers to the God of Israel, but there is no distinction between upper and lower case in the Hebrew text.

Significance in the documentary hypothesis

The choice of word or words for God varies in the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars view these variations as evidence of different source texts, the "documentary hypothesis." According to many proponents of this theory, Elohim is consistently used in texts that reflect the early northern traditions of the Kingdom of Israel, whereas Yahweh ('Jehovah', Latin 'Iéhova') is consistently used in texts that derive from the early southern traditions, of the Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. Biblical scholars have found it useful to distinguish between "E" traditions and "J" traditions, the "Elohist" and the "Yahwist." Elohim is a plural from the same root as singular El and Eloah.


Template:Cleanup-date The etymology of the word Elohim is unknown. There are many theories, however, including the following:

  • Hebraist Joel M. Hoffman (In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language) derives the word from the common Canaanite word elim, with the mater lectionis heh inserted to distinguish the Israelite God from other gods. He argues that elohim thus patterns with Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. (See also Yahweh.)
  • Karel van der Toorn ("Elohim," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD)) repeats the common claim that elohim is the plural of eloah, but D. Pardee, also in DDD, notes the lack of any clear etymology for eloah.
  • Some trace its origin in el or ul which may mean ("to be strong") or possibly ("to be in front"), from which also are derived ayil ("ram", the one in front of the flock) and elah (the prominent "terebinth"); Elohim would then be an expanded plural form of El. (However, Semitic etymologies are actually generally based on triconsonantal roots, which this proposal completely ignores.)
  • Others relate the word (and Eloah, "a god") to alah ("to terrify") or alih ("to be perplexed, afraid; to seek refuge because of fear"). Eloah and Elohim, therefore, would be "He who is the object of fear or reverence," or "He with whom one who is afraid takes refuge".
  • Some Biblical scholars tend to resist making connections with the father god of Ugarit, El, due to the uncertainty of religious links between Canaanite and Israelite religion. Instead they focus on the common Semitic linguistic background of these two cultures. Others find the similarities between texts of Ugarit and the Bible useful evidence of a common tradition.

The form of the word Elohim, with the ending -im, is plural and masculine, but the construction is usually singular, i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective when referring to the Hebrew god, but reverts to its normal plural when used of heathen divinities (Psalms 96:5; 97:7). There are many theories as to why the word is plural:

  • In one view, predominant among anthropomorphic monotheists, the word is plural in order to augment its meaning and form an abstraction meaning "Divine majesty".
  • Among orthodox Trinitarian Christian writers it is sometimes used as evidence for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
  • In another view that is more common among a range of secular scholars, heterodox Christian and Jewish theologians and polytheists, the word's plurality reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue it originally meant "the gods", or the "sons of El," the supreme being. They claim the word may have been singularized by later monotheist priests who sought to replace worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon with their own singular patron god YHWH alone.

A plural noun governing a singular verb may be according to oldest usage. The gods form a heavenly assembly where they act as one. In this context, the Elohim may be a collective plural when the gods act in concert. Compare this to English headquarters, which is plural but governs a singular verb: there are many rooms or quarters, but they all serve one purpose. Thus, it is argued, the meaning of Elohim therefore can mean one god, with many attributes.

The alternative polytheist theory would seem to explain why there are three words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, and eloah. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then be used to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself.

While the words El, Elohim, and eloah are clearly related, with the word El being the stem, some have claimed it is uncertain whether the word Elohim is derived from El through eloah. These people have suggested that the word Elohim is the masculine plural of a feminine noun, used as a singular. This would imply indeterminacy in both number and gender, although, as mentioned above, from Canaanite texts in Ugarit, this is what appears to be intended in this case. However, to many this is speculative and confusing, although consistent with many other Jewish and Christian views of the nature of the Godhead.

Note that contrary to what is sometimes assumed, the word Eloah (אלוה) is quite definitely not feminine in form in the Hebrew language (and does not have feminine grammatical gender in its occurrences in the Bible). This word ends in a furtivum vowel (i.e. short non-syllabic [a] element which is part of a lowering diphthong) followed by a breathily-pronounced final [h] consonant sound — while feminine Hebrew words which end in "ah" have a fully syllabic [a] vowel which is followed by a silent "h" letter (which changes to a [t] sound in the grammatical "construct state" construction, or if suffixes are added). The pronounced [h] (or he mappiq) of Eloah never alternates with a [t] consonant sound (the way that silent feminine "h" does), and the [a] "furtivum" element in Eloah is actually a late feature of masoretic pronunciation traditions, which wouldn't have existed in the pronunciation of Biblical times.

The meaning of Elohim is further complicated by the fact that it is used to describe the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, raised by Saul in 1 Samuel 28:13. The witch of Endor tells Saul that she sees 'gods' (elohim) coming up out of the earth; this seems to indicate that the term was indeed used simply to mean something like 'divine beings' in ancient Israel.

Elohim in Islam

In the context of Islam, some scholars have highlighted that the divine name Allah, used in the Qur'an, has a cognate relationship with the word "Eloah (אלוה)".

Elohim in Mormonism

In Mormonism, the word Elohim (also spelled Eloheim) usually refers specifically to God the Father, as a wholly separate and distinct being from Jesus. Mormons typically refer to Jesus as Jehovah (Yahweh), whom they consider to be the God of the Old Testament. The plural grammatical form of Elohim is generally recognized by Mormons as meaning "the council of the gods" in the creation story, and suggesting the potential for mortal men as children of God the Father to become like him in every way through the mediation of God the Son, i.e. Jesus Christ (see John 17:19-23). This plurality of divine beings and the participation of the premortal spirit children of God in the fulfillment of God's purposes is particularly evident in the creation story as recounted in chapter 4 of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. See also: Godhead (Mormonism), Pearl of Great Price (Mormonism).

Elohim in Raëlianism

Raëlians claim that in 1973, a French journalist named Raël (which is claimed to mean The messenger of the Elohim) was contacted by a visitor (Yahweh) from another planet who informed him, among other things, that the word in question means "those who came from the sky".

See also