GOD AND THE GODS: Philologos, in the Forward
has a question from a reader on the Hebrew word elohim
God, Not Gods
May 7, 2004
Harold Nebenzal of Beverly Hills, California has a question "designed to give the rabbis cardiac arrest." It is:
If in Hebrew we say [using the masculine plural ending -im] mayim, 'water,' while in Arabic one says [in the singular] may; and if in Hebrew [again using the plural ending] we say shamayim, 'sky,' while in Arabic [again in the singular] one says sama: does it not follow that elohim, the Hebrew word for God, is the plural of Allah?
I am awaiting your response with trepidation.
Modern scholars, on the other hand, have sought to understand the word elohim as the result of a historical evolution. Originally, in the opinion of the great twentieth-century biblical archeologist William Albright, elohim referred to "the totality of the gods," that is, to the entire pantheon of ancient Canaanite polytheism; gradually, however, as this polytheistic religion was transformed by the biblical Israelites into a monotheistic one, "the totality of the gods" became identified with a single supreme God to which the name elohim continued to apply. Some contemporary Bible translations have chosen to incorporate this view in their interpretations. The new Jewish Publication Society translation of the book of Genesis, for instance, renders the biblical words describing Jacob's wrestling with the angel, Ki sarita im elohim ve'im anashim, as "For you have striven with beings divine and human," under the assumption that elohim in this passage has its old Canaanite meaning of different or many gods.
Mr. Nebenzal can get over his trepidation. Whatever the historical or linguistic explanation for the word elohim, the Bible truly is a monotheistic book.
P.'s linguistic explanation is incomplete. It looks as though the plural-appearing but singular elohim
is constructed from a Hebrew noun-pattern in which the -im
indicates abstractness rather than (the much more common) masculine plural. Compare the abstract noun ne'urim
, "youth." The base noun el
) is reworked into the singular abstract elohim
, "divinity," just as the base noun na'ar
, "young man" is reworked into ne'urim
. If that's correct, the plural noun elohim
, "gods," is a reinterpretation of the singular abstract noun, misunderstanding it as a plural. Maybe the the singular noun eloah
, "God" is just a variant form of el
. (It is linguistically similar to Arabic allah
, but not the same, since it has only one l
.) It could also be a back-formation from the secondarily created plural noun elohim
Convoluted, but often these things are.
Articles from the Forward
have not been showing up lately on Google and I picked up the impression that it had gone subscription-only. If so, they seem to have given up on the idea. I note two other recent essays of interest by Philologos:
"In several recent news reports in the English media, the Jerusalem street 'Emek Refa'im' was referred to as the 'Vale of Ghosts' or 'Valley of Ghosts.'
The Female Divine
Is (the?) Shekhina (Shekinah? Shechinah?) a �she� or an �it�?