Elohim. One or Plural?

by Ibn Anwar


Assalamu'alaikum to the believers and Pax Vobiscum to the non-believers,

Reverend Tony Costa. It is a pleasure to read your thoughts on the Bible. I hope this will be the beginning of more constructive discussions to come. Let us now examine the points that you have mentioned.

The following is my response to Rev. Tony Costa's comments that can be read at http://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/elohim-is-not-always-plural/

Reverend Tony Costa said,

"The Hebrew word "elohim" is a third person masculine plural noun. It is grammatically always plural. It is used of the one true God Yahweh but when it is used of the true God "elohim" is generally followed by the singular verb. For instance Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God ["elohim"; plural noun] created ["bara"; singular].". "Elohim" is also used of false gods in the Old Testament, used of human judges and angels. The context is vital in the use of "elohim". This noun is used of Yahweh more often than the other Hebrew words"el" and "eloah"."


The word we're dealing with is אלהים which is often transliterated as Elohim. Reverend Costa says in the first sentence of his brief thesis that, ""The Hebrew word "elohim" is a third person masculine plural noun."  That is right. The word is a combination of the noun Eloah(אלה)[it is pronounced Eloah due to the vowel markers chataf, segol an chirik) with the pronominal suffix(masculine plural ending) +iym(ם). However, he has made a crucial error in the next sentence where he says, "It is grammatically always plural." It is a scriptural and grammatical fact that whenever the word Elohim refers to God the creator who deserves worship the co-text and context clearly uses 'signals' to make the word singular. What are the 'signals'? Let us examine the first verse of the Bible as a starting point.

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

"bereshit bara' ELOHIM et ha shamayim va et ha erets"

The verb used in the verse is bara' which is a verb inflected in the perfect third person singular which has already been mentioned by Rev. Tony. However, what he failed to mention is that the verb controls the meaning of the subject(elohim). If the word elohim really denotes a plural subject grouped in one(collective noun or uniplural) as Trinitarians would suggest surely it would have used the plural בראו (bar'u). Elohim in verse 1 is understood and translated as singular in all English Bibles because it behaves as a SINGULAR noun(the Elohim is the subject of the verb bara' which is singular). In fact Genesis 1:26 follows the same rule!  The verse says,

"And God(אלהים) said(ויאמר), let us make man in our image..."

The noun elohim is the subject of the singular verb vayomer as a result of which determines the former as singular. What about the part that says "let us make man in our image" which David Berger described as "locus classicus of trinitarian exegesis."?  There are two main ways in which this controversial section of the verse may be approached.

1. The pronouns(us, our) are actually referring to a situation whereby God(alone) intended to create but spoke of it before others(angels)[consultative/cohortative mood]. This is mentioned in The Stone's Edition of the Chumash,

"Targum Yonasan paraphrases: "And God said to the ministering angels who had been created on the second day of Creation of the world,'Let us make Man.'

When Moses wrote the Torah and came to this verse (let us make), which is in the plural and implies that there is more than one Creator, he said: "Sovereign of the Universe! Why do you thus furnish a pretext for heretics to maintain that there is a plurality of divinities?" "Write!" God replied. "Whoever wishes to err will err . Instead, let them learn from their Creator Who created all, yet when He came to create Man He took counsel with the ministering angels"(Midrash)." [1]

Likewise we read in Rabbi Samuel Ben Mier's Commentary on Genesis,

"1.26 Yayyo'mer GOD SAID, to His angels, "LET US MAKE MAN" : So one also finds [God consulting his angels] in the story of Micaiah, the son of Imlah, in Kings(1,22.19-22) and in Isaiah(6.8), "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" and in Job(e.g. 1.6-12)." [2]

A more technical explanation can be seen in the following from the scholar Nehemia Gordon,

From Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar § 75 l, and from Owens' Analytical Key to the Old Testament, with James D. Martin's Davidson's Introductory Hebrew Grammar page 76, it may be seen that the Genesis 1:26 verbal phrase, "Let us make" is, in both Hebrew and English, the Cohortative or Voluntative mood.  This mood appears not understood by commentators to Genesis 1:26; and readers unfamiliar with the grammatical concept of the Cohortative Mood, are referred to the explanation given at the end of this paper. (Could this be due to preconceived notions in the minds of both the translators commentators, and the affected readers?)

Suffice to say that the Cohortative mood is a verbal mood for expressing a command from the 1st person (the speaker) to the 1st person singular or plural.  It is a mood related to the Imperative mood, which is the more common command mood for expressing commands from the 1st person to the 2nd person singular or plural - as in Sit down!, or Present arms!.

In the Cohortative mood found in Genesis 1:26, the singular speaker, God, addresses Himself jointly with those present at the time.  Therefore in Genesis 1:26 God, and those present with Him, jointly make up the plurality expressed by the pronoun ?us' in, "Let us make".

In particular the plurality of ?us' may not be taken to infer plurality to the speaker God, or even to those God spoke to.

It has now been shown in different ways that linguistically there is no justification for inferring from "And God said, Let us make.", that the plurality of ?us' extends back to God.  Rather the Cohortative mood demands that God, as the speaker issuing a command, is singular!  This is also attested to by the singular Hebrew verb for ?said' (And God said) and the singular pronouns and singular verbs in subsequent verses, which refer back to God of Genesis 1:26.

This should help clarify past confusion resulting from ungrammatical and unbiblical claims that the Hebrew ?Elohim' (Strong #430 God) of Genesis 1:26 is a uniplural or is a collective noun or in some other way points to there existing or not existing more than one God Person.  In truth nothing may be concluded from Genesis 1:26 regarding the number of God Persons!

2. The pronouns indicate God's majesty thus they reflect the plural masculine ending -iym suffixed to the subject which itself acts as an intensifier or amplifier to His supremacy or power(el). This phenomenon for Elohim is usually described as the plural of majesty or the majestic plural. Our friend Reverend Costa strongly differs and says,

"It is a categorical fallacy to compare biblical Hebrew with modern usage of languages and their idioms. The ancient Hebrews had no concept of a plurality of majesty. This notion arose much later out of the monarchial system in Western Europe. The Jewish kings did not use the plurality of majesty in their edicts and decrees nor did Yahweh who was believed to be the true King."

I'm afraid if there is something that is categorical it would be Reverend Costa's error. We read in Daniel 2:36,

דנה חלמא ופשרה נאמר קדם־מלכא

"This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king"

The referent for the plural pronoun is the one who is addressing King Nebuchadnezzar and he describes himself as ?we'. Is Daniel a Trinity or a plural of persons? One may resort to quoting Wesley's notes or Jamiesson-Fausset-Brown and other such commentaries that suggest ?we' as referring to Daniel and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah(verse 17). One would be foolish to do so. In verse 19 it clearly says that Daniel(no one else) was given the vision. Verse 24 says that Daniel went to Arioch without mentioning any of his friends. The following verse(25) then says that Arioch "quickly brought" Daniel to the King and in verse 26 the King addresses Daniel as one individual saying, "Are you able to tell me the dream that I have seen and it interpretation?" Daniel then goes on to tell him about  the King's dreams until verse 35. After that he(alone) says in verse 36, "This was the dream, now we will tell the king its interpretation." Clearly it was Daniel that the "we" refers to.

Similar examples can be seen in 2 Chronicles 18:5 and Ezra 4:18.

The scholar Hyndman says regarding Genesis 1:26,

"The true explanation of this verse is to be found in the practice which has prevailed in all nations with which we are acquainted, of persons speaking of themselves in the plural number. "Given at our palace," "It is our pleasure," are common expressions of kings in their proclamations."

Hyndman's view is shared by Morgridge and others. One can only honestly choose between the two options presented so as to not contradict the fact that Elohim in verse 26 is only one being with no multiplicity whatsoever as we have discussed and will continue to do so throughout this article. Either way the Trinitarian lose. It is noteworthy that Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar disagrees with the second option and opts for the first which is described in the book as "plural of self-deliberation" . [3]

Let us repeat what Rev. Tony Costa claimed, "It is a categorical fallacy to compare biblical Hebrew with modern usage of languages and their idioms. The ancient Hebrews had no concept of a plurality of majesty."

The Theological Workbook of the Old Testament says,

This word [elohim], which is generally viewed as the plural of eloah [Strong's #433], is found far more frequently in Scripture than either el or eloah for the true God. The plural ending is usually described as a plural of majesty and not intended as a true plural when used of God. This is seen in the fact that the noun elohim is consistently used with singular verb forms and with adjectives and pronouns in the singular. [4]

The New International Version Study Bible tells us,

"God created. The Hebrew noun Elohim is plural but the verb is singular, a normal usage in the OT when reference is to the one true God. This use of the plural expresses intensification rather than number and has been called the plural of majesty, or of potentiality." [5]

Mercer Dictionary of the Bible states,

"The plural Elohim is used frequently, a phenomenon sometimes called the majestic plural. Although the form is plural the one referred to or who is speaking is singular." [6]

The New Catholic Encyclopedia states,

"The Divine name ('Elohim) most frequently used in the Old Testament, a plural form of Eloah, which appears only in poetical books (34 of the 57 times in Job alone). The form Elohim, when used of the God of Israel, is a plural of majesty, signifying the one God who embodies in Himself all the qualities of divinity, and is almost always accompanied by singular verbs and adjectives." [7]

HarperCollins' Bible Dictionary says,

"Elohim is one of the three common generic names for God in the OT, occuring almost 2600 times. The term is a plural, probably of El or Eloah, hebrew words for "god", and on occassions means "gods" (e.g. Exod. 20:3). Most often it is a plural of majesty for israel's "God" (e.g. , Gen. 1:1) and thus is translated in the singular." [8]

In fact many other scholars agree with the above [9].

Rev. Tony Costa claimed that, "This notion arose much later out of the monarchial system in Western Europe." Even if we were to concede for the sake of argument that the concept does not exist in Hebrew he would still be wrong since Richard Toporoski at least traces it back to Diocletion in 284-305.[10] However, despite Rev. Tony Costa's misgivings the concept can actually be traced back to the Jewish scripture as we have seen in the discussions on the proof texts adduced and the statements of the scholars.

Nevertheless the euridite Hebrew scholar Wilhelm Gesenius tells us categorically,

That the language has entirely rejected the idea of numerical plurality in אֱלֹהִים (whenever it denotes one God), is proved especially by its being almost invariably joined with a singular attribute (cf. § 132 h), e.g. אֱלֹהִים צַדִּיק Ps 7:10, &c. [11]

Thus Elohim can only mean one, singular deity(with no multiplicity). Let us continue to  look at a few more cases for the occurences of the masculine plural ending to solidify our position further by God's will.

We read in Isaiah 19:4,

וסכרתי את־מצרים ביד אדנים קשה ומלך עז ימשל־בם נאם האדון יהוה צבאות

"And I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a cruel lord(adonim); and a fierce king shall rule over them, says the Lord, the Lord of hosts."

The word is adonim(אדנים)with the exact same masculine plural ending(-iym/ ם) as elohim yet I have not come across a single English, Arabic or Malay Bible that I do read that translates it into plural. What the plural ending does is that it acts as an amplifier or magnifier for the noun adon. This shows that the plural ending does not necessarily convey a plural concept even in intances where it is applied to words other than elohim.

In Judges 6:31 we read,

ויאמר יואש לכל אשר־עמדו עליו האתם תריבון לבעל אם־אתם תושיעון אותו אשר יריב לו יומת עד־הבקר אם־אלהים הוא ירב לו כי נתץ את־מזבחו

"And Joash said unto all that stood against him: ?Will ye contend for Baal? or will ye save him? he that will contend for him, shall be put to death before morning; if he be a god, let him contend for himself, because one hath broken down his altar.'"

The word is elohim yet we understand that we're dealing with a single entity namely Baal. Surely Christians do not think Baal is some kind of Trinity of a god or maybe they do?

We see in 1 Kings whose nouns are understood following the same system as discussed for Genesis 1:1 earlier,

יען אשר עזבוני וישתחוו לעשתרת אלהי צדנין לכמוש אלהי מואב ולמלכם אלהי בני־עמון ולא־הלכו בדרכי לעשות הישר בעיני וחקתי ומשפטי כדוד אביו

(leAshtoreth elohei tsidonin)  לעשתרת אלהי צדנין

The above means "Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians"

(likhamosh elohei moav)לכמוש אלהי מואב

The above means "Chamosh the god of the Moabites"

(lemilkom elohei venei amon)ולמלכם אלהי בני־עמון

The above means "Milcom the god of the children of Amon"

One may ask why is the word ?elohei'  and not ?elohim' which is the word under discussion. Well actually they're the same word. The word becomes elohei(with the drop of the ?m') when it is grammatically associated with the next word. This grammatical phenomenon is described as "construct relationship" in the Hebrew language. So here we have a clear example of the word elohim used where it certainly means one for each of the three deities. It makes totally no sense to say that Chamosh the gods of the Moabites when Chamosh is a single entity. The same is true with Milcom and Ashtoreth. The point is that for each god(that is singular) the word elohim is designated and it does not mean more than one in any shape or form. This verse is yet another clear example that elohim can and is understood as singular. Thus Rev. Costa is wrong in his claim that elohim is "grammatically always plural."

Let us now mention Wilhelm Gesenius' statement one more time for better retention,

That the language has entirely rejected the idea of numerical plurality in אֱלֹהִים (whenever it denotes one God), is proved especially by its being almost invariably joined with a singular attribute (cf. § 132 h), e.g. אֱלֹהִים צַדִּיק Ps 7:10, &c.

What Wilhelm Gesenius means is that when the word elohim occurs in places where God, the Lord Creator is the subject the grammar 'signals' that I mentioned earlier clearly determine the absolute singular nature of the noun despite the masculine plural ending. We see further evidence of this when discussing Genesis 1:26 as we see in the next verse(27) which reads,

"God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."

If verse 26 denotes more than one the above would have the plural pronoun instead of the singular. This is even further proven by verse 29 which uses the first person singular pronoun "I"(which Rev. Costa has also mentioned). It is a fact that whenever Elohim occurs in the context of God, the Lord Creator it behaves as a singular noun and not some mumbo jumbo uniplural or three in one due to how it governs singular verbs, singular adjectives and singular pronouns as we have discussed thus far.

As we have seen the scholars of Hebrew corroborate our discussion as we have seen. The top gun(Gesenius) has already been mentioned along with several other reputable sources. All of them agree that Elohim means ONE and that it stands for pluralis maestatis or the plural of majesty.

Prof. C. L. Seow tells us that,

"When Elohim is used as a proper name, or when referring to Israel's God, it is treated as singular." [12]

In conclusion, the word Elohim when used for God, the Lord of Israel and the universe it is always understood as ONE without a plurality of persons of entities in whatever shape or form in that oneness. He is but One God who is majestic and awesome.

Let us conclude this thesis with the scholar Ethelyn Simon who says,

"When ELOHIM refers to the one true God, singular verbs and pronouns are used. When the one true God reaches out to include others in His activities, plural verbs and pronouns are used. These do not indicate any plurality of gods or that the true God is more than one. When ELOHIM refers to the God of Israel it is always singular in concept, even though it has a masculine plural ending." [13]



It is not ?pluralis majestas' as you said in your latest reply Rev. Tony Costa. The original term is pluralis maiestatis(its modern spelling is pluralis majestatis) , das majastatische wir in German and רִבּוּי הַכֹּחוֹת in Hebrew.

One can also find the concept of the majestic plural in Arabic e.g. kaifa halukum? which means how are you? with the masculine plural ending(dhammir muttasil) instead of the singular masculine ending ka used when addressing someone of status.


References and Notes:

[1] Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Rabbi Meir Ziotowitz. The Chumash, The Stone Edition, Artscoll Series(2007). Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd. p. 8

[2] Martin I. Lockshin. Rabbi Samuel Ben Meir's Commentary on Genesis(1989). United Kingdom: The Eldwin Mellen Press, Ltd. p. 51

[3] E. Kautzch, A.E. Crowley. Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, 2nd English Ed. (1910 & 1976). London, England: Oxford University Press. p. 398

[4] Edited by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1(1980). Chicago: Moody Press. p. 44

[5] New International Version Study Bible(1985). Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 6

[6] Watson E. Mills. Mercer Dictionary of the Bible(1991). Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press. p. 336

[7] New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed. Volume 5(2003). Thomson Gale. p. 173

[8] Paul J. Achtemeier. HarperCollins' Bible Dictionary(1996). HarperCollins. p. 737

[9] "The form of the word, Elohim, is plural. The Hebrews pluralized nouns to express greatness or majesty" (Flanders, Cresson; Introduction to the Bible). / See also "A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible, With Their Renderings in the Authorized English Version, by James Strong, S.T.D., LL. D., Smith's Bible Dictionary and Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible in the Appendix section on page 1598 by Spiros Zodhiates.

[10] Times of London. May 29, 2002. Ed. F1. p. 32

[11] E. Kautzch, A.E. Crowley. Op.Cit. 399

[12] C. L. Seow. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew(1987). Nashville: Abingdon Press. p. 19

[13] Ethelyn Simon. The first Hebrew primer for adults, 2nd Ed(1983). Oakland, California: EKS Publishing Company. p. 48