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Elohim (אלהים) is a Hebrew word related to deity, but whose exact significance is often disputed. It is the third word in the Hebrew text of Genesis and occurs frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible. In some cases (e.g. Ex. 3:4 ...Elohim called unto him out of the midst of the bush...), it clearly denotes the God of Israel. In other cases (e.g. Ex. 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.), it refers to the polytheistic notion of multiple gods. In still other cases (e.g. Gen. 6:2 the sons of Elohim saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them for wives...), the meaning is not clear from the text, but may refer to powerful beings. In most English translations of the Bible (e.g. the King James Version), the letter G is capitalized when the first meaning is implied, 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') 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.


The etymology of the word Elohim is prehistoric, and therefore unknown. There are many theories, however, including the following:

  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.

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 used as evidence for the dogma of the Holy Trinity.
  • In another view that is more common among both secular scholars and polytheists, the word's plurality reflects early Judaic polytheism. Originally meaning "the gods", or the "sons of El," the supreme being, the word may have been singularized by later monotheist priests who sought to replace worship of the many gods with their own 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. The meaning of Elohim therefore can mean one god, with many attributes.

The polytheist theory would also 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, it is uncertain whether the word Elohim is derived from El through eloah. Moreover, the word eloah is arguably feminine. If this is true, some 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. However, this is speculative and confusing, although consistent with many Christian views of the Godhead.

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 speculated that the divine name Allahumma, used in the Qur'an as a variation of Allah, may be related to Elohim.

Elohim in Mormonism

In Mormonism, the word Elohim (also spelled Eloheim) usually refers specifically to God the Father, as a distinct being from Jesus. Mormons sometimes refer to Jesus as Jehovah (Yahweh), whom they consider to be the God of the Old Testament. See also: Godhead (Mormonism).

Elohim in Raelianism

Raelians claim that in 1973, a French journalist named Rael was contacted by a visitor from another planet who informed him, among other things, that the word in question means "those who came from the sky."

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Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:33:35
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