You Can Prove What Elohim Means
In Genesis 1:26, God says, "Let us make man in our image." "Let us...." Does this mean that there is more than one God? Some say yes. They say that the Hebrew word elohim is a plural noun, showing that there is more than one God. Yet the Hebrew Bible plainly quotes God as saying that there is only one God. "I am God," he says, "and there is no other" (Isaiah 45:22). God does not say, "we are God."
So what does the Hebrew word elohim mean? Is it plural? Does it prove there is one God or many? How can we find out if we don't read Hebrew?
You can prove it yourself
You probably already have some Bible-study tools that can help you learn what elohim means. You do not have to be Hebrew scholars, but you will need to do some study.
Start your study with prayer. Ask God to give you understanding. Tell him of your willingness to give up old cherished ideas if he shows you that they are wrong. Confess any pride, vanity or anger that might inhibit your understanding. Express faith in Christ's leadership. Admit to him that your humanity sometimes limits your vision and distorts your thinking. Pray in faith that God will teach you and that he will grant you ears that hear and a heart that responds.
Having done that, you'll be ready to study. You'll be like the Bereans, who "received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).
To help you know the truth about elohim, I'd like to remind you of one important concept: To know what any word means, observe how it is used. Notice whether the word is used as a noun, verb, pronoun, adverb or another part of speech. If the word is used as a noun, notice if it is a singular, plural or proper noun. Analyze how the word is used.
Notice the other words that are used with it as well. For example, if you are uncertain if the noun is plural or singular, are there any pronouns associated with it that would help you find out? The more examples that you have of its use in context, the more certain you can be of its definition. You might even discover that a word has different meanings in different contexts. Some words are verbs in one context but nouns in another. The English word saw is a well-known example of this.
A study in Strong's Concordance
Our study can begin with Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. Those who own other concordances or computer Bible programs can apply the same principles I'm giving here with only slight modifications for your situation. Some resources will make the job easier than Strong's does. But because Strong's Concordance is a widely used Bible-study tool, I'm confining my comments to that work.
Look up the word God in the concordance. Under that heading you'll find a list of all the verses where you can find the word God in the King James Version. Notice that the verse list begins with Genesis 1:1, "God made the heaven and the earth." To the right of that verse is the number 430. Turn to the Hebrew and Chaldee dictionary in the back of the concordance and look up word number 430. You will find that this word is elohim. So Genesis 1:1 is the first place in the Bible where one finds elohim.
You can now read elohim in Genesis 1:1 by reading the text like this. "In the beginning elohim made the heaven and the earth." If you read Strong's definition of elohim, you will notice that it has several definitions and that it is a plural noun. By this, Strong means that elohim is plural in form. However, we should not assume in advance that it is always plural in meaning (see below). Remember, the context tells us the meaning.
Returning to the verse list for God, notice that for the vast majority of times that we read God in the Old Testament, it corresponds to the Hebrew word elohim. The NIV Exhaustive Concordance claims that one can find elohim 2,602 times in the Old Testament. The New International Version translates it 2,242 times as God. It's the most common word in the Old Testament translated as "God."
Therefore, you have more than 2,200 verses that can help you understand what elohim means. If you want to be convinced what elohim means, then start reading those verses.
It may help you to take Strong's verse list of God and to read each verse aloud, substituting elohim for God at the appropriate places. Substituting elohim into the text is probably the closest you and I will ever come to reading the Hebrew Bible. Yet it's a simple way of cementing the true meaning of elohim in our minds. But remember, don't just read the verse by itself — read it in its broader context.
Substituting elohim for God in Genesis 1:1 can change our perspective of that verse and it can begin to help us understand this subject. Let's notice that applying this principle affects the reading of other verses in that same chapter. Genesis 1:2-5 will read: "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of elohim was hovering over the waters. And elohim said, `Let there be light,' and there was light. Elohim saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. Elohim called the light `day,' and the darkness he called `night.' And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day."
Here are a few facts I learned when I studied this subject. I'll start with Genesis 1:26, taking note of its context. Genesis 1:26 reads, "Then God [elohim] said, `Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.'" I don't know Hebrew, so I can't tell if the verb said is singular or plural. If I could read Hebrew I would know this, and my questions would probably vanish.
But I do read English, and the pronouns here are plural. But does it automatically follow that elohim is plural? Before answering the question, I will ask another. Should we base our theology on one unusual verse or on more than 2,000 clear verses? What would lead to sound doctrine — 2,000 sure witnesses or one enigmatic witness?
Genesis 1:26 is an enigmatic witness. It does not tell us why or to whom God is speaking. It does not say, "The Father said to the Son" or "God said to God" or "God said to the angels" or any other combination. Because the Bible remains silent as to whom and why God said what he said, any conclusions about these points would be conjectures, and therefore not a solid basis for doctrine. However, note that there are several possible conjectures that do not require the existence of more than one God for them to be true. Many commentaries will give you those explanations. You might think of some yourself.
Second, this is not the only verse that quotes God. As your study will show, many of those verses are God's revelation of himself to us in which he unambiguously says that there is but one God. Those other verses are the verses that should decide our doctrine — the verses that unambiguously address the question.
Singular pronouns for elohim
Third, the context of the verse proves the plurality theory wrong. Genesis 1:27, the very next verse, reads "So elohim created man in his own image, in the image of God [elohim] he created him; male and female he created them" (emphasis mine throughout). Just as they are in the rest of the chapter, the pronouns here are singular. So we see that when elohim creates man, God reveals himself to be but one God.
As you do your study, you'll probably notice several other interesting facts about elohim. For example, it was elohim who said "I give you every seed-bearing plant" (verse 29). It was elohim who said, "I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18). Later elohim told Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people" and "This is the sign of the covenant I am establishing between me and you" (Genesis 6:13; 9:12).
A beautiful trait of elohim is that he never lies. He thundered to Israel, "I am the Lord your elohim.... You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3). Moses, the prophet of The God Who Does Not Lie, encouraged the Israelites to "acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is elohim in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other" (Deuteronomy 4:39).
In the Bible, it was elohim who walked in the Garden, made a covenant with Abraham, wrestled with Jacob and spoke out of the burning bush. There was only one. It was elohim who thundered from Sinai, gave victory to Joshua, sanctified the Temple and spoke to the prophets.
This God, The God Who Does Not Lie, reveals himself to be the only God there is. "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am elohim, and there is no other" (Isaiah 45:22). The God of truth says, "See now that I myself am he! There is no elohim besides me" (Deuteronomy 32:39).
Elohim Is Not Alone!
Elohim is not the only Hebrew noun that can be plural in form but singular in meaning. Such Hebrew noun forms are sometimes used for abstract nouns and as intensifiers. Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar devotes several pages to this subject. The following list is not exhaustive, but it illustrates the point. The masculine plural ending is im; oth is the feminine plural ending.
zequnim — old age (Gen. 21:2, 7; 37:3; 44:20).
ne`urim — youth. David was only a boy (na`ar), but Goliath "has been a fighting man from his youth [ne`urim]" (1 Sam. 17:33).
chayyim — life. This is used in the song "To life, to life, lechayyim" in Fiddler on the Roof.
gebhuroth — strength. The singular form gebhurah is the usual word for strength, but the plural form is used in Job 41:12.
tsedaqoth — righteousness. The singular form tsedaqah is the usual word, but tsedaqoth is used in Isaiah 33:15 — "he who walks righteously [or "in righteousness"]."
chokmoth — wisdom. Chokmah is the usual form, but chokmoth is used in Prov. 1:20.
'adonim — lord. 'adon means "lord," and 'adonim normally means "lords," but Isa. 19:4 says, "I will hand the Egyptians over to the power of a cruel master ['adonim]."
behemoth. This word normally means beasts, but in Job 40:15 it refers to one animal.
Specifically discussing elohim, Gesenius observes: "The language has entirely rejected the idea of numerical plurality in 'elohim (whenever it denotes one God).... [This] is proved especially by its being almost invariably joined with a singular attribute" (such as a singular adjective or verb). For more information on the subject, consult Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, pages 396-401, 1909 edition.