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? If we can’t read Hebrew, how can we find out?
You can prove it yourself
You may already have some Bible-study tools that can help you learn what elohim means. We do not have to be Hebrew scholars, but will will need to do some study.
We should begin with prayer, to ask God to give us understanding. Tell him of our willingness to give up old cherished ideas if he shows us that they are wrong. Confess any pride, vanity or anger that might inhibit our understanding. Express faith in Christ’s leadership. Admit to him that our humanity sometimes limits our vision and distorts our thinking. Pray in faith that God will teach us and that he will grant us ears that hear and a heart that responds.
Having done that, we’ll be ready to study. We’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 us know the truth about the word elohim, we should be aware of one important concept: To know what any word means, we need to observe how it is used. We need to note whether the word is used as a noun, verb, pronoun, adverb or another part of speech. If the word is used as a noun, we should see if it is a singular, plural or proper noun. We should analyze how the word is used.
We should note the words that are used with it, too. For example, if we are uncertain if the noun is plural or singular, are there any pronouns associated with it that could help us find out? The more examples that we have of its use in context, the more certain we can be of its definition. We 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 an 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 with slight modifications for their situation. Some resources will make the job easier than Strong’s does.
Look up the English word “God” in Strong’s concordance. Under that heading we’ll find a list of all the verses where we can find the word God in the King James Version. 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. If we turn to the Hebrew and Chaldee dictionary in the back of the concordance and look up word number 430, we’ll find that this word is elohim. Genesis 1:1 is the first place in the Bible where the word elohim occurs.
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 we read Strong’s definition of elohim, we 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. 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.” We have more than 2,200 verses that can help us understand what elohim means. If we want to be convinced what elohim means, then we can start reading those verses.
It may help 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 we 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 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.
Notice that shortly after elohim is used, singular pronouns are used to refer to it: “he separated…he called.” These reflect the fact that in Hebrew, these verbs are in the singular form.
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. 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 aberrant 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 this, any conclusions about these points would be conjectures, and therefore not a solid basis for doctrine. Note that there are several possibilities that do not require the existence of more than one God for them. Many commentaries will give us those explanations. You might think of some yourself.
Second, this is not the only verse that quotes God. Many of the later 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 address the question directly and clearly.
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.” Just as they are in the rest of the chapter, the pronouns here are singular. When elohim creates humanity, God reveals himself to be but one God.
As we continue our study, we’ll 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). God refers to himself with singular pronouns.
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 the only word plural in form but singular in meaning
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 Isaiah 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.