Continued from Introduction
THE JEWISH SCRIPTURES
THE JEWISH RESPONSE TO MISSIONARY CHRISTIANITY
THE MEANING OF ’ELOHIM
Genesis 1:1, states: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Here the word for God is ’Elohim, having a plural form as though it meant “gods.” Trinitarians maintain that this is proof that God is a plurality. A careful investigation of the actual use of this word in the Jewish Scriptures unequivocally shows that ’Elohim, while plural in form, is singular in concept. In biblical Hebrew, many singular abstractions are expressed in the plural form, e.g., rachamim, “compassion” (Genesis 43:14, Deuteronomy 13:18); zekunim, “old age” (Genesis 21:2, 37:3, 44:20); n‘urim, “youth” (Isaiah 54:6, Psalms 127:4).
The commentator Rashi offers a significant insight into the meaning of the word ’Elohim. In commenting on the phrase yesh l’eil yadi, “there is power in my hands” (Genesis 31:29), he writes:
“And anywhere ’eil denotes holiness [as in a Name of God], [it is] because [it connotes] ‘strength’ [see Proverbs 8:28] and ‘great power’ [Isaiah 40:26].” That is, ’El generally means “God,” and, in particular the God of Israel, because He is the sum of all power, but it can also refer to other “powers,” real or imaginary, as well (e.g., human authorities, angels, idols). The Jewish Scriptures teach us that ’Elohim is an honorific title, which expresses the plural of majesty. The underlying reason for the grammatically plural form ’Elohim is to indicate the all-inclusiveness of God’s authority as possessing every conceivable attribute of power.
The use of the plural for such a purpose is not limited merely to ’Elohim, but also applies to other words of profound significance. For instance, Isaiah 19:4 uses ’adonim (“lords”) instead of ’adon (“lord”):
“Into the hand of a cruel lord” (literally “lords,” even though referring to one person),1 and Exodus 21:29 reads: “Its owner [literally be‘alav, “its owners”] also shall be put to death.” Thus, we see that the plural of a noun is sometimes used to signify one person, as a mark of honor and distinction or for emphasis.
’Elohim, in the first verse of Genesis, does not show the existence of a plurality of persons in the God of Israel. Concerning human authority, it may indicate a plurality of persons. We read in Exodus 22:8: “Both parties shall come before the ’elohim [“judges”], and whom the ’elohim [“judges”] shall condemn, he shall pay double to his neighbor.” However, Jacob wrestles with one being, yet that being is referred to as ’elohim (Genesis 32:31); and the angel that appears to Manoah, the father of Samson, is also referred to as ’elohim (Judges 13:22). Note the words used by the woman in speaking to Saul when, upon seeing Samuel, she exclaims: “I see’elohim coming up out of the earth” (1 Samuel 28:13). Here, ’elohim is followed by the verb in the plural. Yet only a single individual is referred to, as is seen from verse 14: “And he said to her: ‘What is his appearance?’ And she said: ‘An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.’” Thus, even joined to a plural verb the noun may still refer to a single individual.
’Elohim means “gods” only when the Bible applies this plural word to pagan deities. The pagan Philistines apply the title ’elohim to their god Dagon (Judges 16:23-24, 1 Samuel 5:7). The Moabites, likewise, used the word ’elohim to describe their god Chemosh (Judges 11:24). If trinitarian Christians are correct in their argument that the use of ’Elohim with a singular verb means there are three coeternal, coequal persons in one god, then the same thing must be true for the Philistine god Dagon and the Moabite god Chemosh. They must be respectively a plurality of persons in one god. How else could trinitarians explain the Philistines saying of Dagon: “Our god [’eloheinu] has delivered” (Judges 16:24)? Here, the verb is singular, yet the subject is, literally, “our gods” in the plural. We see further in Judges 11:24: “Will you not possess that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess?” Chemosh is in the singular number, and in apposition with it is ’elohecha (literally “your gods”), which is in the plural number (see also Judges 6:31: “If he [Ba‘al] is a god [’elohim]”).
The episode of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal gives the reader further insight into the essential oneness of God as taught by the Jewish Scriptures. Elijah demonstrates God’s power and primacy on Mount Carmel. He challenges the 450 priests of Baal. Each side is to sacrifice a bullock before the assembled Israelites. Now they will see whose prayers calling down fire to consume the respective offerings would be answered. The prophets of Baal cry out, slashing themselves with knives and swords until their blood flows, but to no avail. Elijah prays: “Answer me, Y-H-V-H, answer me,” and a divine fire descends from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering. All the assembled Israelites cry out: “Y-H-V-H — He is God [’Elohim]” (1 Kings 18:39). Throughout this passage, Baal is referred to as “he,” in the thirdperson singular, in conjunction with the plural ’elohim. Y-H-V-H is also addressed in the same language. Yet, where is the plurality of Baal if one wants to insist on trinitarian grammatical guidelines?
There is simply no justification for the notion that ’Elohim denotes a plurality in the essence of God. Some trinitarians justify the use of the plural with Dagon, Chemosh, and Baal on the basis of the assumption that they were not the name of one idol only, but were the names of innumerable idols throughout the respective kingdoms where they were worshiped. Hence, Dagon, Chemosh, and Baal though in the singular form, are collective nouns, which embraced every idol of the realm. But, this interpretation is unattested and forced. It is nothing but a theory invented to support a theological need. That the plural form of ’elohim does not imply the plurality of the divine essence is a fact that was already known in ancient times. This is reflected in the Septuagint version of the Scriptures, which renders ’Elohim with the singular title ho Theos (“The God”).
One also needs to consider the frequent use of the singular ’Eloha. For example we find: “s.5” (Deuteronomy 32:15); “You that forgot God [’Eloha]” (Psalms 50:22); “At the presence of the God [’Eloha] of Jacob” (Psalms 114:7). If ’Elohim refers to a triune deity, how can one account for the alternate deployment of ’Elohim and ’Eloha? Isaiah declares: “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer the Lord of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last, and besides Me there is no God [’Elohim]” (Isaiah 44:6). This is followed in verse 8 by: “Is there a God [’Eloha] besides Me?” If the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity depends in any measure on the plurality in form of the noun ’Elohim, the use of ’Eloha, the singular of the noun, most decidedly disproves it.
1 For ’adonim used in this way, see also: Genesis 24:9, 10, 51; 39:2-20; 40:1; 42:30, 33; Exodus 21:4, 6, 8; Judges 19:11, 12; Malachi 1:6.