“In the beginning God.” The first verse of the Bible says, “In the beginning God….” The word “God” is translated from the Hebrew word elohim, and it refers to our one God.
The word elohim is always found in the plural form and is often called a uni-plural noun. A uni-plural noun is a word that appears in the plural form but is used for singular and plural subjects alike. “Deer” and “fish” are examples of uni-plural nouns in English. As with many Hebrew words, elohim carries more than one definition. When it is being used in a plural sense, it refers to “gods” or “men with authority.” When it is used in its singular sense, it can refer to “God,” or “a god,” or “a man with authority, such as a judge.” The Hebrew lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs is considered to be one of the best available and it has as its first usage for elohim: “rulers, judges, either as divine representatives at sacred places or as reflecting divine majesty and power, divine ones, superhuman beings including God and angels, gods.a”
In referring to a plural subject, elohim is translated “gods” in many verses. Genesis 35:2 reads, “Get rid of all the foreign gods you have with you,” and Exodus 18:11 says, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods.” It is translated as “judges” in Exodus 21:6; 22:8 and 22:9 (KJV; HCSB; NET; NIV). It is translated as “angels” (KJV) or “heavenly beings” (NIV) in Psalm 8:5. Some Trinitarians teach that since the word elohim is plural it implies a compound unity when it refers to God. In its plural use, there is no evidence that elohim implied that these “gods” had some kind of plurality of persons within themselves.
Elohim is also translated as the singular “god” or “judge,” and there is no hint of any “compound nature” when it is translated that way either. Examples of this use are: Exodus 22:20, “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the lord must be destroyed.” Judges 6:31: “If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” Exodus 7:1: God says that He has made Moses a “god” (elohim) to Pharaoh. In Judges 11:24, the pagan god Chemosh is called elohim, and in 1 Samuel 5:7, the pagan god Dagon is called elohim. It is not taught or believed that these pagan gods were made of some kind of “compound unity” just because they were called elohim, and we should not conclude that because our true God is called elohim that He is a compound unity. He is not.
Scholars have debated exactly how to translate elohim in 1 Samuel 2:25 as to whether elohim in the verse refers to a human judge or to God. The KJV says “judge.” The versions are divided between them, some translating elohim as a man, others as God Himself. The fact that the scholars and translators debate about whether the word elohim refers to a man or God shows vividly that the word itself does not have any inherent idea of a plurality of persons otherwise the choice would be easy and elohim could not be translated as “god” when referring to a pagan god, or as “judge” when referring to a man. Thus, the evidence in Scripture does not warrant the conclusion that the Hebrew word elohim inherently contains the idea of a compound nature.
The great Hebrew scholar Gesenius is considered a foremost authority on the Hebrew language, and He wrote that elohim occurred in a plural form for intensification and was related to the plural of majesty and used for amplification. Gesenius states, “That the language has entirely rejected the idea of numerical plurality in elohim (whenever it denotes one God) is proved especially by its being almost invariably joined with a singular attribute.”b
Another interesting point that Gesenius makes is that the singular pronoun is always used with the word elohim. A study of the occurrences of elohim will show that the singular attribute (such as “He,” not “They,” or “I,” not “We”) is always used in conjunction with elohim. Furthermore, when the word elohim is used to denote someone else besides the true God, it is understood as either singular or plural (depending on the context), but never as a “uniplural.” God is not a “compound” being in any sense of the word. He is the “one God” of Israel in the true singular sense. Another example of elohim being used of a singular god apparently occurs in Ruth 1:15, where elohim refers to Chemosh. The NET text note on Ruth 1:15 says, “it is likely that Naomi, speaking from Orpah's Moabite perspective, uses the plural of majesty of the Moabite god Chemosh. For examples of the plural of majesty being used of a pagan god, see BDB 43 s.v. אֱלֹהִים 1.d. Note especially 1 Kgs 11:33, where the plural form is used of Chemosh.” Many scholars agree with this, and elohim is translated “god” in a large number of versions (cp. ASV; CJB; ERV; JPS; NAB: NET; NJB; YLT).
In addition, when we study the history and the language of the Jews who spoke Hebrew, we discover that they never understood elohim to imply a plurality within God in any way. In fact, the Jews were staunchly opposed to people and nations who tried to introduce any hint of more than one God into their culture. Jewish rabbis have debated the Law to the point of tedium, and have recorded volume after volume of notes on the Law, yet in all of their debates, there is no mention of a plurality within God.
[For more on the grammatical plural being used of God and other people, see commentary on 1 Kings 1:43. For more information on elohim, see Graeser, Lynn, and Schoenheit, One God and One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith, 412-14.]
“God created the heavens and the earth.” Although there are scholars who translate Genesis 1:1 as saying something to the effect that “God began creating the heavens and the earth,” there is more circumstantial evidence from the nature of God that He would have created everything perfect in the beginning—He certainly has the power to do that. Then, due to the war between God and Satan, the earth became without form and void (see commentary on Gen. 1:2).
The title Elohim can be singular or plural. It is also called a uni-plural noun because it can be singular while referring to a group. Rulers, judges, divine ones, angels, and God are all called Elohim. Use of a singular or plural pronoun associated with Elohim can help determine if it is singular or plural. In Genesis 1:1, it is singular with no hint of a compound nature.
Verses: Gen. 1:1, 8; 35:2; Exod. 18:11; 21:6; 22:20; Judg. 6:31; Ps. 8:4, 5
Teacher: John Schoenheit