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God, Not Gods

Harold Nebenzal of Beverly Hills, California has a question “designed to give the rabbis cardiac arrest.” It is:

If in Hebrew we say [using the masculine plural ending –im] mayim, ‘water,’ while in Arabic one says [in the singular] may; and if in Hebrew [again using the plural ending] we say shamayim, ‘sky,’ while in Arabic [again in the singular] one says sama: does it not follow that elohim, the Hebrew word for God, is the plural of Allah?

I am awaiting your response with trepidation.

Mr. Nebenzal can rest assured that his question caused the rabbis a good deal of trepidation, if not cardiac arrest, already in ancient times. Nor does one have to turn to Arabic to ask it. Elohim has a singular form in Hebrew too, eloha, which also means “God,” just like “Allah,” in addition to which Hebrew has another closely related singular word for “God,” el. And yet the standard word for “God,” both in the Bible and later Hebrew, is elohim. In early rabbinic times, this was the source of not a little embarrassment. How could it be that Judaism, a religion that put a supreme emphasis on the unity of God in its conflict with polytheism, was itself in the habit of referring to God in the plural form by means of a word that grammatically meant “gods?”

Thus, for instance, we have a story in the midrashic book of Genesis Rabba of how some “heretics,” alluding to the opening verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God [elohim] created the heavens and the earth,” asked the third-century C.E. Rabbi Simlai how many gods were responsible for the Creation. Simlai’s answer was to call their attention to the Hebrew verb “created,” which appears in the third-person masculine singular (bara) and not in the third-person plural (bar’u). This, he said, clearly showed that the God of the Bible is one God, not many. Simlai’s questioners, apparently Christians arguing that elohim referred to the Trinity, then cited the tripartite phrase from the book of Joshua, el elohim adonai (“Adonai is the God of Gods”), in support of their view that the one God was three. Simlai’s answer was that this was no different from the crowds who shouted to the Roman emperor, “Basilicus Augustus Caesar,” “O princely, highest Caesar!” All these names, he said, referred to the same Caesar, and all the names of God referred to the same God and were included in the plural name elohim.

Later rabbis found other ways of justifying the plural form of elohim. The twelfth-century biblical commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, for example, who lived in Spain, wrote that just as the Spanish plural form of vosotros, “you,” was used as a title of respect when addressing a single person of superior rank, so elohim was a title of respect for God. (Had Ibn Ezra lived in France or Germany, he could have said the same thing about the French vous or the German Sie.) The sixteenth-century Italian rabbi Ovadia Sforno took a more philosophical approach. The Hebrew word for God was in the plural, he wrote, because “God is the form of all eternal forms and nothing apart from Him has any reality unless it emanates from His reality.” The grammatical plurality of God, in other words, refers to the infinitely diverse world of God’s creation, which, though not part of God, exists only because of Him.

Modern scholars, on the other hand, have sought to understand the word elohim as the result of a historical evolution. Originally, in the opinion of the great twentieth-century biblical archeologist William Albright, elohim referred to “the totality of the gods,” that is, to the entire pantheon of ancient Canaanite polytheism; gradually, however, as this polytheistic religion was transformed by the biblical Israelites into a monotheistic one, “the totality of the gods” became identified with a single supreme God to which the name elohim continued to apply. Some contemporary Bible translations have chosen to incorporate this view in their interpretations. The new Jewish Publication Society translation of the book of Genesis, for instance, renders the biblical words describing Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, Ki sarita im elohim ve’im anashim, as “For you have striven with beings divine and human,” under the assumption that elohim in this passage has its old Canaanite meaning of different or many gods.

Such a translation might indeed have given Rabbi Simlai conniptions. And yet Simlai’s grammatical analysis of elohim is sound. Other plural nouns in Hebrew, such as the two mentioned by Mr. Nebenzal, mayim, “water,” and shamayim, “sky,” always take plural verbs. One says, ha-shamayim kadru, “the sky grew overcast,” not ha-shamayim kadar; ha-mayim kaf’u, “the water froze,” not ha-mayim kafa. Elohim is the only plural noun in Hebrew to regularly take a singular verb, as in Bereshit bara elohim, “In the beginning God created.” Mr. Nebenzal can get over his trepidation. Whatever the historical or linguistic explanation for the word elohim, the Bible truly is a monotheistic book.

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