Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Elohim - One God or Many Gods?

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Sonsino's blog, “From Istanbul to Boston

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
In Hebrew, for masculine singular nouns, plurality is indicated by the ending im. Thus, for example, yeled “boy” becomes yeladim “boys.”

The Bible uses many terms for God, such as El, Shaddai, YHVH, Elohim--they are all in the singular except for Elohim, which is in the plural. The question is this: how can God, conceived as being the only divinity in the universe—hence, monotheism- have a plural ending? Ancient Rabbis had to deal with this problem and said that the reason for the plural in Elohim is because of all the attributes (e.g. merciful, caring, loving) that are ascribed to one God. On the other hand, is it possible that the term Elohim is a vestige of polytheism in biblical Israel? I would say, yes.

To test whether or not the editors of the Bible considered Elohim a plural or a singular noun, we need to find whether the verbs attached to this name, are in the singular or in the plural. If they are in the plural, we would know that in the past Israelites believed that Elohim referred to many gods. If the verb is in the singular, then we would have to conclude that the term underwent a change, and a plural noun was now considered singular. We have an example of that in English, too. The word “media” is the plural of “medium.” Yet, we often say, “the media says,” not “the media say.” “Media” is now viewed as singular.

Let’s test the use of the word Elohim in the Bible: In the overwhelming cases, the word Elohim is accompanied by a singular verb. For example (see Hebrew title above): the Hebrew Bible begins with b’reshit bara elohim, “When God began to create…”-here the verb bara (“created”) is in the singular. That means the editor of this passage conceived of Elohim as one God. (For other examples, see, Gen. 1: 3; 22: 1; 25: 11; 50:24, and many others).

However, there are a few passages where Elohim is accompanied by a plural verb: when Abraham says to king Abimelekh, “When God (Elohim) made me wander…(hit’u) (Gen. 20: 13) ,” the verb “wander” is in the plural. Similarly, we read, “It was there that God (Elohim) revealed (niglu) himself to him [Jacob]” (Gen. 35: 7). Here, too, “revealed” is in the plural, implying the existence of many gods. (For other examples, see Ex. 22:8; Deut. 5:23; II Sam. 7: 23 and others). The medieval commentator Rashi was aware of this problem but tried to solve it by saying, “all references to godliness and authority are in the plural.” I would argue that these are vestiges of ancient polytheism that crept into the text.

There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in biblical times, Elohim was considered in polytheistic terms, “gods.” A good example is found in the Book of the Covenant, in one of the laws dealing with debt-slavery. According to a sub-section of this law, if the slave wishes to remain with his master for the rest of his life, because “he loves” him, then his master “shall take him before the gods (Elohim)” (Ex. 21: 5) and pierce his ear with an awl. Traditional Jewish commentators say that here the word Elohim means “judges.” So, the owner is taking his slave to the court. Some modern commentators believe that the reference is to the local sanctuary where the master presents his slave before God, perhaps, for an ordeal. For me, this texts simply means that the master brings his slave before the household gods, hence Elohim (see, for instance the reference to the household gods that Rachel had when she left her father’s house, the terafim, Gen.31: 34), and then pierces his ear at the doorpost of his own house with an awl.

This short analysis shows that biblical Israel went through a period of transition from polytheism to monolatry (“there are many gods but only one god for us”) and finally to monotheism (“there is only one God”). The process continued in medieval times into the modern. Old God concepts are not working any more. We need to search for the best explanation of what God means today in order to meet the needs of our own time.

(For details about God concepts in Judaism, see my book, Finding God (with Daniel Syme), NY: URJ Press, 2002, or, The Many Faces of God , NY:URJ, 2004, or , more recently, “What is God’s Real Name?” in my book, Did Moses Really Have Horns? NY: URJ Press, 2009, 12-24).

Rifat Sonsino

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