Vol. 25 New Series February&August, 1957 No.'s 1&4
The Elohim (or Aleim)

Part 1
It is peculiar to find that the Hebrew word for God is a plural form, and not only means "gods" but is frequently used as a plural. The word for a god, any god, is EL, and its plural form is Elim. In Genesis 41:38 we find "A man in whom the Spirit of God is," words spoken of Joseph by Pharaoh. Literally the Hebrew reads: "A man in whom is the breath of gods," and there is no doubt as to how Pharaoh meant it. Here ELOHIM is certainly a plural. Breath or wind, meaning spirit, is a usage common to both languages. In ch. 40:8 it is very likely that Joseph's meaning also was" do not interpretations belong to gods?" It is true that the word ELOHIM is often treated as a singular; and it a verb or adjective is attached it also is singular. Usually the word occurs without the article though frequently "the gods" occurs also. Thus in ch. 41:16 and 38, ELOHIM, "gods," is used alone, but in vv. 25, 28, 32 the article is used, "the gods." which is interesting since in four verses Joseph is addressing Pharaoh and would naturally speak of "the gods" to him. In vv. 25 and 28 a singular verb goes with "the gods"; but in v. 32, "for the thing has been arranged among the gods," the word seems undoubtedly used as a plural: and in all three the plural would be most appropriate when spoken by one Egyptian to another. "What the gods are about to do, they have declared unto Pharaoh," is just how an Egyptian would express it.

Again in ch. 42: 18 Joseph says, "I fear the gods," speaking to his brethren. Here also it is "the gods," but when his brethren are speaking to Jacob on their return to Canaan in v. 28 they use "gods" without the article and with a singular verb. In 43:23 again, "Your gods and the gods of your fathers" occurs with a singular verb, and in 44:16 Judah uses "the gods" similarly. Of five instances in ch. 48 only v. 15 has "the gods." There the conversation is between Joseph and Jacob, to the latter of whom at least the plural "gods" would not come natural. Again, in five instances in Gen. 50:18-25 not one has the article. Exodus 1:17-22 is also instructive. In the words "the midwives feared the gods" the article is used, so that the plural "the gods" must be intended which is quite appropriate, as it was Egyptian gods whom the Hebrew midwives feared. In v. 20, however, where the author says "God dealt well with the midwives," he uses ELOHIM, the plural form, with a singular verb, showing that it is his own God, Yahweh, the one God, not the many, he is thinking of. Here also he omits the article. Even in Psalms (82:6) ELOHIM occurs as a plural: "I said, ye are gods"; and compare Christ's comment on this in John 10:34-35.

These examples at the Use of ELOHIM indicate that the author is translating from an Egyptian document, or writing with Egyptian usage in his mind, and preserves the plural form "gods" for a special reason. Like Shamayim in the Creation narrative, the dual form, "two heavens," was retained, but always treated as a singular, so the author has here preserved the plural form "gods", but persistently treats it as a singular in order that the word, though a plural, may come to mean only one God and the Hebrew mind be cleansed of the idea of many gods.

That the article is omitted as a rule is easily understood; and, where it appears, it is probably a concession to the person spoken to. The author uses the word as a plural with the article out of politeness where an Egyptian is being addressed. In the case of Hebrews addressing each other ELOHIM is always singular.

Part 2
The frequent recurrence of the word ELOHIM, especially in the interviews between Joseph and Pharaoh and his brethren, is a marked feature of the narrative, which may be regarded as direct evidence of Egyptian influence. It is typical of the Egyptian mode of speech, especially in court circles, for Neter and Netertt, "God" and "Gods," were very frequently on the lips of courtiers. The author makes Joseph speak and act as an Egyptian court official of that period ought to speak, using their language and style, even though the plural form "gods" must have been distasteful to a Hebrew. Pharaoh's description of Joseph, already discussed, is an interesting anticipation of the Christian ideal. "A man in whom is the spirit of the gods" appears to be a regular Egyptian expression for one who exhibits godly attributes. There are other features of the Egyptian religion which thus anticipate the expression of the Christian ideal.

The plural form "gods" appears also in the expression "voices of God" for thunder, which occurs five times in Exodus 9. In v. 23 it is Yahweh who sends the voices; but it is worth noting that in v. 28, where Pharaoh is speaking, he is made to say, "Entreat Yahweh, for we have had enough, of these mighty voices of gods." Here he respects Moses' religion of one God, Yahweh, but reverts to the plural "gods, ELOHIM," in "voices of gods." It looks as if the actual words spoken by Pharaoh are here reproduced in Hebrew, so that ELOHIM is really a plural used of the Egyptian gods in contrast to Yahweh; and Pharaoh is represented as acknowledging very unwillingly the superiority of Yahweh. In the 18th to 19th Dynasties there seems to have been far more bigotry than in the Hyksos period. Here a grudging acknowledgment of Yahweh as a god is forced from Pharaoh. In the Joseph period it seems to matter little how many gods one acknowledged. The important point was to secure and retain the favour of them all. They showed the utmost tolerance. The local colouring of Exodus 9:28 is quite correct. The Pharaoh is accurately portrayed.

"Voices of gods" is the regular Egyptian expression also for thunder; and the Hebrew has translated it straight from the Egyptian. Moses must have been speaking in Egyptian with Pharaoh on this and other such occasions, for it is not likely that Pharaoh would use Hebrew; and so we have here a clear instance of an interview with Pharaoh which Was conducted in Egyptian and afterwards translated into Hebrew.

Exodus 12:12, "And on all the gods of Egypt will I execute judgments," leaves no doubt that to the author ELOHIM was a plural, and he used it as plural Or singular according to his need or purpose. In this passage it is Undoubtedly plural, and the same expression is repeated in Numbers 33:4. As often in Hebrew the word judgment is here used in the sense of condemnation or punishment as it is also in Egyptian. The same idiom Occurs as used by Christ in Greek (Matthew 7:1). In Exodus 15:11, "Who is like unto Thee among the gods?" there is no doubt the word is plural, for here Elim, the plural of EL, is used and not ELOHIM. In the expression "God Almighty" of Genesis 43:14 the words used are EL SHADDAl (the first occurrence). It is natural that the conflict in the Hebrew author's mind between polytheism and monotheism, and his antagonism to the former, should be closely linked with his use of the word ELOHIM for God. In the Joseph narrative a polite concern is shown for Egyptian feeling and ELOHIM, "gods," is used; but, when Moses appears on the mission of deliverance, politeness and ELOHIM vanish, and the one God Yahweh is persistently thrust into the foreground in deliberate antagonism to Egyptian polytheism. Yahweh first appears as the name of God in Exodus 3:14-15. In Genesis 2:5 occurs Yahweh Elohim of the self-created Creator God. On account of this occurrence of Elohim, Jehovah, and Jehovah Elohim in different parts of these narratives, linguistic critics have divided them into three separate documents by three different authors, one of whom used Elohim for God, another Jehovah (Yahweh), and a third Jehovah Elohim; but the above shows that where the original writer uses these three names for God or gods his choice is governed by a special purpose. He uses Elohim as a singular to obliterate the idea of the many gods of Egypt. He uses Yahweh, the special name of the One God, in contrast to the many; and Yahweh Elohim is used as a direct assertion that Yahweh, Jehovah, is the Creator Lord of Gods. Though Yahweh Elohim occurs in Genesis 2, the fact that it is full of Egyptian influence and ideas precludes the possibility of its being much later. The original document cannot date many years after the Exodus.

A. T. Last updated 27.6.2006