Theology: Does Elohim Refer to a Family of Divine Beings?
The word elohim can refer to the true God, to a false god, to angels, and to human beings. In its wide application, this name is unusual and difficult to translate into English. The ability of this word to refer correctly to God, angels, humans, and false gods can be understood only if the root of the word is kept in mind. The root means somewhat like the “powers that be,” whether they are human or divine, singular or plural. In this light, it becomes clear that the Hebrews applied the name elohim to the true God because it conveyed one of his attributes – that of power.
When elohim refers to a singular being (the true God or a false god), it takes a singular verb. When it refers to more than one being, as in the heavenly powers (the angels or God and the angels) or in the human powers (the judges), it takes a plural verb. The one form can be either singular or plural, and its meaning is indicated by whether the verb is in a singular or a plural form. In no case does the word elohim refer to a family of beings, whether they are human or divine. The following passages are sufficient to make the use of this word clear.
God (elohim) created
In Genesis 1:1 elohim takes the singular verb bara, which means “he created.” The verb tells us what was done by the one God. Even with this point in mind, the objection can be raised that collective nouns in English (church, nation, etc.) take singular verbs. That answer will not do, in this case, because one needs to ascertain first that elohim is such a word. It cannot simply be assumed to be so. It is not obvious in Hebrew, and no authority on the Hebrew language has ever said such a thing. The voice of scholarship has been united on this point, that elohim, when speaking of the Creator, refers to a single deity. The use of the word in the Old Testament is ample testimony of this truth, as the following examples show.
Greater than all the gods (elohim)
Exodus 18:11 compares the true God with all the false gods (elohim) and says that none of them is like him. This is clearly a plural reference, yet it does not refer to a family of beings. The false gods to which Exodus refers were not considered to be members of one family.
Ashtoreth the goddess (elohim)
1 Kings 11:5 is one of the clearest examples of the singular use of elohim in which it cannot possibly be construed to refer to a family of divine beings. “Ashtoreth the goddess (elohim) of the Sidonians” was but only one deity, not a family of such beings.
Lower than the angels (elohim)
Psalm 8:5 says that God made humans a little lower than the angels (elohim). Since all the angels were created beings, there are no father angels, mother angels, or offspring angels. Angels do not marry. This use of elohim is not in the context of a family.
Bring him to the judges (elohim)
Exodus 21:6 is a law regarding Hebrew slaves. If freed slaves expressed a desire to continue to serve their masters, they were to be brought before “the judges [elohim)],” who would make it official. The judges were an institution of Israel and did not constitute a family.
The above passages may be enough to indicate that the word elohim – in its reference to God, angels, judges, and false gods – is not a collective noun; it is not like “church,” “nation,” etc. The concept of a divine family of beings is not applicable to the true God, and did not arise out of the Holy Scriptures. It may be helpful to note some reasons why this concept is inappropriate.
The names “Father” and “Son” indicate a family relationship. (We can omit reference to the Holy Spirit, in this light, because the name “Holy Spirit” does not immediately suggest a family relationship.) This is acceptable – and biblically sound. The error creeps into the concept when the relationship is understood in terms of separate beings. The following explanation will make this easier to understand.
In a human family, a father and a son are two beings. One is the father because he existed while the son was not yet born. The father provides for the son, because the son needs his help. Human beings are limited beings. They have a beginning, they have needs, and the father-son relationship is meaningful in light of these limitations.
It is a gross misunderstanding to think of God in such terms. God is spirit. He has no limitations in space or time. The Son did not have a beginning, and at no time did the Father exist while the Son did not. Neither is it true that the Father looked after a young Son during some childhood, or provided for the Son’s “needs.” We should not form our concepts of God based on what human fathers and sons are.
The book of Hebrews speaks of the Son in various ways. He is referred to as a Son, as the “brightness of his glory,” and as the “express image of his person.” These are three ways of expressing the same idea. As the Son is God, he has no needs, and he is not in the same relationship to the Father that a human son is to his parent.
The names “Father” and “Son” are applied to God by analogy, without the limitations that hold true in a human family. This is another way of saying that God is not a family (for that word has meaning only in the context of limited human beings). God is infinite, eternal, and in all ways unlimited. The attempt to make elohim refer to a family of divine beings is not only impossible historically, linguistically and culturally; it is theologically wrong and inappropriate in the discussion of the true God.