People will occasionally read statements to the effect that the Hebrew word elohim is plural, as can be seen from the ending -im. The thought behind this claim is that this plural form indicates that there is plurality in the Godhead. Some conclude that the biblical references to a Father and a Son are a biblical way of supporting the idea that God is a family of divine beings headed by the Father.
Is the form elohim plural? So long as the question is about the form, the answer is yes. That, however, does not mark the end of the relevant questions that should be asked. There is a second important question to be answered, about the meaning of the word. Is the sense of the word elohim plural? The answer is that it is not.
All languages make a distinction between the form and the sense of a word. In English, the word “put” has one form. This form is made up of three specific letters laid out in a particular order, but the senses or meanings of that form are many. “Put” may mean the act of placing something in a particular location (in the present tense). It may mean the act of having already placed something in a particular location (in the past tense). It may mean an entirely different kind of act, such as a ship’s sailing into a port or harbor. Moreover, “put” can take a singular construction or a plural one (he put, or they put). The person who knows English is not confused when the same form is used with different senses. Neither is the Hebrew speaker confused by the one form and the different senses of elohim.
Those who argue the nature of God from the fact that elohim is a plural form make a fundamental mistake. They are under the impression that it is the form of this word that determines its sense! No English speaker would insist that the form of “put” be the guideline in determining its sense. Neither is that possible in Hebrew. That would generate confusion. In Genesis 1:1, for example, to take elohim as plural in sense would distort the Hebrew text for the following reason:
The English verb “created” has the same form in the singular and in the plural. The sense, however, is clearly seen when a pronoun is attached (he created, or they created). In Hebrew, the singular and plural of this verb are two different forms. Genesis 1:1 uses the singular form (bara, “he created”). This verb, then, prevents the interpreter from considering only the form of Hebrew noun. The noun is plural in form, but the verb is singular in form, telling the reader that both the noun and the verb are singular in meaning.
One must look at the sense, or else a wrong interpretation will be attached to the verse. In the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1, both the form and the sense of the verb “created” are singular. There is no possibility of a different understanding of that verb. By itself, it means “he created.”
Those who propose the idea of a family of divine beings acknowledge that the verb is in the singular number and that its form and sense are singular. But they dismiss this detail by saying that there are instances (in English, for example) in which a singular verb accompanies a collective noun (a family is, a nation is, etc.). This move is in error, because it presupposes (it starts with the premise) that the name “God” stands for a group of beings. Thus a new, third, relevant question must be asked: Does the word “God” refer to a group of divine beings? The Jews say, “Of course not. That is preposterous.” The Muslims say the same, and the Christians traditionally have held the same view as the Jews and Muslims.
The advocates of “family of divine beings” acknowledge that such a concept is preposterous to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but they see that as an indication of the error in which these religions are steeped. For traditional Christianity, the attack is leveled at the church councils. The claim is made that such councils were the devil’s playground, because the only thing that seemed to matter was what people thought, not what God’s word teaches.
This approach to the subject invites a fourth relevant question regarding the family of God. How do the advocates of a family of God beings proceed to establish that God’s word, the Bible, means a group of divine beings when it uses the word elohim? Their answer is that this is a plural form. But, as explained above, a plural form does not necessarily suggest a plural sense. This is where the fundamental mistake lies.
There is one more question: How did a reference to the true God end up as a plural form? Since the question is about the form, it is a question about the Hebrew language. It is not about the nature of God. Even so, the answer is not difficult to understand. Hebrew has its own characteristics as a language. Among these is the way in which it expresses might, authority, and reverence. An example from the Old Testament may make the point clear.
In Exodus 4:16, Moses is told that Aaron would be to him for a mouth, while he would be for a god (elohim) to Aaron. The form of elohim is plural, yet Moses was clearly one person — not a group or family of beings. This is sufficient to indicate that a distinction that must be drawn between the form and the sense of a word. Second, Moses was to be like elohim to Aaron only in the sense that he would be in a position of more authority and respect. The same expression is used in 7:1, where Moses is told that he would be like elohim to Pharaoh.
These examples show that elohim has a singular sense, despite its form. In order to understand how the form arose, one needs to examine the development of linguistic forms that the Israelites inherited from those who spoke Semitic languages before them. In polytheistic societies such as those of the Canaanites, Amorites, Egyptians, etc., a plural reference to the gods would be standard, and hardly out of place. As the language undergoes changes in a monotheistic society such as Israel, it is natural that older forms would be used with new senses.
For example, in English, the form of the word “conversation” has remained unchanged since the days of the King James Bible, but the sense of this word has changed to suggest speaking, rather than conduct. The reasons for the semantic shift are to be found in a detailed study of the way the language developed under certain internal and external influences. This is a linguistic project, whether the focus is on an English word like “conversation,” or a Hebrew word like elohim. Just as the form of the word “conversation” does not bring to mind a person’s conduct, so with elohim; it does not bring to mind any concept of polytheism, and there is no discrepancy with the consistent rejection of polytheism throughout the Scriptures.