אֱלֹהִים 'elohim "God, gods"

The Hebrew word אֱלֹהִים 'elohim means two quite different, yet related, things, translators determine the meaning according to how the word is used.

  1. It acts like the plural of the word for a divine being (a god). Most of the cognate languages have similar words usually around the root 'lh. So in Am 5:26 אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (which is 'elohim with a third person plural possessive suffix) is translated "your gods".
  2. It acts as something like another name for יְהוִה the God of Israel, viewed by the Bible as the unique creator of everything and only God. (As in Am 3:13.)

While the Bible (as it has come down to us through Jewish tradition) clearly regards God as unique and only creator and ruler of all, in ancient Israel and Judah many people (also) worshipped other gods. At many times the official cult (for example in the temple in Jerusalem) also honoured "other gods" alongside יְהוִה. See the many references in Kings and Chronicles which tell of Asherah or poles representing the goddess being removed from the Jerusalem temple, or think of Ahab with his 450 prophets of Baal, or read the condemnations made of such polytheistic practice in the prophets (e.g. Jer 7:18).

The use of 'elohim to speak of יְהוִה alone was therefore a striking reminder of this radical difference. We do not know at what point it became common. Some features of the usage, like the existence in Psalms of two versions of the "same" psalm one using יְהוִה and the other אֱלֹהִים 'elohim (Psalm 14 cf. 53), may suggest that it was already common early in the period during which the Bible texts were being first written.

For people used to hearing 'elohim mean "the gods" it's use for יְהוִה alone must have been striking!

 


 

This page is part of the Postmodern Bible Commentary - Amos , if you have reached it as a standalone page, to view it in context, go to www.bible.gen.nz © Tim Bulkeley, 2013, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.