Elohim: Singular or Plural?

I was just directed by a friend to an atrocious Wikipedia article about the word Elohim. Here are some of the doozies from the article:

. . . the parallelism suggests that Elohim may refer to human rulers.

No, it doesn’t.

In Strong’s concordance . . .

Yikes.

There are many theories as to why the word is plural:

Michael Heiser has suggested that verses such as Ps. 82:6 (El in within of Elohim) refer to a “Divine Council” of elohim serving the Creator.

This isn’t a theory about why the word is plural, and what on earth does “El in within of Elohim” mean?

A plural noun governing a singular verb may be according to oldest usage.

Me fail English? That’s unpossible!

I referenced a book that discusses this issue a while ago when I was on blogspot (here). The book, Joel S. Burnett’s A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim, posits what I believe to be the most logical explanation of the Hebrew Bible use of the word אלהים. Briefly put, the word was originally an abstract plural that later became concretized. For the abstract plural see חיים (life), זקנים (old age), or בתולים (maidenhood). (See Gesenius 124 d-f for more examples.) אלהים thus meant something like “divinity,” or “deity.” Burnett points to numerous uses of the pluralized form of the Syro-Palestinian ‘l (‘ilanu) with a referent that is single in number. Usually it is a deity, but it is often used to reference the Egyptian pharaoh. The use is not unique to the Bible or to Hebrew, which it predates by several centuries.

With constant and specific usage this abstract plural began to develop a more definite semantic quality, and, according to Burnett, became concretized in reference to the Israelite deity. It didn’t lose its other semantic values, though, and continued to be used abstractly, adjectively, and as a simple plural. In some places the definite article marks its usage, but usually it’s more vague. Its usage in reference to the deceased Samuel and to angels (maybe) in a couple places indicates some (or all) Israelites had a more broad view of what qualified as divine than what many traditional readers of the Bible will recognize today. The use of plural verbs and adjectives in some areas where the singular is expected may sometimes be the result of harmonization or confusion, but is sometimes simply a remnant of Israel’s polytheistic past.

Burnett’s book is not quoted once in the above-mentioned Wikipedia article. This is a serious oversight, and in my opinion leaves readers with a Wikipedia entry that entertains every idiotic theory under the sun except the right one. As I found out the hard way a while ago, however, it’s sometimes better to leave Wikipedia alone rather than do battle with those who quote Strong’s and guard their edits like trolls under bridges. I think this seriously handicaps Wikipedia’s utility and prevents people going there for a balanced opinion from finding accurate information. I think this further substantiates my own personal theory that Wikipedia is the Great Whore.


11 responses to “Elohim: Singular or Plural?

  • Jim

    i love this-

    As I found out the hard way a while ago, however, it’s sometimes better to leave Wikipedia alone rather than do battle with those who quote Strong’s and guard their edits like trolls under bridges. I think this seriously handicaps Wikipedia’s utility and prevents people going there for a balanced opinion from finding accurate information. I think this further substantiates my own personal theory that Wikipedia is the Great Whore.

    it’s my quote of the day

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks Jim. It was nice to get it off my chest. I have a sister doing a PhD in stats and she says Wikipedia is heavily reviewed in the sciences and is very accurate, but in biblical studies it seems to be the exact opposite.

  • Mike Aubrey

    I think Mike Heiser would hate to see himself cited like this…

  • Jason

    I almost choked on my Mini-Wheats!

  • Rick Wadholm Jr

    “Me fail English? That’s unpossible.” AND Wikipedia being referred to as “the great whore”…

    HAHAHA…I don’t know that I’ve laughed so hard about a blog posting in quite some time.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      The “me fail English” line is from the Simpsons:

      The Wikipedia line is my very own. I’m glad I could bring a little levity to everyone’s day.

  • John Anderson

    Glad to see you referencing Burnett’s dissertation. As I was reading the post I was going to mention it. He was one of my teachers here at Baylor, and I read this volume when I applied to Baylor for Ph.D. work.

    You may be interested to know that Burnett has a new volume out on divine absence, published by Fortress. I believe it will be available at SBL.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment John. I really enjoyed the book. I’ll have to take a good long look at his new one. Thanks for the heads up!

  • Christopher Heard

    So … did you fix it? Or did you just let it go?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I just let it go. The discussion on the page kept mentioning someone who keeps changing everyone’s edits back to how he likes it. I’m not willing to fight that fight.

  • WalkerW

    “I think this further substantiates my own personal theory that Wikipedia is the Great Whore”

    I just about died.

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