Why is Elohim Plural?

‘Elohim (אלהים) is morphologically plural, but as everyone knows, it’s frequently used in reference to singular subjects (primarily the God of Israel). The Bible is not the only place this happens, though. The Akkadian word for “gods,” ilanu, frequently occured in reference to singular subjects in the Amarna Letters (almost always in correspondences written by Syro-Palestinians to Egyptians), in Akkadian texts from Ugarit, and at Taanach and Qatna. The Phoenician ‘lm is used the exact same way. This usage predates the appearance of this phenomenon in Biblical Hebrew and is no doubt at the root of it. The distribution of this kind of usage moves from the coast to the valleys and then to the highlands.

We know from patterns in the languages in which this phenomenon occurs that it most likely derives from the abstract plural. This is the expression of an abstraction through the plural form of the noun or adjective. We see this in Hebrew with ‘abot, “fatherhood,” the plural of ‘ab, “father,” and zequnim, “old age,” the plural of zaqen, “old,” among many others. Some of these terms were used in reference to an individual entity or object that exemplified the quality of the abstraction. For instance, in Dan 9:23 Gabriel tells Daniel that he is a hamudot, which, as an abstract plural, means “desirableness,” or “preciousness.” In this instance, the abstract should be concretized in reference to Daniel. He is not “desirableness,” but one who exemplifies that quality. He is highly esteemed. Joel Burnett suggests “concretized abstract plural” as a designation for this usage. The word ‘elohim still retains its other uses (the simple plural, etc.), but can be used to refer to singular subject. ‘Elohim, then, means “divinity,” or “deity.” The God of Israel exemplifies divinity.

For a more complete discussion, the best treatment is Joel Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Atlanta, Ga.; Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 7–24.

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11 responses to “Why is Elohim Plural?

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  • Steven B

    Thanks for posting this. I had often heard the suggestion of a “plural of majesty,” which always sounded kind of lame. Your explanation makes sense.

    I dropped out of Akkadian because the class was held at 7:00 am and I don’t do mornings.

  • Lance Ponder

    Yeah, I agree with Steve. This is one of the better explanation, apart from supporting the trinity.

  • anummabrooke

    I don’t think that I would see this “plural of abstraction” as at odds with the “plural of majesty” answer, but rather as another “take” on the same thing. Think of how we use abstraction in English for “your Highness,” or “your majesty.” That is, “majesty” *is* an abstraction. The “plural of majesty” will use the same examples and the same reasoning.

    I do find this way of talking about it helpful.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment, Brooke. I personally have never been a fan myself of the plural of majesty, but I don’t know too much about it. I’ve never seen a clear discussion of how it was developed as a grammatical principle, but it seems to me to have derived almost exclusively from a need to explain ‘elohim. I imagine the scholarship is in German somewhere, but I wouldn’t know where to look. Perhaps you have a little more experience with it.

      Burnett talks briefly about the plural of majesty, pointing out that it doesn’t really have explanatory power in the other languages. In the Amarna Letters, for instance, we find the plural of “servant” used with a singular referent (EA 47.11). This can’t be the plural of majesty, and so proponents of that view have defined it as the “plural of modesty.” In the same letters the land of Egypt is referred to with the plural “lands,” but so are subordinate lands, like Qatna. Burnett points out that the notion of a plural of majesty within Semitic languages is drawn from Biblical Hebrew and doesn’t really work outside of the Bible. Within the Bible the notion is drawn from a need to explain elohim. He argues that a designation that fits all these languages and has a development that can be traced is preferable to a designation that is simply supposed.

      My issue is the following. The plural of majesty only seems to apply to words that can be used in reference to a majestic referent. What about words that apply to non-majestic referents but have the same plural morphology and singular subject? Do we label them plurals of modesty, or plurals of wickedness, depending on what word is used? Why distinguish the grammatical principle according to the connotations of the word when an explanation that can account for them all is available?

      • anummabrooke

        No, I think you’re right. My reply was too brief, and I also didn’t know about the plural of servant (as in EA 47.11), for example (though I know חמודות as a longtime Daniel fan). And I agree with you about linguistic “solutions” that arise from biblical scholarship and that don’t find purchase outside the biblical canon (James Barr is my favorite on this kind of thing: fulminating against the violence that biblical scholarship has done against the field of linguistics will always win points with me).

        What I mean to be saying is that the “plural of majesty” (designed to explain biblical elohim and perhaps behemoth, but also Akkadian usage like you say) turns out to be one plural-of-abstraction among the plurals-of-abstraction. The theory of a “plural of majesty” finds itself, not contradicted, but incorporated, by a theory that explains a *larger* body of evidence. This is my only reason for making a point of it: it sounds to me as if there’s a useful distinction between, “Oh, so there never was a plural of majesty,” and, “Oh, so the biblical ‘plural of majesty’ may be part of a wider ancient usage of the plural for abstraction.”

        (Okay, I’m writing this whole comment while a well-meaning nine-year-old plays *nighmarish* beginner’s alto saxophone next to me. Read me generously and by all means, pity me.)

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the clarification. That makes more sense to me. Incidentally, I am usually typing these posts while a possibly well-meaning two-year-old attempts to stick car keys in the electrical outlets next to me (she can pull the protective covers off), so I sympathize.

  • Hamblin of Jerusalem

    So what is your take on the fact that elohim is frequently ha-elohim with singular verbs. Can an abstract plural take the article prefix ha-?
    Note, too that in the Qur’an the singular Allah (al-ilah) frequently is rendered with plural pronouns and verbs.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I don’t see why not. I’ve not looked to see if other abstract plurals take the definite article, but it makes sense to me that they would refer to the divinity as THE divinity.

  • Free Bible Study Software! | Hearts In Training

    [...] Why is Elohim Plural? « Daniel O. McClellan [...]

  • Israelites were polytheistic - Page 15 - Religious Education Forum

    [...] but that in itself is explained by some scholars as being a "royal" plural. I think Burnett has a far better explanation. __________________ "Hope is a Mitzvah." – Rabbi Miri [...]

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