Maybe someone out there will find this useful. I’ve been analyzing the semantic ranges of the different ways the authors use the words that mean “deity.” As part of this research, I’ve been putting together a document that lists every occurrence of the three Hebrew words and one Aramaic word that mean “deity,” both generic (“god[s]”) and appellative (“God”): elohim, el, eloah, and elah. I finally finished and thought I would share. You can find the Word doc here and the PDF here. I list the word, the number of occurrences, the individual references, and then the number of occurrences by book. I go from the most common word (elohim: 2600 occurrences) to the least common (eloah: 58 occurrences). The next step is to separate out the references to Yhwh from the references to other deities.
Tag Archives: Elohim
I appreciate Michael taking the time to respond to my paper and to provide a number of helpful insights. For those interested, it can be found here. I was especially happy to have him comment that he felt the writing was clear and concise. That’s something I struggle with sometimes, and it’s great to see that the attention I pay to it is producing results. Michael disagrees with some of the main conclusions I reached, but that was expected. I’m glad to have an informed response, and Michael’s comments will provide great food for thought as I develop this research for presentation at a regional SBL, at CSBS, at SBL in November (although in the latter it’s mainly Psalm 82 I’m discussing), and in my Trinity Western masters thesis.
Michael first has some concerns with the preciseness of my language in a couple places. I’ll reproduce them below. I see where he is coming from, but I also have some reflections to share that will hopefully illuminate my thinking on the issues:
On page 3 we read:
“That the Israelite El had a consort is supported by textual and archaeological evidence.”
This is overstated, but reflects what the consensus would say. To correspond to reality, the statement should say this: “That some Israelites believed Israelite El had a consort is supported by textual and archaeological evidence.” Now it’s accurate.
The facts on this statement are as follows: (1) There are indeed textual and archaeological data for an Israelite El with a consort; (2) There is no way short of omniscience to know from those data that ALL Israelites believed El had a consort — including the biblical writers. All the data show for sure is that someone from the period to which the material dates expressed this belief. That’s it. There is simply no way to make such a sweeping generalization, but many scholars do just that.
The criticism is well taken, and I am happy to provide a more precise description of the Israelite pantheon, although I would point to much more than just Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom as indicating an early Israelite view of Asherah as the consort of El. The Taanach cult stand; the 1000+ Jerusalem pillar figurines; the his and her cult stands, incense altars, and standing stones at Megiddo room 2081 and the Arad temple; and the numerous biblical references to the ubiquity of Asherah worship among the Israelite monarchs and laity point in the same direction. It’s the prohibition of those practices that is far more rare prior to the eighth/seventh centuries, and I would argue that it is not insignificant that the few mentions of that prohibition all come from Deuteronomistic writers. Perhaps that’s a debate for another day, though.
Another example from page 3 (speaking of the divine council):
“All three of these tiers were populated by anthropomorphic deities according to both the Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible.”
This is also worded imprecisely, or perhaps unconsciously reflects Dan’s Mormon theology (and that isn’t a moral evil; we all fall prey to our predispositions at times). What I mean here is that Dan’s wording presumes deities are anthropomorphic. The line should say, to be more accurate (and less theologically stilted): “Deities populating all three of these tiers were anthropomorphized according to both the Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible.”
I understand the potential issue with my particular faith, and I’m sure I can’t entirely erase doubts in this area, but my interest in this topic is as purely academic as I can make it. I stumbled onto research related to anti-anthropomorphism while doing some text-critical work on Exodus 24 after reading a paper by Ted Lewis on the chapter. I noticed a pretty big variant in Exod 24:10 between the Hebrew and the Greek and felt the Greek indicated the variant in the Vorlage. I couldn’t find any discussion on the significance of the variant in the Vorlage and felt it might be a fun research project. It turned into an SBL paper I presented in New Orleans and it ultimately became my Oxford masters thesis. Clearly the broader topic of anti-anthropomorphism intersects with Latter-day Saint ideology, and in a general sense I am more interested in research topics that resonate with my personal background with the Bible, but that resonance does not go any deeper than the broader topic. My thesis arrives at far more conclusions that directly conflict with LDS religious belief (and in more significant areas) than that align with it.
I’m a little hesitant regarding “anthropomorphize,” and here’s why. I understand “anthropomorphize” as “to render anthropomorphic,” and in my mind to say that the biblical texts did this would be to presuppose one of two things: (1) the actual existence of a non-anthropomorphic deity apart from the text, or (2) that the Israelites understood God to be non-anthropomorphic, but anthropomorphized him in their literature for the sake of accommodation to literary conventions or for widespread comprehension or something like that. The former conflicts with my general approach to biblical scholarship (I approach it from an exclusively academic point of view and have no interest in espousing any position about a deity apart from the text), and the latter conflicts with what I believe the evidence supports regarding early Israelite conceptions of deity. We are likely to disagree on what the evidence supports, but again, that may be a debate better saved for another day. If I misunderstand Michael’s use of “anthropomorphize,” however, then I am happy to stand corrected.
Dan’s position assumes that one either must read Deut 32:8-9 as having two deities or, perhaps more importantly, that Israelites would not or could not have seen Yahweh and El/Elyon as the same deity in Deut 32:8-9 before Deut 4 was written. So the question is, could Israelites have read Deut 32 and come out with an identification of El/Elyon with Yahweh? I believe so because of the two preceding verses, Deut 32:6-7. I have argued this position before in a paper published in the HIPHIL online journal. Readers can download it for free.
In a nutshell, the writer of Deut 32 utilizes several El epithets and familiar El language evident in vv. 6-7 if one reads Hebrew and is familiar with the corresponding Ugaritic vocabulary. What this means is that Israelite readers of Deut 32, prior to Deut 4 being added, who would have been familiar with El descriptions and motifs, would have readily discerned that these descriptions and motifs were being applied to Yahweh in verses 6-7 — because Yahweh is mentioned by name in v. 6. Any Israelite familiar with El/Elyon epithets would not have missed the message that Yahweh and El were the same deity. And Dan cannot argue that Israelites would not have been familiar with El language, because he presumes that Israelites were familiar with El/Elyon as distinct from Yahweh in vv. 8-9. You can’t say they saw the theological descriptions for keeping El/Elyon and Yahweh separate, but would have missed the same El signage applied to Yahweh two verses earlier. That’s simply inconsistent reasoning.
This is, I believe, the meat of Michael’s disagreement with my paper. This I think is a great topic, and I appreciate his contribution to it. At some other time I would like to dig deeper into the nature of Deut 32:6–7’s use of those terms. Another paper I presented in Atlanta was entirely focused on the meaning of the phrase ’l qn ’rs. In this instance, though, I think Michael may have overlooked what now seems to me to be too subtle a clue as to my position regarding Deut 32. I state the following in the portion he quoted:
This statement is said by the preceding verses to come down from years long past, and points to an archaic distinction between Yhwh and Elyon, or El.
Later I state this:
Verse 7 may provide a key. In it the author tells Israel to ask their fathers, and to hear from their elders the story of Yhwh‘s acquisition of Israel. What follows is likely a piece of communal memory predating the Song of Moses. This story ends at v. 14, following which the focus shifts to Israel’s negligent behavior vis-à-vis their God.
I believe the author of Deut 32:6–7 could very well have read vv. 8–9 as a reference to Yahweh, but I also think he didn’t originally compose vv. 8–9. He states that they (and the following verses) come down from the fathers, and from years long past. Note also that Deut 32:10 states that Yahweh found his people in the desert. This conflicts with Yahweh as Israel’s begetter and creator, per vv. 6–7. In Deut 4:20 Yahweh took Israel out of Egypt to become his people. This is also a distinct idea. I believe the author of vv. 6–7 is quoting a tradition that has come down to his generation, which has renegotiated its meaning. This, however, isn’t what primarily leads me to conclude that Yahweh was originally distinct from El. A number of other considerations contribute in more fundamental ways to that conclusion, and I guess here is as good a place as any to discuss them.
First, a god named El predates the arrival of the Israelites into Syria-Palestine. Biblical usage shows El was not just a generic noun, but often a proper name for Israel’s God (e.g., Gen 33:20: “El, the God of Israel”). That this deity is analogous to the Syro-Palestinian high god is supported by the numerous epithetic and thematic parallels between biblical and Syro-Palestinian representations of the deity (Gen 14:19, 22, for instance). Yahweh, however, is represented by quite distinct imagery, and is epithetically and thematically analogous to the storm deity Baal. Psalm 29 is a clear Yahwistic version of storm deity literary conventions. Michael has elsewhere appealed to v. 10 in that psalm as indicating Yahweh’s kingship over the flood, a motif ostensibly associated with El, but the word for “flood” there refers to the Noahide deluge, not to the waters of heaven. Additionally, I would suggest the context is better suited to a storm deity reading, which is in fact supported by the wider literary context in light of Rendsburg’s reading “Yahweh sit enthroned since the deluge,” which he asserts is made necessary by the psalm’s northern provenance. The storm deity’s accession to an eternal throne finds an analogy in Kothar-wa-Hasis’ proclamation of Baal’s eternal kingship upon defeat of Yam in the Ugaritic literature. Given the clear association of Yahweh with the storm deity and El with the high god, the relationship of El and Baal in other Syro-Palestinian literature provides an attractive analogy that is only further supported in Deut 32:8’s ostensible reference to Yahweh as one of the “sons of El.” I would reject the rabbinic notion of different epithets and imagery for highlighting different aspects of the Deity.
Second, there is a clear chronological threshold before which Yahwism simply does not appear to have existed in Israel. El was the sole God before that threshold, which is delineated primarily by Exod 6:3 and the onomastic evidence (most clearly in Tigay). Both show that there was a time when the name Yahweh was unknown or insignificant to the nation of Israel. Around the rise of the monarchy Yahwistic names begin to pop up, and by the end of the monarchy they are the predominant theophoric naming convention. Exod 6:3 insists that Yahweh’s name was not known prior to Moses’ revelation at Horeb/Sinai. Another literary tradition places the revelation of Yahweh’s name during the time period of Adam’s grandson. If we divide the creation accounts, the patriarchal genealogies, and the flood accounts according to their clear literary seams, however, we get two different versions of those narrative arcs: one that calls God Yahweh, and one that does not. That an editor has retrojected Yahweh’s name into older traditions is, as far as I am aware, pretty standard among scholars. The revelation of Yahweh’s name at Horeb/Sinai is significant also because several scriptures that appear to be older than Exod 6:3 (like Deut 33:2) associate Yahweh’s origins with those southern regions.
And so I ask: which is more coherent:
A. That the writer of Deut 32:8-9 distinguished Yahweh and El/Elyon, but fused them in the two prior verses, and let this separation – fusion tension stand (the two are fused and separated back-to-back) … OR
B. Deut 32:6-7 portray Yahweh and El/Elyon as one and vv. 8-9 are to be read in light of that messaging (there is consistency of presentation over these four verses).
The second option is my view. I would therefore suggest that an Israelite didn’t need Deut 4 to see Yahweh and El/Elyon as the same deity.
I would suggest that the change in the beginning of Deut 32:9 from wayehi to ki indicates a contemporary concern for the identification of Yahweh with the sons of God.
Deut 4 simply echoes that point; it doesn’t filter Deut 32 to make that point. This is why I believe Dan’s position, the consensus position, assumes what it seeks to prove. It assumes a separation in 32:8-9 and then uses Deut 4 to prove that separation. But it doesn’t explain why vv. 6-7 refer to Yahweh with El/Elyon language.
I disagree, however, that vv. 6–7 use Elyon language. They seem to me to use El language alone. There’s nothing that I know of in the Hebrew Bible that ties Elyon—independent of El—to that imagery. The Sefire inscription distinguishes El from Elyon, as does Phylo of Biblos’ Phoenician History. In the Ugaritic texts the closest analogue to Elyon is Aliyn, an epithet for Baal.
Michael follows with a lengthy discussion of the term elohim that I think would be valuable freading. I don’t have much to quibble with in that section that isn’t communicated elsewhere in this post, so I’ll move on to some comments closer to the end of his paper.
1. Dan’s note about the Greek wording in Deut 4 and elsewhere for the host of heaven (tov kosmov tou ouranou) proves nothing except that some Jew somewhere would no doubt have seen what Dan sees there — a de-deification. And that would have made his day. But how do we move from that to a neat theological evolution at a nation-wide, cultural level when there is so much data to the contrary (showing diversity)? See below.
If I had the time and space I would have unpacked some of this quite a bit more in my paper. I think there were tow or three different approaches to deities during the post-exilic and Greco-Roman periods. One approach simply sought to demote deities to a lesser divine station, as with Deut 32:43, while another was to de-deify them, as with Deut 4, John 10:34–35, and Psalm 82 in the rabbinic tradition. A third approach might be the Deutero-Isaiah approach of just saying they are impotent and irrelevant. Obviously it cannot in the end be boiled down to such convenient compartmentalizing, but I think this gives us adequate preliminary models.
Michael summarizes another lengthy section with the following:
All of that is a windy way of saying that you just can’t prove a neat evolution from polytheism to monotheism when there is terminological confusion and so much “polytheistic” material in later Jewish periods. The solution is not to bend the data to a prevailing paradigm — it’s to fix the paradigm. Dan would be an asset for rethinking it, too. Otherwise, we end up making assumptions based on data we’re trying to use to prove the assumptions. I think my views are just more reality-based: (1) Israelites and Jews believed different things about God and the spiritual world throughout their history; (2) Many Israelite and Jews were capable of using elohim to speak of a wide variety of spiritual entities, knowing the whole time that Yahweh was species unique among those elohim; and so (3) Reading and writing texts that had multiple elohim in them was no threat to their monotheism, and wasn’t polytheism. They didn’t parseelohim the way we parse G-o-d, and they weren’t stupid, either.
Diversity among believers. Now why does that sound familiar?
I would agree with all of points one and three and the first half of point two, but it is in the arena of species uniqueness that I see the conflict and development between the late pre-exile and the Greco-Roman period. In my first masters thesis I argued in one portion that anti-anthropomorphism developed slowly and in inconsistent steps as a result of ongoing attempts to rhetorically exalt Israel’s God over the gods of the inner- and inter-cultural demographics with which the biblical authors were interacting. Every time an author pushed Yahweh just a bit further away from other deities, a subsequent generation of authors had a modified view of God upon which they also felt compelled to operate. I think here may be a point of departure between our two approaches to the issue. I am treating a lot of Israelite and Jewish beliefs as growing out of literary traditions as much as, and sometimes more than, cultic and other traditions. In my opinion, when authors modified their literary representation of the deity, it modified future conceptualizations of the deity as well, which translated into modified cultic and liturgical perspectives.
Michael ends with a couple notes.
- I’m well aware of the proposed “crisis catalysts” for the “movement” toward monotheism. I critiqued them in my dissertation. My view is that there is nothing said in the wake of the presumed crisis that many Israelites would not have said prior to said crisis.
- Every time I think of this I think of Carol Newsom’s oxymoronic “angelic elim” term — it shows the desperation to keep the consensus paradigm in the face of all the contrary evidence. The scrolls and their divine plurality language is my regional SBL paper topic this May.
I also don’t like the “crisis” model for the development of monotheism, but I have different reasons. I do think the Dead Sea Scrolls equated the elim with angels. In fact, I think that identification became so widespread that there was no need to conduct much boundary maintenance, and thus no immediate juxtaposition of the two terms at Qumran, as Michael notes elsewhere. As evidence of this, I would point to 11Q10 30:5 (11QtgJob), which replaces “sons of God” with “angels of God,” and to 4Q180, which describes Gen 6:2, 4 as references to angels. Additionally, “Holy Ones,” “Angels,” “Watchers,” and elim are used interchangeably in the scrolls.
I’m sure Michael and I will continue to disagree on many of these points, but this kind of discourse helps me to refine and revise my arguments. For that I’m grateful for Michael’s participation and hope that I can contribute in some small thing to his view of the issue.
‘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.
I recently submitted a term paper on Psalm 82 that I’ve put online here. I hope to further develop the paper (my term papers are usually only half-baked), so I appreciate any feedback. I would point out that I have shifted positions on what I think to be one of the more important aspects of modern study of the psalm, namely the distinction in the psalm between Yhwh and Elyon. I have concluded that the psalm likely comes from the exilic period, which is much too late for Yhwh to be distinguished from Elyon. Rather, I feel the author has drawn his narrative framework from an older northern tradition that likely made the distinction, but understood the two deities to be identical, and organized the content of the psalm accordingly. I also provide what I believe to be a rather unique discussion of the psalm’s genre. I hope you are able to get something useful out of it.
In a recent discussion someone referred me to a footnote in the NET Bible for Exod 21:6 regarding the proper understanding of the verse’s use of אלהים. I had cited a 1935 JBL paper by Cyrus Gordon regarding the proclivity of early lexica to offer “judges” or “rulers” as a translation equivalent for אלהים and the person told me they didn’t think I’d actually read the paper, given the footnote they found, which follows:
The word is הָאֱלֹהִים (ha’elohim). S. R. Driver (Exodus, 211) says the phrase means “to God,” namely the nearest sanctuary in order that the oath and the ritual might be made solemn, although he does say that it would be done by human judges. That the reference is to Yahweh God is the view also of F. C. Fensham, “New Light on Exodus 21:7 and 22:7 from the Laws of Eshnunna,” JBL 78 (1959): 160-61. Cf. also ASV, NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, NLT. Others have made a stronger case that it refers to judges who acted on behalf of God; see C. Gordon, “אלהים in its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” JBL 54 (1935): 134-44; and A. E. Draffkorn, “Ilani/Elohim,” JBL 76 (1957): 216-24; cf. KJV, NIV.
I’ve discussed this issue before here. The bold portion above is a completely inaccurate description of the two articles. In neither article can I find a reference to the idea that אלהים is at all associated with human judges. Both articles, in fact, argue that the word should be seen as analogous to ilâni from the Nuzi tablets. Thus the reference is to statuettes that represent deities (teraphim). The individual would be brought before the statuettes to swear an oath or perform a certain ritual. From Gordon’s article:
Thus the oath of the gods is a well attested ceremony in ancient oriental court procedure and there is no doubt that the same ceremony is indicated by ונקרב בעל־הבית אל־האלהים. It is interesting to note that this idiom, קרב אל־האלהים, is found in its exact Akkadian counterpart in the Nuzi tablets (N I 89:10-12) ana ilâni qarâbu, where the ilâni mean the תרפים.
From the Draffkorn article:
C. H. Gordon was able to point out in a brief study that the term ilâni ‘gods’ was used in Nuzi legal texts in ways that closely paralleled some of the atypical occurrences of OT elohim. These parallels, he concluded, militated against the traditional rendering “judges.” Gordon’s view is borne out by further material that has since come to light.
The article then goes on to provide more insight into the nature and use of the teraphim, before whom the various cases would b dbrought. The reason for the misunderstanding which resulted in the late “judges” translation is also explained:
Nor need we look far for the reason behind the traditional rendering “judges.” The only alternative available to the ancients was “gods,” and this would have come close to idolatry. The use, on the other hand, of divine symbols as aids in deadlocked legal cases must have been discontinued far too early to leave any impression on traditional interpretations.
It seems that whoever is responsible for the footnote here in the NET Bible either didn’t read those two articles, or is being dishonest about what exactly they say.
Something I run across rather frequently on the internet and occasionally in person is the idea that the Hebrew אלהים was used to make reference to human rulers or judges. Some are quick to point out that the BDB gives “rulers, judges” as the first definitions for the word. Some modern translations of the Bible even render these verses with “judges.” My intention today is to explain that this is simply wrong. Cyrus Gordon addressed this issue in JBL (54.3 : 139-44), and that pretty much settled the issue for academia, save a short note on Psalm 82 by one Roger O’Callaghan in CBQ (15 : 311-14) that was never considered very convincing.
The main texts from which this idea derives are Exod 21:6; 22:7, 8, 9; 22:27; Judg 5:8; 1 Sam 2:25; Ps 82:1, 6; 138:1. In Onkelos and the Peshitta Exod 21:6 (Herbew = והגישו אדניו אל־האלהים) has the word “judges” in Aramaic and Syriac, respectively. The Septuagint has τὸ κριτήριον τοῦ Θεοῦ, or “the tribunal of God.” These readings are based on two ideas: (1) we certainly can’t translate it “God,” or, even worse, “gods,” and (2) the context is juridical. The Septuagint does less damage to the text, but they all misrepresent it. Deuteronomy 15:17, where this law is repeated, omits the entire beginning clause. In Exod 22:27 (“You shall neither curse the gods nor curse a ruler of your people”) the Septuagint and the Vulgate both leave the word “gods,” but Onkelos uses “judges.” Several later Rabbinic texts would follow Onkelos, although interpretations and translations varied.
The rationale behind these translations is no longer an acceptable excuse for seeking out an alternative translation. To begin with, the presence of numerous gods thoughout the Hebrew Bible that exist with God’s approbation and even act under his authority is unquestionable. Divine Council ideology pervades every historical layer of biblical literature, from the monarchy (and before) to the late Second Temple Period. This council acted in an administrative capacity, but also in a juridical one. Psalm 82 is the best example of this, where YHWH judges in the midst of other judging deities. He condemns them for their neglect vis-a-vis humanity and is called upon by the psalter to rise up and take over their stewardships. Gods, then, are perfectly comfortable as judges in human juridical contexts. Verse 6 precludes reading the אלהים as humans, since their death, which will be like that of humanity, is strongly contrasted with their nature as sons of Elyon. The word אכן, especially in connection with אמרתי, marks a strong contrast. See Isa 49:4; Zeph 3:7; Ps 31:23; Jb 32:8. כאדם is frontloaded and emphasized, and there is nowhere in the Bible to find a justification for the idea that the בני אל can be considered humans.
Others have argued that the “come before the gods” passages refers to תרפים, which are “household gods,” or penates. This is another possibility. Gordon’s paper points out several Assyro-Babylonian parallels where oaths were sworn to the gods and where judgments were passed because individuals were afraid to swear before the gods. He also points out a Nuzi tablet (N 1.89.10-12) that has an Akkadian phrase that is identical to the Hebrew קרב אל־האלהים, “come before God/the gods.” That Akkadian phrase, ana ilani qarabu, uses ilani to mean penates.
These examples show that there is no reason to search for a different meaning for אלהים. The context does not support a reading of “judges,” but strongly supports “gods,” or “God.” Rejecting it based on the idea that it isn’t monotheistic ignores Israel’s history and some of the most prevalent literary conventions used in the Hebrew Bible. In sum, אלהים does not mean “judges.”
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 . . .
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.