Take the 2-minute tour ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I was looking at the Holman Christian Standard Bible and I saw that Elohim is plural. Were it to be translated plural it would read something like:

"In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth."

But our English translations all show that "God" created the heavens and the earth, not "gods".

This made me think of a later passage in Genesis (same chapter, though):

Genesis 1:26 (NIV) (emphasis obviously added)
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

In both the NIV and HCSB translations, Elohim (plural) says "Let us" in the English translation.

I can't imagine that the entire translation of "God" throughout the bible has been wrong for thousands of years. Yet, the word is plural!!

Why is the plural "elohim" translated as the singular "God"?

share|improve this question

closed as off topic by Richard Oct 17 '11 at 17:20

Questions on Christianity Stack Exchange are expected to relate to Christianity within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
What verse did you quote in the first quote? I don't see that rendition of Gen 1:1 in the HCSB. –  Caleb Sep 9 '11 at 18:49
    
Yeah, it's not a verse, but my understanding of how that should have been translated. (I wasn't sure how to represent that correctly, so I chose the block quote without attaching a biblical reference--and also put it in quotation marks.) It could probably use fixing, but I'm not sure how... –  Richard Sep 9 '11 at 18:51
    
I think this article gci.org/god/elohim4 is relevant. –  DJClayworth Sep 9 '11 at 20:09
    
That is a great article, although his assertions regarding English are incorrect. (Granted, that is not at all germain to the article or this question, but I thought I'd mention it.) –  Richard Sep 9 '11 at 20:19
2  
I strongly recommend reading Why is the word for G-d in Genesis plural? and The Absolute Unity of G-d (both from Stack Exchange's Jewish Life and Learning site). –  Dori Sep 9 '11 at 21:51
show 2 more comments

5 Answers 5

up vote 29 down vote accepted

The reason this plural noun is translated into other languages as a singular noun is because it's being used with a singular verb.

This would be comparable to saying "Ants is here to stay" instead of "Ants are here to stay". It turns this plural word ("ants") into a proper noun.

Example with singular verb

In Genesis 1:1 (referenced in the question), we see a great example of the plural elohim being used with a singular verb:

enter image description here

In this text, elohim is being matched with the singular verb bra. This indicates elohim is the proper noun and it's translated as "God".

King James Version

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Example with plural verb

However, when Elohim is used with a plural verb, it's translated as plural "gods":

enter image description here

Here, elohim is used with olim, which is also plural. This is, therefore, translated as "gods" (or sometimes "spirits").

King James Translation (emphasis added)

And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

Plural as Singular

Dori pointed me to a question on Judaism.se discussing this point. Their answers show that there are some words in Hebrew that, although they end in the im (making them plural), are not actually plural. The Hebrew word for "sky" (shamayim) also ends in im, making it plural in some cases, singular in others: based on the verb. (Also, this makes the translation "heavens" or "sky" based on the plurality, for what that's worth.)

This accounts for why a word that appears to be plural--indeed many reference sites indicate that it indeed is plural--but is actually used as a singular word. When we read the original Hebrew, we presume that because it ends in im, it is plural. The truth is, though, that this may or may not be a plural word; we have to look at the verb.

(There are a couple of analogues to this in English: For example news, clothes, species, panties, etc.)

Summary

Because of the verb that is being used is singular, we can be confident in our assessment that this is a singular god that is performing all these tasks. Also, the use of the singular verb converts this plural noun into a proper name.

Source

share|improve this answer
1  
wow, great explanation! –  Andrew Sep 9 '11 at 21:26
1  
+1 these are the sort of answers I come here for. excellent work. :) –  Dave DeLong Sep 9 '11 at 22:26
    
+1 Good answer! There are a couple of issues with the Hebrew that I can point out if you want me to, but it's not essential: the answer is valid as it stands. It would merely be for interest's sake! :-) –  seraph Sep 21 '11 at 15:46
    
And why God says let us build men in our image? Why not let me build men in my image? –  Jim Thio Apr 29 '13 at 7:57
add comment

This is because God is triune; three persons with one nature.

My answer on the doctrine of the trinity explains this in detail, but the relevant excerpt for Genesis is as follows. See the other answer for how this leads to an understanding of a triune God.

God Is Plural

Let's examine the scriptures to speak to God's plurality, and then see if we can understand the way that one God can also be three.

The first hint you can see is in Genesis 1, at the end of Day 6 when God creates man:

Gen 1:26-27

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

From this passage we could deduce that in some way, God is in some manner plural. (We can also see that the image of God is both male and female, even though scripture consistently refers to the Godhead in the male gender).

Actually, though it's not obvious from the English, the first indication of plurality in God is in the very first verse in the Hebrew word for God:

The Hebrew word translated "God" is the word El or Elohim. Elohim is the plural form of El. The plural form is used 2607 of the 2845 times the word "God" is used in the Old Testament. Not only is the word for God usually used in the plural form, but several verses refer to God as "Us"

An example of how the Hebrew word Elohim is used in the plural is that it is translated "gods" (referring to idols) 235 times in the Old Testament. It is exactly the same word that is translated "God," referring to the Almighty. An example is given below:

"I am the LORD your God [Elohim], who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. "You shall have no other gods [Elohim] before Me. (Exodus 20:2-3)

Rich Deem (God and Science.org)

share|improve this answer
    
Well, darn. I was about to post my own answer referencing this! :P –  El'endia Starman Sep 9 '11 at 17:25
    
So, all the translations ever made of the Old Testament should have been "In the beginning, gods created the heavens and the earth"? (Or maybe "the godhead"? or "Gods"?) –  Richard Sep 9 '11 at 17:26
1  
@Richard: I think Godhead would make more sense than gods since the plural is usually used to talk about idols. But God works too because God represents three persons: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. –  styfle Jan 11 '12 at 6:58
add comment

The Bible is very emphatic that God is one, that there is One God, and there is no other. It is true that Elohim is a plural form. While this does not explicitly teach the Trinity, it is consistent with it.

God's revelation of Himself is progressive. Every bit of theology is not contained in the first sentence of the Bible. We have to read the rest of it. The Spirit of God is actually mentioned in verse 2.

Something that we see is that every creation bears the image of its Creator. A painting reflects the mind and abilities of the painter. Time, space, and matter also bear the image of their Creator.

Time is seen as past, present, and future, but all those are time. Space is measured in three-dimensions--length, width, and height--but it's all space. Matter coexists in solid, liquid, and gas, but it's the same substance. A person has a body, soul, and spirit.

We are correct in saying "Time is money" rather than saying "Times are money." Dihydrogen oxide may be liquid, solid, or gas, but it's H20 nonetheless.

So, while God is in His essence Father, Son, and Spirit, it is God who created the heavens and the earth--not gods.

share|improve this answer
    
In the example "Time is money", "time" is singular. Also, H2O refers to a single molecule. I'm not sure where you were going with those two examples. –  Richard Sep 9 '11 at 18:01
1  
Also, I agree that "The Bible is very emphatic that God is one", but do those verses us the plural Elohim? Wouldn't that be translated to "gods are one"? –  Richard Sep 9 '11 at 18:02
    
@richard yes, time is singular in English. So is God. The examples were given to exhibit the pattern in creation of little trinities that bear the image of the Triune God. That's all. –  Narnian Sep 9 '11 at 18:06
    
Elohim contains a Yud-Mem, making it seem plural to us, but so do Hebrew words like sky and ocean. See Rabbi Tovia Singer's explanation of the "plurality" of Elohim: youtube.com/watch?v=MhVD1DKaIbY –  Bob Black Sep 9 '11 at 19:53
add comment

This could be one of two things (or both).

  1. God is referring to Himself in a way that is consistent with the idea of the Trinity: God being made of three persons (with one nature). See the answers on this question for more detail.

  2. This could also be analogous to the so-called Majestic plural. In essence, similar to how kings and queens referred to themselves in the plural, God refers to Himself in the plural.

Personally, I think the primary reason is that God is plural, as per the concept of the Trinity, but the majestic plural part adds to it.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Jesus Christ Created the Earth and the Heavens

What you're seeing is Christ speaking with His father.

Colossians 1:14-16 (NKJV)

14 in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.

share|improve this answer
5  
This is a question attempting to understand how a plural Hebrew word from the old testament is translated into our modern language. This doesn't answer the question. –  Richard Sep 9 '11 at 18:49
add comment

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.