Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
There are three roots of the form אלה ('lh) in the Bible, and one demonstrative pronoun. Of one of the three roots אלה ('lh) presumably come the Hebrew words for God.
It's meritorious to realize that where our word 'God' is a highly reserved word for the one true deity, and other 'gods' are indicated by the lower-case g, in Hebrew the words for 'God' and 'gods' are identical, are used for other ideas as well, and are part of a cluster of identical and similar words.
Moderns tend to assume that the ancients first began to develop their theologies in response to their fears of nature, but that's medieval nonsense. Up until the modern Renaissance, all science, technology and the arts were governed by one unified wisdom tradition. That means that until the Renaissance, a learned person would know everything about everything, and that is also why art from before the Renaissance so often expresses deep skill in what today are considered unrelated disciplines.
Before the Renaissance, the wisdom tradition was as universal as the laws of nature, and greedily swept across the world in utter disregard for political boundaries. That is why certain crafts such as agriculture and metallurgy — which are both not simply one activity but a whole spectrum — could arise pretty much simultaneously across wide regions. Folks like priests, druids and shamans were scientists, engineers, metallurgists, philosophers, doctors and artists combined. They were not merely the ancestors of modern preachers but of the whole spectrum of scientists, artists and entertainers.
The Sumerians were the first at pretty much everything and the Egyptians built buildings that we today could not produce. The armies of these regions may sometimes have been at odds with each other but their men of wisdom thrived within the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Moderns tend to believe that Israel was an isolated pocket of revelation within a desert of stupidity, but that too is medieval nonsense. A major theme of the Bible is the constant travelling of people across the entire known world, from Babylon to Egypt and Cush, from Arabia to Europe and perhaps even China (Genesis 12:1, 37:28, Numbers 12:1, 1 Kings 10:1-15, Isaiah 49:12, Matthew 2:1, Acts 2:5-11), whereas staying in the same place is obviously associated to failure (Genesis 11:1-9).
Another folly of moderns is to think that the ancients were primitive, superstitious and all together not too clever. Instead, these people were precisely as intelligent as we are today, but their heads weren't filled with the vast library of distractions we treat ourselves to on a daily basis. Our knowledge and their knowledge do not relate like, say, a child's drawing versus the schematic of the space shuttle, but are of similar height and depth but with different focal points. They didn't have iron not because they didn't know how to work it, but simply because that's not what their society was going for. In other words: their men of wisdom had better things to do than figure out how to make steel, and where we today are great at making implements of destruction, they were great at things we know nearly nothing about. What's left of their legacy has for long been dubbed fables and mythology, but most recent times have seen an increasing urge of researchers to brave the truth: we are the stupid ones, not they.
These phenomenal ancient keepers of all of mankind's wisdom combined also gave us the source texts of the Bible. Hence the Bible does not merely speak of theological or even mythological matters, as many today believe, but the whole of wisdom across the entire scientific, technological and artistic spectrum (see our article on the names Zarephath and Menorah, or check out our riveting Introduction to Quantum Mechanics). And these same ancient scientists knew the universal Creator and Maintainer by a word that was identical to the words for 'these' and a verb that means to swear.
What these words have in common is an urgency to point something out, to highlight some phenomenon or focus the attention. To the ancients, God was not some old bearded guy in the sky but rather a single living Being from whom all reality derived; the description of whom would not lead to a mathematical Grand Unified Theory, but to a living and caring Word called Dabar in Hebrew and Logos in Greek.
To the ancients, the Living God was not some invisible deity that you simply had to believe in (and whose invisibility was merely a ploy to test one's faith), but the obvious, unified mind behind the whole, clearly observable universe (Romans 1:20). Karl Marks was right when he noted that politicians like to anaesthetize the masses with debilitating religions, and that is precisely why the Romans persecuted the Jews and Christians. According to Cassius Dio, the charge upon which many were condemned was Atheism (read our article on the name Hebrew for more on this; also see our article on the Greek word πιστις, pistis, meaning "faith").
Also note the similarities between the following word group and the root-group אלל אול ('wl and 'll), and particularly the noun אלה ('allah, and 'elah), meaning oak or terebinth, which appears to demonstrate that the ancients saw their reality as a forest of interlocked (evolutionary) trees, rather than the steady-state model of medieval exegetes. It also strongly suggests that Abraham wasn't just having a picnic when YHWH met him at the oaks of Mamre but was involved in the local wisdom school (Genesis 18:1). Likewise the Oak of Deborah (a name derived from Dabar, or Logos in Greek) was not simply an arboreal place of repose but a particular school of science and technology (Genesis 35:8). And likewise, Absalom's famous demise with his hair stuck in the branches of an oak, is not simply a snazzy Hollywood ending but demonstrates that Absalom was overwhelmed by superior theory, or rather: the natural rules upon which the world works (2 Samuel 18:9).
The demonstrative pronoun אלה ('eleh) means these, and obviously occurs all over the Bible (like in the opening phrases of the book of Exodus: Elleh shemot benay Israel; these are the names of the sons of Israel). This pronoun exists in similar form in other major Semitic languages.
On occasion this pronoun comes preceded by the definite article ה (he), which either emphasizes the demonstrativeness, or re-refers to certain articles: אלה means 'these' and האלה means 'the these' or 'those' (Joshua 4:20).
The root אלה ('lh I) is the assumed root of the words אל (El), אלה (Eloah) and אלהים (Elohim). That is, if these words come from the same root in the first place — but if they do then that root would like אלה ('lh).
But whatever the etymology might be, in the Bible the words El and Elohim are most often associated with might or power. They are most often applied to God, but also to manufactured idols or tribal deities (Genesis 31:30, 35:4, Exodus 32:4, Daniel 5:23), powerful men (for אל, 'el: Ezekiel 31:11, 32:21 Job 41:17, 2 Kings 24:15, Isaiah 9:6). And sometimes our word אל ('el) means power directly, such as in Proverbs 3:27, Micah 2:1, Deuteronomy 28:32, Nehemiah 5:5 and Genesis 31:29: יש־לאל ידי (ys-l'l ydy), meaning "it is according to the power of my hand". 1 Samuel 14:15 speaks of a 'mighty' (אלהים) earthquake, and in 1 Samuel 28:13, the witch of En-dor sees power (אלהים) arise from the earth. The prophet Jonah observed that Nineveh was a great and mighty (אלהים) city (Jonah 3:3).
The word אלהים ('elohim) is a plural word but in Hebrew plural is often deployed to express reverence or emphasis (comparable to English expressions such as "very, very good" or 'the band, Elwood, the band!'). It obviously describes a singular entity when it refers to the one and only Creator, but in contexts such as Exodus 32:1, where the people ask Aaron to make them אלהים, this word clearly refers to a singular item: a god or cluster of idols and their associated theology.
The word אלה ('eloah), also denoting God, appears to be a forced singular form derived from the curious plural word אלהים ('elohim) that's being used as a singular word anyway. The word אלה ('eloah) occurs mostly in the older parts of the Bible, and then again in the youngest parts, when the people under Ezra began to desire that old time religion, and associated phraseology.
Note that the form אל ('l) may also be:
- אל ('al), which is the Hebrew transliteration of the Arabic article that survives in English in words like alcohol and algebra. There are some words in the Hebrew Bible that are transliterations of Arabic words, which contain this article.
- אל ('al), particle of negation; not, no, neither.
- אל ('el) preposition that expresses motion towards someone or something; unto, into, besides, in reference to.
- אל ('el), which is a rare, truncated variant of the demonstrative pronoun אלה ('eloah) discussed above.
The verb אלה ('ala II) means to swear or curse, which makes some scholars embrace the view that God is He Who Swears, or even simply The Oath. This is not all that far-fetched because the name Elisheba (which in Greek is Elizabeth) means just that: God Is Oath. Our verb is essentially a vehicle to express fidelity, and whether etymologically sound or not, it declares that God will always be true to his word (the Faithful One — see Revelation 19:11).
Our verb אלה ('ala II) occurs only sporadically; the more common verb for to swear is שבע (shaba'). Our verb אלה ('ala II) means to swear in the sense of taking an oath before God (1 Kings 8:31, Hosea 10:4), or it may denote a curse (Judges 17:2), or a kind of adjuration or spell (1 Samuel 14:24).
This verb's derivatives are:
- The feminine noun אלה ('ala), meaning an oath (Leviticus 5:1), a covenantal oath (Genesis 24:41), a curse (Numbers 5:23) or even an embodied curse (Numbers 5:27, Jeremiah 29:18).
- The feminine noun תאלה (ta'ala), meaning curse (Lamentations 3:65 only).
The verb אלה ('ala III) means to wail, or so it is supposed. This verb occurs only once, in Jonah 1:8, in the form אלי ('ly). Very few scholars have opted that God might be a Wailer, but BDB Theological Dictionary indicates that this root may have more to do with the onomatopoeic interjection אללי ('allay), meaning alas! or woe! (Micah 7:1 and Job 10:15 only), than with the previous two roots אלה ('lh).
This curious root comes with one derivative, the evenly curious feminine noun אליה ('alya), denoting a Levantine delicacy consisting of a sheep's fat tail. This dish was specifically mentioned as element of various offering rituals (Exodus 29:22, Leviticus 3:9). None of the sources dares venture an explanation for this word, but perhaps it was the Hebrew equivalent of the German herrlich, which literally means Lord-like or divine, and which is commonly used to declare deliciousness.