🔼The name Elohim: Summary
- Unclear, but probably Powers or Forces
- Unclear, but probably from a reference to the singular total of all natural forces; the observable effect of Logos.
🔼The name Elohim in the Bible
Elohim is one of three Divine Names by which the Creator is known as he creates. The creation account is probably the most difficult and most enigmatic passages in the Bible. It starts at the beginning and it doesn't really end.
There are three stages upon which the creation unfolds. The first stage stretches from Genesis 1:1 to 2:4. During this period God is known as Elohim. From Genesis 2:4 he is known as YHWH Elohim. The third stage starts around the Noah cycle and flows over into the Abraham cycle and beyond across the rest of the Bible. Abraham, after all, was the first to believe and became not only a new creation but also the first of a new continuum of new creations. During this stage God is known as Dabar YHWH, or Word Of God.
For more on this read our article on the Chaotic Set Theory.
In 1 Samuel 10:5 occurs גבעה האלהים; the Hill of Elohim, which merits our name's inclusion in our list of Biblical mountains.
🔼Etymology of the name Elohim
'Elohim' is a plural word, which is peculiar because God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). Still, the singular form of the word Elohim is Eloah (אלה), and that form is used frequently in the Bible as well. In between these sits the construct form, that is: the plural form without the final ם (mem), or אלהי, Elohai, and indicative of a rudimentary genitive: 'Elohim of' or 'God of' or 'gods of'.
The etymology of both these terms is generally deemed uncertain but most likely they come from a root אלה ('lh):
Unlike our English word "God," the Hebrew words for God — namely אל ('el), אלה ('eloah) and אלהים ('elohim) — are part of such a vast array of words that today nobody quite knows what the divine concept might have entailed to the ancients. Religion as we know it reflects collective identities and codes of conduct, but the divine was considered long before societies became centralized and religions became politicized. In fact, the Biblical concept of the divine has much more to do with modern science than with modern religions (Genesis 4:26, 1 Kings 4:33, Romans 1:20, Colossians 2:3, 1 Thessalonians 5:21; also see 1 Kings 18:21 relative to Matthew 11:4-5 and John 14:12 and realize that the name Baal means "lord"; Matthew 7:21-23).
Our Hebrew words for God may be native to the cluster אלל אול אלה ('lh, 'wl and 'll), which covers ideas that have to do with sticking out (from protruding trees to curious deer to foolish humans who defy convention). But they may also come from the verb אלה ('ala), to swear or curse, which suggests that God would be "that by which one swears" (whatever that might mean — as a witness? as a judge? as observable reality that will weed out unstable elements much alike the commercial market does in the human word? who knows?). From the latter verb come the noun אלה ('ala), an oath, and the noun תאלה (ta'ala), a curse.
The demonstrative pronoun אלה ('eleh), which also occurs truncated as אל ('el), means these, which suggests that God represents whatever can be observed the way a pronoun represents a noun. This pronoun possibly has to do with the Arabic definite article (meaning "the") which survives in Hebrew as אל ('al), and in English in words like alcohol and algebra. The common Hebrew definite article is ה (he), which also serves as a particle of motion-toward. Another particle of motion-toward is אל ('el), which suggests that God is that which approaches.
But then again, the word אל ('al) is an adverb of negation. This special adverb doesn't simply mean "no" and never combines with an imperative (it's never part of a negative command) but always with imperfect and jussive moods (which express continuous actions or wishes). It means "lest", "shouldn't" or "let not," which suggests that God is he who prevents bad things.
In Greek the word for God is θεος (theos), which is also not a highly reserved word but a very common element of a vast array of very common words.
In HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, R. Laird Harris Ph.D. states, "Most frequently mentioned suggestions for an original meaning are "power" or "fear" but these are widely challenged and much disputed. It may be noted that even if the origin of the word in Canaanite or proto-Semitic is from a root meaning power, this by no means indicates the connotation in Hebrew religious usage. Our word "deity" comes from a root in Sanskrit to mean "sky" but we do not worship a sky-god".
The Abarim Publications Editorial Team feels compelled to reluctantly oppose professor Harris' point of view and subsequent logic. If the word El originates in a root that means power, the explicit loss of this meaning must be proven (and if proof fails the meaning stands). That the Judaic tradition supports the idea that the most rudimentary experience of God has to do with power is demonstrated by Luke 1:49, "For the Mighty One has done great things for me," and Matthew 26:64, "...you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right of Power.."
Here at Abarim we surmise that the name El was drafted from Canaanite theology the way the term Logos was lifted from Greek philosophy (and terms like King of Kings, Savior of the World, Son of God from Roman theology), but all in an attempt to express essential Hebrew thought in local theological currency. This essential Hebrew thought is of course the idea that creation exists and operates by means of an unchanging, perfectly just and utterly unified law, which (or who) existed in its most fundamental principle prior to the emergence of the singularity, because of which the singularity emerged, and the knowledge of which allows a human to know God.
Another piece of (circumstantial) evidence comes through the name Abi-albon, which may mean Father Of Strength. This man is called Abi-albon in 2 Samuel 23:31 but Abiel (El Is Father) in 1 Chronicles 11:32.
The particle אל occurs often in names, and in our attempts to translate, we should also take the alternative meanings in account:
In names אל ('el) usually refers to אלהים ('elohim), that is Elohim, or God, also known as אלה ('eloah). In English, the words 'God' and 'god' exclusively refer to the deity but in Hebrew the words אל ('l) and אלה ('lh) are far more common and may express approach and negation, acts of wailing and pointing, and may even mean oak or terebinth.
It is impossible to combine all these words and seek for a fundamental meaning without beaching on the banks of triviality, but it must be noted that the general form of אל is much more common in Hebrew than our word "god" is in Germanic. It seems to be charged with a firmness and fixedness (oak, terebinth, these, oath) but also with the notion of separateness and disparateness (no/ not), as well as a rudimentary sense of the transfinite (unto, into).
In whichever way the Hebrews saw God, the names El and Elohim were far richer in definite meaning than our abstract word "god". And whatever the etymology of either אל or אלה or אלהים, in the Bible these words are thoroughly intertwined.
Though certainly much debated, the name Elohim (still most probably) has to do with the first God-experience that people had; awe or reverence for the powers of nature, and the desire to know these forces and live happily ever after in perfect and prosperous harmony with these forces of nature.
In the Bible, this word is used for God himself, but also so-called gods, the wooden or stone images people worshiped — which in turn suggests that this word refers to theology (man's compatible representation of the divine) rather than the divine itself. This is also not at all unbiblical as Jesus was the "Word in the flesh," which means that Jesus embodies theology rather than theos. And in case you were wondering: just like psychology is not the study of the human psyche (which can't be measured) but of human behavior (which can be measured), so is theology not the study of God (who can't be measured) but rather the study of the whole of observable reality as a single complex system (which can be measured).
Religion, at best, is the theatre in which theology is expressed in an obviously fictional way — a beautiful ritual or celebratory song may move an audience as much as a skillful rendering of Romeo and Julia might bring tears to one's eyes. The trouble starts when the audience forgets that they're in a theatre and that the folks on stage are actors who wear costumes and get salaries to proclaim pre-written scripts.
The word Elohim is in the Bible even used to (probably) mean 'angels' and even 'judges'. For a list of occurrences where the word elohim does not mean God, see our article on the First Commandment.
Bottom line: the Name Elohim has something to do with powers: The Powers That Be; The Many Powered. To indicate the Living God this word can be accompanied by YHWH or any description like Elyon, or Shaddai.
Also note that the Hebrew name אל ('el) transliterated into Greek forms Ηλ, which constitutes the first syllable of the word ηλιος (helios), meaning sun and which originates in a very ancient proto Indo-European root.