I have a long term interest in the meaning and use of the names and titles of God in the Old Testament (OT). One thing that has puzzled me is how the plural Elohim can be used (very often!) for Israel’s one God. Scholars offer several explanations for this, such as that it is an instance of the ‘majestic plural’, an honorific use of the plural for a singular referent. Explanations such as this have never fully clarified the issue for me.
That Elohim can be used both ways is clear from a word play found in the OT. Compare these verses:
This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshiped other gods…
(2 Kings 17:7 NRSV)
So the king [Jeroboam I] took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28 NRSV)
Exodus 32:4, 8 contain virtually identical statements to Jeroboam’s in the mouth of Aaron, brother of Moses. In fact, the Ten Commandments open with nearly identical words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exod 20:2 NRSV).
The interesting thing is that the form of “your/their God” and “your gods” in these references is practically identical. It is only the pronouns used in the context that determines whether the one God or many ‘gods’ are being referred to. So there is in references like 1 Kings 12:28 and Exod 32 a word play going on, one that almost hints at how close syncretistic (blended) versions of true faith can look to the real thing.
But what has really interested me most recently, on reading 1 Kings 12, is the way elohim appears in 1 Kings 11:33:
This is because he has forsaken me, worshiped Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways… (1 Kings 11:33 NRSV)
The word ‘god’ here, used three times of non-Israelite (i.e. false) gods and goddess, is again elohim, that is, the plural form of the term. I had never noticed this use before – the plural form describing not just Israel’s one God, but singular deities of other nations! It only confirms how comfortably what looks like a plural word can be used of a singular being.
As for the use of Elohim v. Yahweh for Israel’s God, there’s more than a post in that, but more to come, I trust, on this fascinating topic.