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What Does the Name Elohim Teach Us about God?

Elohim is the third word in the Bible in its original Hebrew. So what does it mean?

Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 11, 2023
What Does the Name Elohim Teach Us about God?

Hebrew scholars translate Elohim as God in modern English Bibles. Elohim comes from the Canaanite word El, which means “mighty one.” Elohim is the third word in the Bible in its original Hebrew. "In the beginning, God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth." (Gen. 1:1)

The Name of God: Elohim

The name "Elohim" is a Hebrew word used in the Bible to refer to God. It is one of the most commonly used names for God in the Old Testament. The exact meaning of the name "Elohim" is a topic of theological and scholarly discussion.

In Hebrew, "Elohim" (אֱלֹהִים) is a plural noun, but it is often used in a singular sense when referring to the God of Israel. Some interpretations and explanations of the name "Elohim" include:

1. Majesty and Plenitude: Some scholars suggest that the plural form "Elohim" may emphasize the majesty and greatness of God. The plural form could be seen as a way of expressing the abundance of God's attributes, power, and sovereignty.

2. Triune God: In Christian theology, "Elohim" is sometimes seen as an early indication of the triune nature of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While this interpretation is more specific to Christian theology, it recognizes the plural nature of the name.

3. Generic Term for Deity: "Elohim" is also used in the Bible to refer to pagan gods and divine beings. In this context, it serves as a generic term for deity. When used for the God of Israel, it signifies the unique and true God.

4. A Singular Plural: Some scholars propose that "Elohim" is a plural form used in a singular sense, perhaps as a form of honor or to convey God's transcendence. In this view, it emphasizes the idea of a singular, all-powerful deity.

The precise meaning of "Elohim" can vary depending on the theological tradition, and it has been the subject of extensive discussion and interpretation over centuries. It's important to note that understanding the name "Elohim" is closely tied to the Hebrew Bible's broader theological and cultural context and the monotheistic beliefs of Judaism and Christianity.

Hebrew Meaning of Elohim

Elohim means God—or gods, depending on the verbs around it. Hebrew verbs change to indicate how many subjects the verb is referring to. When Elohim is used as a name of God, the verbs around it are singular. When it refers to members of the divine council or angelic realm, it will typically be surrounded by plural verbs.

Genesis 1 exclusively uses the name Elohim to refer to God, whereas chapters 2 and 3 use the name YHWH. YHWH is God’s personal, covenantal name, whereas Elohim refers to God more generally. When other nations mention God’s judgment upon Egypt, they refer to God as YHWH.

Where Did the Word Elohim Come from?

Elohim is the plural form of the Canaanite and Hebrew word El, which means mighty one. El is a general name for a deity throughout the Old Testament. Look for it in place names as a reference for God. For example, Bethel, where Jacob had his vision of angels ascending and descending from heaven, means house of God. Beth means house, and el means god.  

Another example comes from Genesis 35, where Jacob builds an altar and calls it “El Elohe Israel.” This means “The God of Israel is God.” This passage comes at the end of a tense encounter with his estranged brother, Esau. Jacob chose to worship God and make an altar proclaiming his faith in the new identity God had given him as they wrestled.

What Does the Old Testament Say About Elohim?

Elohim appears in the Hebrew Bible over 2500 times, most of which refer to the YHYH, the God of Israel. Elohim appears in some of the most important passages to the Hebrews. These are the Shema and the Ten Commandments.

Orthodox Jews recite Deuteronomy 6:4-5, also known as the Shema, twice daily. This prayer forms the core of the Jewish faith. The Shema says, “Hear O Israel, the YHWH our God (Elohim) the YHWH is one. You shall Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.” This shows that YHWH is the one Elohim, the one God. This points to the idea that God is both strong and compassionate. It also promotes absolute monotheism—he is the only God.

What Did Jesus Say About Elohim?

Jesus quotes a passage containing the word Elohim in the original Hebrew but interprets it differently than its typical usage. In Psalm 82, Elohim refers to the assembly of “gods” or other divine beings. Pharisees in Jesus’ day interpreted the “gods” to be human rulers carrying out God’s work of judgment on the earth. Jesus used this line of thinking to prove a point and diminish the charge of blasphemy from the Pharisees. He points out the hypocrisy by showing them their own scriptures refer to humans as gods, so Jesus’ claim of divinity is not as pronounced.  

The other place Jesus uses the word Elohim is in Mark 15:34, where he says, “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani.” Eloi is the Aramaic form of Elohim. Jesus likely referred to Elohim in his prayers to his father.

What Did Rabbinic Jews Believe About Elohim?

The Rabbinic Jewish view of Elohim emphasizes his justice and power. According to the Talmud:

“The name Elohim denotes God’s attribute of justice, as it is written: ‘God of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He’ (Deuteronomy 32:4).” — Talmud, Berakhot 7a

Elsewhere, a Rabbi said:

“Elohim is the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, when He exercises retribution, as it is written: ‘Then the earth shook and quaked, the foundations of heaven trembled; they shook when He was angry’ (Psalms 18:8).” — Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 16

This tracks with the view that Elohim denotes God’s power over creation and everything. YHWH, meanwhile, represents God’s covenant name, which shows his compassion and justice toward his people.

This is supported by Ramabam (Maimonides), who said:

“Elohim represents God’s attribute of justice and power, whereas the name YHVH (pronounced Adonai) represents His attribute of mercy and compassion.” — Rambam (Maimonides), Guide for the Perplexed

From this perspective, it makes sense that Genesis 1 only mentions Elohim rather than YHWH. Genesis 1 made a compelling argument to the surrounding nations by asserting that only one god was responsible for all creation. Like other pantheons, the Ancient Near East societies had many gods for different elements. Genesis 1 argues that one Elohim created everything rather than many Elohim. The verb forms show this because they are singular rather than plural. The one exception is Genesis 1:26, where God refers to himself in the plural, and the verb forms reflect that. Some scholars believe the Elohim in this verse refers to the divine council.

What Do Biblical Scholars Believe About Elohim?

One theory that gained popularity in the late 1800s was the belief that different authors wrote passages of the Old Testament that use the word Elohim than the sections that mention YHWH. The documentary hypothesis grew from the belief that various sources edited the Biblical text, particularly the Torah, over time. The four sources (YHWHist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist) represent the supposed authors of those portions of the text.

In this perspective, the Elohist source originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth and ninth centuries BC. However, this theory fails to consider that most of the Torah was preserved and recovered by the southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians ransacked the Northern Kingdom of Judah and intermarried their people with foreigners. That’s where the Samaritans came from. Their manuscripts likely would have been lost during this time. The Samaritans had the Torah, but it had been modified to align more closely with their practices of worship (John 4).

Another point of view proposed by the late Michael Heiser is known as the Divine Council. In this view, passages such as Psalm 82 speak about a heavenly assembly. This view tracks with what is seen in Job 1, where there is a divine assembly. Whenever Elohim appears with plural verbs around it, the divine council view asserts that the heavenly assembly is in view at this point.

What Do Mormons Think About Elohim?

Mormons have a different view of who Elohim is. In their view, Elohim fathered Jehovah (the pre-mortal Jesus) and Lucifer. The Holy Spirit is a third being entirely. Mormon views of God are completely tritheist, meaning that the three persons of the Trinity are separate. This view agrees with the Mormon doctrine of exaltation—that one day, humans will be like Elohim, the God of planet Earth. Mormons believe they will one day receive their own planet.

Definitions matter when dealing with people in cults and splinter religious groups like Mormons. To have effective conversations, we need to define our terms. A good way to start this is to ask, “What does that word mean in your view?” The Mormon view of who Elohim is does not fit with the Biblical narrative.

Why is Elohim an Important Name Of God To Know?

Praying the names of God can be a helpful way to remember his attributes. According to Ann Spangler:

“Elohim is the Hebrew word for God that appears in the very first sentence of the Bible. When we pray to Elohim, we remember that he is the one who began it all, creating the heavens and the earth and separating light from darkness, water from dry land, night from day. This ancient name for God contains the idea of God’s creative power, authority, and sovereignty. Jesus used a form of the name in his agonized prayer from the cross. About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/coffeekai

Ben Reichert works with college students in New Zealand. He graduated from Iowa State in 2019 with degrees in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and agronomy. He is passionate about church history, theology, and having people walk with Jesus. When not working or writing you can find him running or hiking in the beautiful New Zealand Bush.

This article is part of our Christian Terms catalog, exploring words and phrases of Christian theology and history. Here are some of our most popular articles covering Christian terms to help your journey of knowledge and faith:

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