How did we get from singular ha-Elohim (God) to plural ha-Elohim (judges)?

by I_love_Jeff 25 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • I_love_Jeff
    Read Exodus 22:6-8

    JPS Tanakh
    6 When a man gives money or goods to another for safekeeping, and they are stolen from
    the man’s house if the thief is caught, he shall pay double; 7 if the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall come near (נקרב) to God (האלהים) that he has not laid hands on the other’s property. 8 In all charges of misappropriation pertaining to an ox, an ***, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, “This is it” the case of both parties shall come before God (האלהים): he whom God (אלהים ) declares guilty (ַיְר ִשי ֻףן) shall pay double to the other.

    hā·’ĕ·lō·hîm — 366 Occurrences

    I asked Jehovah's Witnesses:

    Jehovah's Witnesses: How did the word ha-Elohim in Exodus 22:6-8 become a plural translation?


    8 Occurrences for hā·’ĕ·lō·hîm to mean judges.

    Exodus 21:6 הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים (judges?) (singular w/definite article)
    Exodus 22:8 הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים (judges?) (singular w/definite article)
    Exodus 22:9 הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים (judges?) (singular w/definite article)

    "For discriminating students of the Sacred Scriptures the New World Translation preserves all the uses of ha-el and ha-elohim in the Hebrew texts by translating such accurately as “the [true] God.” " Watchtower 1966 pg 526 par.17

    So how did we get from singular ha-Elohim (God) to plural ha-Elohim (judges)?

    "Observe that in Noah’s history recording the days of Enoch, after idolatry had become practiced, the true worshipers frequently put a definite article ha before el or elohim to indicate “the true God” Jehovah as distinct from the false gods who were also being referred to as el or elohim but not as ha-el or ha-elohim". pg 526 par. 16 Watchtower 1966

  • tepidpoultry

    I recommend running this by Jay_David,

    the man is brilliant,


  • tepidpoultry

    I apparently gave you the wrong name in my previous post,

    Please disregard, I'll keep checking,


  • smiddy

    This is definetely one for a person of jewish faith to comment on or a hebrew scholar ,david jay should be able to give a satisfying answer.

  • tepidpoultry

    His screen name is David_Jay


  • Vidqun

    The following is a discussion in a Hebrew Grammar of the use of the plural in Hebrew. What you are referring to is the intensifying plural, or plural maiestatis, amplifying the person, thing or idea. Hope this helps to clarify the discrepancy.

    PLURALIS MAJESTATIS If the plural form does not express a normal numerical plural, but indicates that something or someone is mighty, big, terrible or respectable, it is called the pluralis majestatis or royal plural.[1]

    [1] Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., Kroeze, J., Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., & Kroeze, J. (1999). A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (electronic ed., p. 363). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

    § 124. The Various Uses of the Plural-form.3


    1. The plural is by no means used in Hebrew solely to express a number of individuals or separate objects, but may also denote them collectively. This use of the plural expresses either (a) a combination of various external constituent parts (plurals of local extension), or (b) a more or less intensive focusing of the characteristics inherent in the idea of the stem (abstract plurals, usually rendered in English by forms in -hood, -ness, -ship). A variety of the plurals described under (b), in which the secondary idea of intensity or of an internal multiplication of the idea of the stem may be clearly seen, is (c) the pluralis excellentiae or pluralis maiestatis.[1]

    Of (c): the pluralis excellentiae or maiestatis, as has been remarked above, is properly a variety of the abstract plural, since it sums up the several characteristics2 belonging to the idea, besides possessing the secondary sense of an intensification of the original idea. It is thus closely related to the plurals of amplification, treated under e, which are mostly found in poetry. So especially אֱלֹהִים Godhead, God (to be distinguished from the numerical plural gods, Ex 12:12, &c.). The supposition that אֱלֹהִים is to be regarded as merely a remnant of earlier polytheistic views (i.e. as originally only a numerical plural) is at least highly improbable, and, moreover, would not explain the analogous plurals (see below). That the language has entirely rejected the idea of numerical plurality in אֱלֹהִים (whenever it denotes one God), is proved especially by its being almost invariably joined with a singular attribute (cf. § 132 h), e.g. אֱלֹהִים צַדִּיק Ps 7:10, &c. Hence אֱלֹהִים may have been used originally not only as a numerical but also as an abstract plural (corresponding to the Latin numen, and our Godhead), and, like other abstracts of the same kind, have been transferred to a concrete single god (even of the heathen).[2]

    3 3 Cf. Dietrich, ‘Über Begriff und Form des hebr. Plurals,’ in the Abhandl. zur hebr. Grammatik, Leipzig, 1846, p. 2 ff.

    [1] Gesenius, F. W. (1910). Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar. (E. Kautzsch & S. A. E. Cowley, Eds.) (2d English ed., pp. 396–397). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    2 2 The Jewish grammarians call such plurals רִבּוּי הַכֹּחוֹת plur. virium or virtutum; later grammarians call them plur. excellentiae, magnitudinis, or plur. maiestaticus. This last name may have been suggested by the we used by kings when speaking of themselves (cf. already 1 Macc. 10:19, 11:31); and the plural used by God in Gn 1:26, 11:7, Is 6:8 has been incorrectly explained in this way. It is, however, either communicative (including the attendant angels; so at all events in Is 6:8, cf. also Gn 3:22), or according to others, an indication of the fullness of power and might implied in אֱלֹהִים (see Dillmann on Gn 1:26); but it is best explained as a plural of self-deliberation. The use of the plural as a form of respectful address is quite foreign to Hebrew.

    [2] Gesenius, F. W. (1910). Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar. (E. Kautzsch & S. A. E. Cowley, Eds.) (2d English ed., pp. 398–399). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • David_Jay

    There is a very simple explanation. But first you have to realize a few things:

    • Christians often emphasize what the words of Scripture mean. The use of these words has more to do with why they were chosen.
    • You have to take the concept of Jewish monotheism into consideration and leave the Christian and Muslim (and heathen/pagan) one behind for a moment.

    The rest, the technical part, will be easy (and short).

    Let's start with that last point, the Jewish concept of "God." Unlike that in other religions, YHVH isn't actually a deity in the mind of Jews. Deities actually don't exist. None of them are real. In Jewish tradition, Abraham is said to have come to realize this early in life. His father, a seller of idol gods, lost money when his son acted upon this understanding and smashed all his dad's inventory to bits.

    This story comes from B'reshith Rabba, a religious text from Judaism's classical period. It is probably the most famous rabbinical commentary on monotheism in Judaism. What it means is that Judaism views "God" as the Cause of the everything in the universe (which is the "effect" of this "Cause"). To Jews it makes no sense that the concept of deities made all we see and experience. The universe is too great to be the product of the human concept of gods.

    Keeping that in mind, one then wonders why we call YHVH by words like "God" then. Well, the reason for this is that if anything does deserve to be called by words used to describe the gods, then it is this great Cause.

    While Christians are sometimes a bit obsessed with the meanings behind the words used in Scripture (and it's not wrong, mind you, to study and get at the root of things), this obsession is sometimes done at the expense of learning the philology behind the words. Learn that word and remember it: philology.

    Philology is the branch of study that deals with the historical development of words, often with view to their relationship with other languages and the cultures that used them. Philologically speaking, the Jews didn't learn all about this "God" in one swoop, as if the Bible just came down from heaven and that was that. The Jewish culture and Jewish religion did not have the luxury of the Scriptures like Christianity did. There was no Bible around when Judaism began. We did without one until after the Babylonian exile. Our concept of God has not remained static either, as it has in Christian and Islam. "God" evolves in our theology, so our understanding of God does too...and so have the names we have used as this evolution has played out.

    Our words for God came from the languages and cultures of the peoples around us, the folks that melded into the people of Israel, and the language and speech of the peoples we Hebrews melded into ourselves. We Jews are not as "pure" of a product as you read in Scripture. We are likely not the army nation that marched 40 years across a desert to destroy the people living in Canaan as dramatized in the Bible. No, we are more likely the people that just merged with them.

    Keeping all that in mind, here's where the language part comes in:

    In the Bible, God has many names.

    Yeah, I know, Jehovah's Witnesses say these are "titles," but in Hebrew these "titles" are actually "names" we have applied to God across the generations. The word Elohim, which simply means "God" in Scripture, is one of these borrowed words from another culture. It is in the plural, and it actually means "great ones." It's the term used by the heathen for their gods. We simply adopted it and used it to describe what we meant in referring to our own particular "God" concept. The word is in the plural likely because the heathens didn't have just "one god" like we did, so there wasn't a word for our particular monotheistic concept. What was "the gods" to the heathens meant "God," singular, to us.

    As time went on, the Hebrews went through a period when they began identifying as "Israel," as a single (no longer a merged) people with a single, unique God, separate from the nations. The form Ha‑Elohim came from that period. Our Jewish "God" was not to be confused with "the gods" of the nations any longer. Now God was "the God." This made a plural word into a singular, but in an ad-hoc kind of way.

    It's just patch work, really, as far as etymology is concerned. If you notice, it breaks the rules, because the "Ha" in Ha-Elohim does mean as the Jehovah's Witnesses claim, namely "the [one true]." So the merging here is sloppy, the same that happens in other languages when new words come up. People were already calling God "Elohim," a plural that in the mind of the Jews meant a singular. Now with the "Ha" added, this singularity was being emphasized (though the grammar was bad). It is philological evidence of the polytheistic beliefs the Jews came from and once held.

    While it is often argued by some Christians that the plural is just a "royal" way of speaking, such as a king or queen might say of themselves: "We are not amused," the evidence is that is was more likely simply adapted from the indigenous people of the land of Israel. Another philological sign of this etymological evolution is the Canaanite word for god, El. As time progressed, this word got transferred also to YHVH. For instance, God is sometimes called El Elyon (God Most High), El Olam (the Everlasting God) and El Shaddai (the Almighty God). The word is not specifically Hebrew (like "patio" is not really English), but got transferred over as the God concept evolved.

    The time came when Jewish theology then made using any term for God a reason for silence. With the emergence of the Temple, the theological concept of "holiness" arose. Things that are "holy" are "separated" from the way mundane things are used. Since mundane names are applied by humans to other people, animals and things, God was now seen as self-designating. God was now YHVH, a name that had circular reasoning behind its meaning: "I am defined by what I am." This is when God became more unknowable or too ineffable for the mundane world. Thus God's names became treated the opposite way mundane names were used. Mundane names were spoken all the time, but God's names, since they were holy, were used less often (or not at all), separated from the common world.

    After that came euphemisms for God's name, such as "Heaven," and even spelling the word like G_d to show respect. Today the concept of God is such that Jews emphasize no gender in reference to God. No more "Lord" but just "Adonai" or "HaShem." No more, God "himself," just God. No more "King of the Universe" but "Sovereign of the Universe," etc.

    Over millennia, the names for the Jewish God concept have evolved along with the Jewish theology behind God. Those words you are looking at in Exodus are borrowed from our heathen roots of long ago. They are very ancient, somewhat archaic, and a bit out of the realm of common use in the speech we use in speaking of God in Judaism today. But they apply nevertheless, even though the mixture of plural and singular forms got sloppy over the ages.

  • David_Jay


    As an example of how "sloppy" merging of languages can be, I had friends visit from Spain recently where in Spanish people were speaking of "el Internet," " el disco de Blu-ray, " and "la Scotch tape."

    Since time forever people have been breaking the rules and mushing up languages. It means little really, except that people are trying to communicate about things using words that don't originate with their culture. The same happened in Bible days.

  • Crazyguy

    Elohim is plural meaning gods. Most people's in and around the Jews worshiped many gods. The Jews were no different. I believe as monotheism was eventually pushed some of the words changed meaning. Another example is the same word is often translated now to the word Angels. This is a Greek idea and concept. Again in most cases the same Elohim word is used and in other cases words meaning sons of god or messengers is more accurate , yet again today the word Angel is used.

  • I_love_Jeff

    @ David_Jay

    It is all about staying away from polytheism. Read the essay. Very interesting.

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