Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
See also GOD.
Elohim is the common name for God. It is a plural form, but "The usage of the language gives no support to the supposition that we have in the plural form Elohim, applied to the God of Israel, the remains of an early polytheism, or at least a combination with the higher spiritual beings" (Kautzsch). Grammarians call it a plural of majesty or rank, or of abstraction, or of magnitude (Gesenius, Grammatik, 27th ed., nn. 124 g, 132 h). The Ethiopic plural amlak has become a proper name of God. Hoffmann has pointed out an analogous plural elim in the Phoenician inscriptions (Ueber einige phon. Inschr., 1889, p. 17 sqq.), and Barton has shown that in the tablets from El-Amarna the plural form ilani replaces the singular more than forty times (Proceedings of the American Oriental Society, 21-23 April, 1892, pp. cxcvi-cxcix).
Elohim has been explained as a plural form of Eloah or as plural derivative of El. Those who adhere to the former explanation do not agree as to the derivation of Eloah. There is no such verbal stem as alah in Hebrew; but the Arabist Fleischer, Franz Delitzsch, and others appeal to the Arabic aliha, meaning "to be filled with dread", "anxiously to seek refuge", so that ilah (eloah) would mean in the first place "dread", then the object of dread. Genesis 21:42 and 53, where God is called "the fear of Isaac", Isaiah 8:13, and Psalm 75:12, appear to support this view. But the fact that aliha is probably not an independent verbal stem but only a denominative from ilah, signifying originally "possessed of God" (cf. enthousiazein, daimonan) renders the explanation more than precarious. There is no more probability in the contention of Ewald, Dillmann, and others that the verbal stem, alah means "to be mighty": and is to regarded as a by-form of the stem alah; that, therefore, Eloah grows out of alah as El springs from alah. Baethgen (Beitrage, 297) has pointed out that of the fifty-seven occurrences of Eloah forty-one belong to the Book of Job, and the others to late texts or poetic passages. Hence he agrees with Buhl in maintaining that the singular form Eloah came into existence only after the plural form Elohim had been long in common use; in this case, a singular was supplied for its pre-existent plural. But even admitting Elohim to be the prior form, its etymology has not thus far been satisfactorily explained. The ancient Jewish and the early ecclesiastical writers agree with many modern scholars in deriving Elohim from El, but there is a great difference of opinion as to the method of derivation. Nestle (Theol. Stud. aus Würt., 1882, pp. 243 sqq.) supposes that the plural has arisen by the insertion of an artificial h, like the Hebrew amahoth (maidens) from amah. Buhl (Gesenius Hebraisches Handworterbuch, 12th ed., 1895, pp. 41 sq.) considers Elohim as a sort of augmentative form of El; but in spite of their disagreement as to the method of derivation, these writers are one in supposing that in early Hebrew the singular of the word signifying God was El, and its plural form Elohim; and that only more recent times coined the singular form Eloah, thus giving Elohim a grammatically correct correspondent. Lagrange, however, maintains that Elohim and Eloah are derived collaterally and independently from El.
The Hebrews had three common names of God, El, Elohim, and Eloah; besides, they had the proper name Yahweh. Nestle is authority for the statement that Yahweh occurs about six thousand times in the Old Testament, while all the common names of God taken together do not occur half as often. The name Elohim is found 2570 times; Eloah, 57 times [41 in Job; 4 in Pss.; 4 in Dan.; 2 in Hab.; 2 in Canticle of Moses (Deuteronomy 32); 1 in Prov., 1 in Is.; 1 in Paralipomenon; 1 in Neh. (II Esd.)]; El, 226 times (Elim, 9 times). Lagrange (Etudes sur les religions sémitiques, Paris, 1905, p. 71) infers from Genesis 46:3 (the most mighty God of thy father), Exodus 6:3 (by the name of God Almighty), and from the fact that El replaces Yah in proper names, the conclusion that El was at first a proper and personal name of God. Its great age may be shown from its general occurrence among all the Semitic races, and this in its turn may be illustrated by its presence in the proper names found in Genesis 4:18; 25:13; 36:43. Elohim is not found among all the Semitic races; the Aramaeans alone seem to have had an analogous form. It has been suggested that the name Elohim must have been formed after the descendants of Shem had separated into distinct nations.
If Elohim be regarded as derived from El, its original meaning would be "the strong one" according to Wellhausen's derivation of El, from ul (Skizzen, III, 169); or "the foremost one", according to Nöldeke's derivation of El from ul or il, "to be in front" (Sitzungsberichte der berlinischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1880, pp. 760 sqq.; 1882, pp. 1175 sqq.); or "the mighty one", according to Dillmann's derivation of El from alah or alay, "to be mighty" (On Genesis, I, 1); or, finally "He after whom one strives", "Who is the goal of all human aspiration and endeavour", "to whom one has recourse in distress or when one is in need of guidance", "to who one attaches oneself closely", coincidentibus interea bono et fine, according to the derivation of El from the preposition el, "to", advocated by La Place (cf. Lagarde, Uebersicht, etc., p. 167), Lagarde (op. cit., pp. 159 sqq.), Lagrange (Religions semitiques, pp. 79 sqq.), and others. A discussion of the arguments which militate for and against each of the foregoing derivations would lead us too far.
If we have recourse to the use of the word Elohim in the study of its meaning, we find that in its proper sense it denotes either the true God or false gods, and metaphorically it is applied to judges, angels, and kings; and even accompanies other nouns, giving them a superlative meaning. The presence of the article, the singular construction of the word, and its context show with sufficient clearness whether it must be taken in its proper or its metaphorical sense, and what is its precise meaning in each case. Kautzsch (Encyclopaedia Biblica, III, 3324, n. 2) endeavours to do away with the metaphorical sense of Elohim. Instead of the rendering "judges" he suggests the translation "God", as witness of a lawsuit, as giver of decisions on points of law, or as dispenser of oracles; for the rendering "angels" he substitutes "the gods of the heathen", which, in later post-exilic times, fell to a lower rank. But this interpretation is not supported by solid proof.
According to Renan (Histoire du peuple d'Israel, I, p. 30) the Semites believed that the world is surrounded, penetrated, and governed by the Elohim, myriads of active beings, analogous to the spirits of the savages, alive, but somehow inseparable from one another, not even distinguished by their proper names as the gods of the Aryans, so that they can be considered as a confused totality. Marti (Geschichte der israelitischen Religion, p. 26), too, finds in Elohim a trace of the original Semitic polydemonism; he maintains that the word signified the sum of the divine beings that inhabited any given place. Baethgen (op. cit., p. 287), F.C. Baur (Symbolik und Mythologie, I, 304), and Hellmuth-Zimmermann (Elohim, Berlin, 1900) make Elohim an expression of power, grandeur, and totality. Lagrange (op. cit., p. 78) urges against these views that even the Semitic races need distinct units before they have a sum, and distinct parts before that arrive at a totality. Moreover, the name El is prior to Elohim (op. cit., p. 77 sq.) and El is both a proper and a common name of God. Originally it was either a proper name and has become a common name, or it was a common name has become a proper name. In either case, El, and, therefore, also its derivative form Elohim, must have denoted the one true God. This inference becomes clear after a little reflection. If El was, at first, the proper name of a false god, it could not become the common name of a false god, it could not become the common name for deity any more than Jupiter or Juno could; and if it was, at first, the common name for deity, it could become the proper name only of that God who combined in him all the attributes of deity, who was the one true God. This does not imply that all the Semitic races had from the beginning a clear concept of God's unit and Divine attributes, though all had originally the Divine name El.
VIGOUROUX in Dict. de la Bible, s.v.; KNABENBAUER, Lexicon Biblicum (Paris, 1907), II, 63; KAUTZSCH in Encyclopaedia Biblica (New York, 1902), III, 3323 sq.; LAGRANGE, Etudes sur les religions semitiques (Paris, 1905), 19, 71, 77 sqq.
APA citation. (1909). Elohim. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05393a.htm
MLA citation. "Elohim." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05393a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to the glory of God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.