Dear Ask a Scholar,
If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?
- Boyd Stough, College of Charleston
Answered by Mark D. Futato, Robert L. Maclellan Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Dr. Futato received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Semitic Languages from the Catholic University of America. He specializes in Hebrew language and is author of the book Beginning Biblical Hebrew (Eisenbrauns, 2003).
Let's take a look at the meaning of YHWH Elohim.
First, YHWH is a proper noun, the personal name of Israel's deity. Second, Elohim is a common noun, used to refer to deity.
Elohim is actually a plural noun (indicated by the /im/ as in cherubim and seraphim). Sometimes the referent is plural. At other times the referent is singular. Like most words in English, Elohim can mean several things. Sometimes Elohim refers to plural "gods," as in "You shall have no other gods before me" (Deuteronomy 5:7). At other times it refers to the singular "God," as in "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). It is clear in this latter example that even though the form of the word Elohim is plural, the referent is singular, because the verb with which Elohim is used ("created") is singular in Hebrew.
So, why the plural form if the referent is singular? The best answer is that this is an "honorific plural," that is to say, a plural used to show honor to a singular referent. Such an honorific plural is used for humans in texts like 1Kings 1:43, where we read, "our lord King David." The Hebrew word translated "lord" in this case is plural, even though it refers to the singular David. This honorific plural is also used of God elsewhere in texts like Psalm 8:1, where we read, "O LORD, our Lord…." In this text "LORD" (small caps) translates YHWH, while "Lord" translates a common noun for "master," which is in this text plural in form though referring to the singular YHWH. So Psalm 8:1 could be translated "O YHWH, our Master…."
So, YWHW is the true God's personal name, and Elohim by itself is simply the Hebrew common noun used to refer to the true God in an honorific way. Now, what about the combination YHWH Elohim?
First, YHWH Elohim cannot mean "Lord of Gods." This is the case for a fundamental grammatical reason. In Hebrew there is a special grammatical relationship between two nouns called the construct state. The construct state is the Hebrew way of expressing all the relationships that English expresses with the simple word "of." So in Hebrew when one noun, for example, "king," is in construction with a second noun, for example, "Israel," we could translate this phrase, "king of Israel." The problem with YHWH Elohim is that Hebrew grammar does not permit a proper noun to be put in construction with a common noun, so YHWH Elohim cannot mean "YHWH/Lord of Gods." In addition, when Elohim refers to the true God, it is singular and so translated "God" and not "Gods."
Second, the relationship between YHWH and Elohim in the combination YHWH Elohim is one of apposition, that is to say the second noun is placed immediately after the first noun to provide some sort of further definition or explanation. The significance of this can be seen in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In Genesis 1 only Elohim is used to refer to deity. This is no doubt because of the universal perspective of this creation story. In Genesis 2, on the other hand, deity is referred to as YHWH Elohim. These two accounts converge to affirm that YHWH (the God of Israel) and not any other ancient Near Eastern deity is Elohim (the universal God).
So then, YHWH Elohim does not mean "Lord of Gods...the one of many," but means that YHWH, the personal God who rules over Israel, is at one and the same time the universal God who rules over all.
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