Does <I>Elohim</I> in Gen. 1:1 mean God or gods?
The fundamental principle in the study of words is their context and the way they are used in throughout the Bible. And the same applies to any literature or writing. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. I, Moody Press, Editor, R. Laird Harris, Associate Editor, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Associate Editor, Bruce K. Waltke, has the following to say about Elohim:
Elohim. God, gods, judges, angels. This word, which is generally viewed as the plural of eloah, is found far more frequently in Scripture than either el or eloah for the true God. The plural ending is usually described as a plural of majesty and not intended as a true plural when used of God. This is seen in the fact that the noun elohim is consistently used with a singular verb forms and with adjectives and pronouns in the singular.
Albright has suggested that the use of this majestic plural comes from the tendency in the ancient near east toward a universalism:… a better reason can be seen in Scripture itself where, in the very first chapter of Gen, the necessity of a term conveying both the untiy of the one God and yet allowing for a plurality of persons is found (Gen. 1:2, 26). This is further borne out by the fact that the form elohim occurs only in Hebrew and no other Semitic language, not even in Biblical Aramaic…
The term occurs in the general sense of deity some 2570 times in Scripture. Yet … it is difficult to detect any discrepancy in use between the forms el, eloah, and elohim in Scripture.
When indicating the true God, elohim functions as the subject of all divine activity revealed to man and as the object of all true reverence and fear from men. Often, elohim is accompanied by the personal name of God, Yahweh.
Regarding the meaning and use of Eloah, they write:
The exact relationship between this name for God in Scripture and el or elohim and far from settled. It occurs in some of the oldest Old Testament poetry (Deut. 32:15, 17) and very frequently (forty-one times) in the debates between Job (and ancient believer) and his friends. It appears therefore to be an ancient term for God which was later dropped for the most part until the time of the exile and after, when there was great concern for a return to the more ancient foundations. It is not frequently used outside Job. It occurs once in Isa, once in Prov, twice in Hab, four times in Ps, and then in the postexilic books: II Chr., Neh, and Dan a total of five times.
… This term for God was usually clearly used for Israel’s God, the true God.… The Hebrew word is quite similar to the Aramaic elah, the usual name for God in Biblical Aramaic…
The key in the study of all biblical words is not their etymology or derivation, but their use with the ingredients of the context as the defining issues. Clearly, in most cases, these words are used in the Old Testament of the one true God who revealed himself to the nation of Israel by divine revelation in various ways through the patriarchs and the prophets.
In Deuteronomy 6:4, the well known passage called the Shema (from the Hebrew word meaning “to hear”), Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!,” the word one is echad, which refers to one, not in the absolute sense, but one in the collective sense, like one bunch of grapes. Thus, even this passage does not destroy the concept of the trinity. While the trinity is not explicitly stated in either the Old or New Testaments, it is implicitly taught in a number of ways, but especially in the New Testament. For details on this, please see The Trinity (Triunity) of God on our web site under “Bible Studies / Theology / Theology Proper.”
A careful study of the New Testament demonstrates that not only did the authors of the New Testament declare that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, but Christ himself believed and declared himself to be God and one in essence with the Father. The idea that he was only a god is polytheism, a concept totally contrary to both the Old and New Testaments. May I suggest a book that not only deals with this, but much more as it pertains to what the New Testament teaches about Christ. It’s called The Case For Christ, by Lee Strobel.
The New Testament does not teach one God who acted in three modes, modalism, but one divine being who exists in three persons who are co-equal and co-eternal. The main point is that the Bible clearly declares one God in three persons all of whom are God. Note what Paul said about Jesus Christ, and remember, this was not easy for him, as he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee (Phil. 3). He wrote of Jesus, “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.” According to the laws of Greek grammar, this passage, and there are plenty of others, declares that Christ Jesus is both our great God and Savior. The phrase “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” is one of the christologically significant texts affected by a grammatical rule called the Granville Sharp rule. In this text, we have one article, “the,” with two nouns, “God” and “Savior,” connected by kai, the Greek and. According to this rule, in the article-noun-kaiv-noun construction the second noun refers to the same person described by the first noun when (1) neither is impersonal; (2) neither is plural; (3) neither is a proper name. For more discussion see Wallace, Exegetical Syntax, 270-78, esp. 276.
The passage in John 1:1 can in no way can be made to say that Jesus was only a god who was with the Father. It dramatically says that he is God of very God, yet distinct from the Father as God. The fact that “God” (Greek theos) is without the article does not mean “a god,” but, again, according to Greek grammar, is designed to stress the undiminished deity of the Logos, “the Word.” For more on the meaning of this passage you might check out an essay called, The Word Was God, at www.inthebeginning.org.