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Elohim (אֱלֹהִים: ’elōhîm) (“God”) in Genesis 1:1

In the previous two posts we looked at the first two words of Genesis 1:1, “In-the-beginning” (berē’šît: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) and “he-created” (bārā’: בָּרָא).

Today we’ll look at the third word in the Hebrew text of the Bible, Elohim (pronounced like ӗh-low-heem´). This noun is always rendered “God” in standard English translations. (In Hebrew it looks like אֱלֹהִים; in formal transliteration [equivalent English letters] it looks like ’elōhîm). (Below I will use Elohim when specifically referring to the true God and ’elōhîm when speaking more generally or when the word is used in other senses.)

The term ’elōhîm appears more than 2500 times in the Old Testament. (A software search I did in BibleWorks software [version 10] yielded 2602 uses in 2248 verses, 219 of which are in the Book of Genesis.) ’elōhîm is plural in form, but in Genesis 1 and elsewhere when it is used of the true God, Elohim is the subject of singular verbs. This indicates one divine being—something akin to the plural of majesty or royal “we” (Latin: pluralis maiestatis). When used of the true God, Elohim is a general and common term for deity. However, this word is not always used in this way. Sometimes ’elōhîm is used of God’s representatives, such as judges who represent God (Exod. 21:6; 22:7, 8 [2x] = English 22:8, 9).

Standard English versions are largely divided in such verses between rendering ’elōhîm as “God” (RSV, NASB, ESV) or as “judges” (KJV, NIV, NKJV, NET). In Psalm 8:6 (= English 8:5) it might refer to angelic beings. Consequently, many English versions render ’elōhîm as “angels” (KJV, NIV) or “heavenly beings” (NET, ESV). The ancient Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, rendered it similarly as ἄγγελοι (angeloi), “angels” or “(divine) messengers.” The New American Standard Bible (1977 and 1995 editions) and recent Christian Standard Bible (2017), by contrast, preferred to render ’elōhîm as “God” in Psalm 8:6 (English), as did the much earlier Geneva Bible (1599).

Given its plural form, moreover, ’elōhîm can be used of other “gods,” whether in a plural sense (Exod. 18:11; 1 Sam. 4:8; 2 Chr. 2:4 [= English 2:5], the second use; Pss. 86:8 and 97:7) or singular sense (Exod. 22:19 [= English 22:20]). In Genesis 1, one of the most God-centered chapters of the Bible, Elohim appears 32 times, mostly with reference to God as the subject of the various activity described, such as creating, speaking, separating, calling, seeing, making, placing, and blessing. Very often in Christian theology, interpreters of Genesis 1 have focused on the question of “When?” in connection with creation. The principal question that Genesis 1 answers, however, is “Who?” Who created? Who is the source of the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1 gives a clear answer: Elohim (God). It is greatly fitting that the first grammatical subject of the Bible is God, who is also the principal subject of the entire Bible. Soli deo gloria! (Glory to God alone.)

James Sweeney, PhD
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament Studies
Director of the Master of Divinity program