Translating ´elohim

L. M. Barré

The most common Hebrew word for a deity is ´elohim carrying various connotations that are difficult to render into English. Indeed, one must have a good grasp of the history of Israelite religion to convey the proper sense of the word in a given context. The historical meaning of the word is almost completely obscured by Bible translations that incorrectly and unconsciously ascribe to it a monotheistic meaning by consistently translating it as "God." In fact, this rendering is correct only in a small number of traditions that emerged during and soon after the Babylonian exile (587-538 BCE). In most cases, since up to that time Israelite culture shared the polytheistic worldview of the ancient Near East, the word basically conveyed the notion of one deity among many. Therefore, in the majority of cases, it should be rendered as "god."

Strangely, ´elohim is a plural noun that is regularly used as the subject of singular verbs. Its singular form is ´eloah. Of the several suggestions that have been made to account for this anomaly, three in particular seem most likely. The majority opinion is that the plural form is intended to communicate the notion of royal power and is so dubbed the "plural of majesty." Somewhat similar is the notion that the plural form designates a gathering up of all divine powers, all ´els concentrated into one divine being, often called a "plural of intensity." A less popular interpretation that has the advantage of support from Ugaritic texts is the understanding of the form as a "plural of cultic manifestation."

In spite of the popularity of these views, the present writer finds that they have something of a desperate quality about them that does not command conviction. As an alternative, I would suggest that the plural form ´elohim is an elision or contraction of the formulaic phrase, ´el ´elohim, a construction which is for this reason very rare among pre-exilic texts (Ps 50:1). Understood in this way, the phrase from which ´elohim is derived is still somewhat ambiguous, for ´el is used both as a personal name for Israel’s high god, "El", or as a common noun meaning, "god." The phrase could then be translated both as "El of gods" and as a superlative construction meaning, "god of gods" or the "highest god." In point of fact, it may be overly analytical to make the two renderings mutually exclusive, for El was indeed regarded as the highest god of the pantheon, not only in Israel but also in Phoenicia and Aram. Consequently, ´elohim appears to be a contraction that is laden with connotations regarding Israel’s supreme deity.

The foregoing understanding of the meaning of ´elohim does not exhaust its biblical usage. In fact, the connotation attached to it were generated in the distinctive environment of northern Palestine that came to be known as the Kingdom of Israel or as the ten northern tribes. The term was also favored by an equally distinctive group known as the Levitical priesthood that had its beginnings with Moses and that was deeply informed by Egyptian ontology. The author of the creation story of Genesis 1 was a member of this group that were in fact essentially monotheistic. What is distinctive about the Levites is that they "demythologized" Egyptian ontology to produce classical monotheism. The Egyptian tradition incorporated the various gods into a transcendental view that saw being itself as the dynamic becoming of God. It appears that it was for this reason that the Levitical tradition favored the plural form ´elohim and so interpreted it in light of their Egyptian heritage. In this tradition, 'elohim approximates a "plural of intensity."

The most far-reaching implication of these findings is that the Old Testament translations severely distort the religions of ancient Palestine in uniformly translating ´elohim as "God." While translation "God" is tolerably accurate for its use in Levitical tradition, it is quite inaccurate with regard to northern usage where it denoted the high god of a polytheistic pantheon. To illustrate the profound difference that these considerations make, one need only read the Book of Psalms and replace the word "God" with "god." The conclusion is inevitable that until the substitution is made, one will not be able to understand the religion that has informed the composition of not only this poetic collection, but also of the varieties of ancient Palestinian religion that produced the majority of the Old Testament writings. To the present we do not have an accurate translation of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, our translations and therefore also our understanding of the Old Testament are fundamentally flawed.



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