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Who ‘the Elohim’ were? Divine beings? Angels? The God of Israel? (Second part)

The hebrew consonants of the name Elohim

Based on the Brown Driver Briggs’s Hebrew Dictionary we continue our research on the meaning of ELOHIM. Today we study two famous cases, where the reference is clearly to ‘God or divine beings’. The first case is Psalm 8:5: For thou hast made him a little lower than the ELOHIM, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Who these Elohim are? They are God? It was impossible for the Jews. They are intermediate beings between God and man? Probably yes. The confirmation comes from the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – which translates ELOHIM with anghelous, i.e. “angels” (as well as the Syriac version of the Old Testament, the Vulgate and the aramaic translations of the Old Testament, the ‘Targumin‘). The Greek translation of the Psalms is dated to the third or the second century BC. and so it is the most authoritative interpretation of the term Elohim in this case. In this case, the context doesn’t suggest – as in the cases studied in the previous article – a reference to human beings. In fact, the context clearly speaks about the Creation of God. Moreover the second part of the verse “and hast crowned him with glory and honour” could be the second part of the synonymic parallelism and it could be the explanation of what “thou hast made him a little lower than the ELOHIM” means.

Now we study the most famous case, i.e. Genesis 1:26-27: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Who ELOHIM were for the authors of this text? According to the scholars (click here), the first chapter of Genesis – that is, the first version of creation – was written by the priestly class returned to Judea (VI-V century BC). The way of thinking of the most influential priestly class is well described in the latest books of the Old Testament, such as the Chronicles (V cent. BC). Here we find that YHWH is the God of Israel (cfr. 1 Chronicles 13), also called simply Elohim. Therefore, the author of Genesis, as the Chronicles’ author, used ELOHIM to talk about the God of Israel.  ELOHIM is part of the name of God found in ancient texts as 2 Sam 7:26-27: The Lord ( YHWH) of hosts (tsebaot) is the God (ELOHIM) of Israel. We could say that Elohim used in Genesis is a kind of abbreviation of the oldest name. For the post-exilic jews the ELOHIM (i.e. God) was only JWHW.

Now we turn to Genesis 1:26-27:

V.26 Elohim (= YHWH Elohim tsebaot = God, the Lord of hosts) said:

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness […]
v.27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

If Elohim is an abbreviation of the oldest name – i.e. God the Lord of hosts – then the plural is perfectly legitimate. So God or gods created man? Since YHWH is God of the hosts – i.e. of the angels – he speaks with his heavenly court before to create the most important living being. Moreover, the hebrew verb AMAR (i.e. “to say”) means also “to thunk”.

When God actually creates man – see v. 27 – is found only the singular of BARA (= God created), as well as the singular pronoun attached to the term image (= his own image). Next time we will see other cases where Elohim means ‘divine beings’.

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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