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Who the Elohim were? (First part)

The question we ask ourselves is the following: what’s the hebrew terms that correspond to the translation “God” that appears in the Bibles in modern languages? At first glance, the answer may seem quite simple. The Hebrew word is Elohim. The question is really so simple? It isn’t.

The basis of my research is the most famous Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible among students and scholars, ie the so-called Brown Driver Briggs (= BDB). It is not the most updated but it is the most widespread, so much so that you can find it online as well. However I will use the paper edition. If it will be necessary, I will use also other major dictionaries, which of course I will mention.

In ancient Hebrew language – that practically corresponds with the Biblical Hebrew – each word goes back to the so-called “root”, which is usually a group of three Hebrew letters from which derive all the secondary forms. The word’s meaning depends by the vowel inserted between the consonants.

Now, the term Elohim – masculine noun plural – derives from the common ‘LH root (the sign ‘ is the Hebrew letter aleph that is not pronounced if not followed by vowels). This derivation is most evident in the singular of Elohim that is Eloah. This word would mean to go back and forth for fear, or as something of frightening (see e.g. Gen 31 – where parallelism is a synonym of pachad “terror”) or of strong.

Elohim can mean basically four things: 1. governors, judges as representatives of God in sacred places or people that reflect the divine power. For example in Es 21:6 the Jerusalem Bible reads: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges (in hebr. God); he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the so-called LXX – is instead: his master shall bring him to the judge of God (in greek to kriterion you theou). Thus probably also applies in the case of Es 21:7. Then there are cases a little less clear, but BDB always counts them among texts where Elohim means judges as they reflect the power of God: Ex 22:8.27. I think that the case of Judges 5,8 is clear. Here the text speaks of Elohim CHADASHIM that literally means “new”. However, by virtue of the parallelism with verse 9, which speaks of “Israel’s leaders” it is preferable to read instead of “new”, “FOREIGN judges.”

In Ps 82:1 – where is said that God rises in the divine council and he judges among the gods (in hebr. Elohim) – the reference could be to the judges through which God makes the his judgment. So in verse 6, where judges or other representatives of God on earth are considered as elohim. In fact, the theme of verses 2-5 is the injustice perpetrated by the judges, despite their status as God’s representatives.

From these cases it emerges that when Elohim are simple judges, yet it remains the divine reference. In fact, the judges are representatives of divine justice on earth. In these cases Elohim should not to be translated ‘God’.

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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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