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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Common name for God

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Errata* for Elohim:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Elohim (Sept., theos; Vulg., Deus) is the common name for God. It is a plural form, but "the usage of the language gives no support to the supposition that we have in the plural form 'Elohim, as applied to the God of Israel, the remains of an early polytheism, or at least a combination with the higher spiritual beings" (Kautzsch). Grammarians call it a plural of majesty or of rank, or of abstraction, or of magnitude (Gesenius, Grammatik, 27th ed., nn. 124 g, 132 h). The Ethiopic plural amlƒÅk has become a proper name of God. Hoffmann has pointed out an analogous plural ēlƒ´m in the Phoenician inscriptions (Ueber einige phön. Inschr., 1889, pp. 17 sqq.), and Barton has shown that in the tablets from El-Amarna the plural form ilani replaces the singular more than forty times (Proceedings of the American Oriental Society, 21-April 23, 1892, pp. cxcvi-cxcix).

Etymology.—'Elohïm has been explained as a plural form of 'Elôàh or as a plural derivative of 'El. Those who adhere to the former explanation do not agree as to the derivation of 'Elôàh. There is no such verbal stem as 'ƒÅlàh in Hebrew; but the Arabist Fleischer, Franz Delitzsch, and others appeal to the Arabic 'aliha, meaning "to be filled with dread", "anxiously to seek refuge", so that 'ilƒÅh ('elôàh) would mean in the first place "dread", then the object of dread. Gen., xxxi, 42, 53, where God is called "the fear of Isaac", Is., viii, 13, and Ps. lxxv, 12, appear to support this view. But the fact that 'aliha is probably not an independent verbal stem but only a denominative from 'ilƒÅh, signifying originally "possessed of God" (cf. enthousiazein, daimonan) renders the explanation more than precarious. There is no more probability in the contention of Ewald, Dillmann, and others that the verbal stem, 'ƒÅlàh means "to be mighty", and is to be regarded as a by-form of the stem 'ƒÅlàh; that, therefore, 'Elôàh grows out of ƒÅlàh as 'El springs from ƒÅlàh. Baethgen (Beiträge, 297) has pointed out that of the fifty-seven occurrences of 'Elôàh forty-one belong to the Book of Job, and the others to late texts or poetic passages. Hence he agrees with Buhl in maintaining that the singular form 'Elôàh came into existence only after the plural form 'Elohïm had been long in common use; in this case, a singular was supplied for its pre-existent plural. But even admitting 'Elohïm to be the prior form, its etymology has not thus far been satisfactorily explained. The ancient Jewish and the early ecclesiastical writers agree with many modern scholars in deriving 'Elohïm from 'El, but there is a great difference of opinion as to the method of derivation. Nestle (Theol. Stud. aus Wart., 1882, pp. 243 sqq.) supposes that the plural has arisen by the insertion of an artificial h, like the Hebrew 'ƒÉmƒÅhôth (maidens) from 'ƒÅmƒÅh. Buhl (Gesenius' Hebräisches Handwörterbuch, 12th ed., 1895, pp. 41 sq.) considers 'Elohïm as a sort of augmentative form of 'El; but in spite of their disagreement as to the method of derivation, these writers are one in supposing that in early Hebrew the singular of the word signifying God was 'El, and its plural form 'Elohïm; and that only more recent times coined the singular form 'Elôàh, thus giving 'Elohïm a grammatically correct correspondent. Lagrange, however, maintains that 'Elohïm and 'Elôàh are derived collaterally and independently from 'El.

The Use of the Word.—The Hebrews bad three common names for God, 'El, 'Elohïm and 'Elôàh; besides, they had the proper name Yahweh. Nestle is authority for the statement that Yahweh occurs about six thousand times in the Old Testament, while all the common names of God taken together do not occur half as often. The name 'Elohïm is found 2570 times; 'Elôàh, 57 times [41 in Job; 4 in Pss.; 4 in Dan.; 2 in Hab.; 2 in Canticle of Moses (Deut., xxxii); 1 in Prov.; 1 in Is.; 1 in Par.; 1 in Neh. (II Esd.)]; 'El, 226 times ('Eïim, 9 times). Lagrange (Etudes sur les religions semitiques, Paris, 1905, p. 71) infers from Gen., xlvi, 3 (the most mighty God of thy father), Ex., vi, 3 (by the name of God Almighty), and from the fact that 'El replaces Yah in proper names, the conclusion that 'El was at first a proper and personal name of God. Its great age may be shown from its general occurrence among all the Semitic races, and this in its turn may be illustrated by its presence in the proper names found in Gen., iv, 18; xxv, 13; xxxvi, 43. 'Elohïm is not found among all the Semitic races; the Aramaeans alone seem to have had an analogous form. It has been suggested that the name 'Elohïm must have been formed after the descendants of Sem had separated into distinct nations.

Meaning of the Word—If 'Elohïm be regarded as derived from 'El, its original meaning would be "the strong one" according to Wellhausen's derivation of 'El from 'àl (Skizzen, III, 169); or "the foremost one", according to Nöldeke's derivation of El from 'àl or 'ïl, "to be in front" (Sitzungsberichte der berlinischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1880, pp. 760 sqq.; 1882, pp. 1175 sqq.); or "the mighty one", according to Dillmann's derivation of 'El from 'ƒÅlƒÅh or 'ƒÅlƒÅy, "to be mighty" (On Genesis, I, 1); or, finally "He after whom one strives", "who is the goal of all human aspiration and endeavor", "to whom one has recourse in distress or when one is in need of guidance", "to whom one attaches oneself closely", coincidentibus interea bono et fine, according to the derivation of 'El from the preposition 'ēl, "to", advocated by La Place (cf. Lagarde, Uebersicht, etc., p. 167), Lagarde (op. cit., pp. 159 sqq.), Lagrange (Religions semitiques, pp. 79 sqq.), and others. A discussion of the arguments which militate for and against each of the foregoing derivations would lead us too far.

If we have recourse to the use of the word 'Elohïm in the study of its meaning, we find that in its proper sense it denotes either the true God or false gods, and metaphorically it is applied to judges, angels, and kings; and even accompanies other nouns, giving them a superlative meaning. The presence of the article, the singular construction of the word, and its context show with sufficient clearness whether it must be taken in its proper or its metaphorical sense, and what is its precise meaning in each case. Kautzsch (Encyclopaedia Biblica, III, 3324, n. 2) endeavors to do away with the metaphorical sense of 'Elohïm. Instead of the rendering "judges" he suggests the translation "God", as witness of a lawsuit, as giver of decisions on points of law, or as dispenser of oracles; for the rendering "angels" he substitutes "the gods of the heathen", which, in later post-exilic times, fell to a lower rank. But this interpretation is not supported by solid proof.

According to Renan (Histoire du peuple d'Israel, I, p. 30) the Semites believed that the world is surrounded, penetrated, and governed by the 'Elohïm, myriads of active beings, analogous to the spirits of the savages, alive, but somehow inseparable from one another, not even distinguished by their proper names as the gods of the Aryans, so that they can be considered as a confused totality. Marti (Geschichte der israelitischen Religion, p. 26), too, finds in 'Elohïm a trace of the original Semitic polydemonism; he maintains that the word signified the sum of the divine beings that inhabited any given place. Baethgen (op. cit., p. 287), F. C. Baur (Symbolik and Mythologie, I, 304), and Hellmuth-Zimmermann (Elohïm, Berlin, 1900) make 'Elohïm an expression of power, grandeur, and totality. Lagrange (op. cit., p. 78) urges against these views that even the Semitic races need distinct units before they have a sum, and distinct parts before they arrive at a totality. Moreover, the name 'El is prior to 'Elohïm (op. cit., p. 77 sq.), and 'El is both a proper and a common name of God. Originally it was either a proper name and has become a common name, or it was a common name and has become a proper name. In either case, 'El, and, therefore, also its derivative form 'Elohïm, must have denoted the one true God. This inference becomes clear after a little reflection. If 'El was, at first, the proper name of a false god, it could not become the common name for deity any more than Jupiter or Juno could; and if it was, at first, the common name for deity, it could become the proper name only of that God who combined in him all the attributes of deity, who was the one true God. This does not imply that all the Semitic races had from the beginning a clear concept of God's unity and Divine attributes, though all had originally the Divine name 'El.


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