Did Someone Find the Doctrine of the Trinity In the Name of God?
Why is God’s Name “Elohim” Plural?
Dear Rabbi Singer,
First, let me say that what you are doing is a great service to Jews and the religious community at large. You are setting the record straight – one that has needed correction for almost 2,000 years! Thank you.
Yesterday, a Christian business associate made a point that in the very first verse of Genesis G-d is referred to as “Elohim” which is plural. She also said that it is a plural form of three (something I have never heard before). That, she concludes, is proof of the Trinity! Why is G-d’s name plural in this verse?
The claim advanced by your business associate is one of the more well-known arguments used by missionaries to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, the most guarded and untenable creed of the Church. It would be difficult to imagine a doctrine more hostile to the uncompromising monotheism preached in the Jewish Scriptures than the Christian claim that there is a plurality within the divine nature of God. Yet, armed with little knowledge of the Hebrew language, many Trinitarians brazenly argue that the name of God, as it appears in the first verse in the Bible, “proves” there are three distinct Persons in the godhead.
More specifically, missionaries point to the plural form of the Hebrew name of God אֶלהִים, (Elohim), which appears frequently in the Torah, to bolster their claim that there is a complex unity in the godhead. They argue that the use of the Hebrew letters “ ים” (yud and mem, pronounced “im”), which is a plural suffix at the end of the word Elohim, provides ample evidence from Tanach that there is a plurality within the nature of God. Your business associate went out on an even more bizarre limb when she declared that this Hebrew syntax is somehow indicative of the “plural form of three.”
You can rest assured that the Hebrew tongue is a foreign language to your business associate, and that both of her contentions are erroneous. While her first assertion can be easily explained away by her lack of familiarity with the biblical language, her second point cannot. Her latter comment that the plural suffix in Elohim is indicative of “a plural form of three” is particularly preposterous, and illustrates the desperation and frustration some Trinitarians display in their rash effort to defend this alien Church creed.
While I too have never heard any missionary make the astounding claim that plurals somehow mean “a plural form of three,” the incentive for spawning this irresponsible contrivance is clear. If you examine the few verses evangelicals use from the Jewish Scriptures as they seek to buttress the doctrine of the Trinity, you will notice that none of them, even in Christian terms, speaks of three persons. In essence, her flawed declaration was born out of a desperate desire to weave the Trinity out of whole Jewish cloth. This is an impossible task.
Bear in mind, there is no mystery as to the origins of the Trinity, nor is there any secret for how this aberrant doctrine emerged. The doctrine of the Trinity was forged out of the crucible of the Catholic Church long after the Christian century. It is, therefore, no wonder that this pagan doctrine was unknown to authors of the New Testament (click here to see list). Church history reveals that it was not until three hundred years after the birth of Christianity that the doctrine of the Bianity (325 C.E.) and Trinity (381 C.E.) received formal approval in the Christian community. These well documented events occurred under circumstances rife with contention, political agitation, and radical dissension in the early Church.
In essence, the Jewish people never believed in a Trinity, and the Church adopted it under enormous political pressure from the most pagan segments of the young Catholic Church. Understandably, missionaries undertake a formidable task when they seek to prove this fourth century doctrine from a radically monotheistic Torah which is timeless. Let's examine your business associate's claim.
There is an enormous difficulty with the interpretation that the name Elohim signifies a sort of plurality in the godhead; for if Elohim implies a plurality of persons, how can missionaries explain that the identical word Elohim in Tanach refers to Moses as well? Regarding Moses, the Torah says,
Are missionaries suggesting that there was a plurality of persons in Moses? Is your associate going to insist that Moses was part of a Trinity? The notion that Moses, who is called Elohim in the Torah, possessed more than one person is preposterous. Moreover, if the name of God is to signify a plurality in the godhead, why wasn’t the name Jehovah, which is by far the most frequently used name for God in the Jewish Scriptures, also written in the plural? Clearly, this sort of Trinitarian argument is baseless.
The word Elohim possesses a plural intensive syntax and is singular in meaning. In Hebrew, the suffix ים (im), mainly indicates a masculine plural. However with Elohim the construction is grammatically singular, (i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective) when referring to the God of Israel, but grammatically plural elohim (i.e. taking a plural verb or adjective) when used of pagan divinities (Psalms 96:5; 97:7).
This is self-evident from the fact that the verb “created” בָּרָה (bara) in Genesis 1:1 is in the singular. This linguistic pattern is well known and widely used throughout the Jewish Scriptures. For example, I am certain that many readers are familiar with the Hebrew word חַיִים (chayim), meaning “life.” Notice that this word contains the identical plural suffix “im,” as in Elohim, yet it repeatedly means “life”, in the singular, throughout the Bible. Examples are:
And Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife of the daughters of Heth, like these who are the daughters of the land, what good will my life חַיִים (chayim) be to me?” (Genesis 27:46)
You have granted me life חַיִים (chayim) and favor, and Your care has preserved my spirit. (Job 10:12)
The fact that the name of God, Elohim, does not in any way imply a plurality in the godhead is well known and widely recognized even among Trinitarian Christians. For example, in the New International Version Study Bible (NIV), which is a Christian commentary that can not be construed as friendly to the Jewish faith, the Christian author writes in his commentary on Genesis 1:1:
God created. The Hebrew noun Elohim is plural but the verb is singular, a normal usage in the OT when reference is to the one true God. This use of the plural expresses intensification rather than number and has been called the plural of majesty, or of potentiality. (New International Version Study Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985, p. 6.)
Finally, it is important that we explore the crucial message which the name Elohim conveys to the Children of Israel. To be sure, two questions must be answered. 1) Why does the Torah employ this intensive plural name for the Almighty throughout the Torah? 2) Why is this name predominant throughout the creation narrative in the beginning of Genesis?
There is a fundamental principal regarding the many names of the Almighty as they appear in the Torah – they are exalted descriptions of the God of Israel. The name Elohim, which is not an exception to this rule, comes from the Hebrew root el, which means “might” or “power.” This common root appears in a variety of words throughout the Jewish Scriptures. For example, we find this word used in the famous opening words to Psalm 29, הָבוּ ליהוה בְּנֵי אֵלִים (havu la'donai b'nai eylim). This chapter is well known because this Psalm is joyously sung in every synagogue as the Torah scroll is returned into the ark following a congregational reading. What do these noble words mean?
“Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty. Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength” (Psalm 29:1)
With these passages in mind, we have a deeper understanding of the name Elohim. The pagan mind ascribed a separate and distinct god for each of the powers in the world which it observed, and on whom it depended. The nations gazed upon the life-giving and perplexing energy emanating from the sun and the rain, and they worshiped the many gods who they believed controlled these forces. They craved an abundant harvest and boundless fertility, and they venerated each god who they believed governed each of these abodes. The ancients were mystified by the powers which sustained them and awestruck by the forces that terrified them, and venerated each with elaborate rituals and oftentimes gruesome rites in order to “appease the gods.”
The Torah conveys a radically different message for mankind. All the life-sustaining forces in the universe, all the power that man can behold, emanate from the One Master of the world, One Creator of the universe – the Lord of Hosts is His name. This grand message is contained in the name of God, Elohim. All the forces of the world emerged from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, the God of Israel alone – Elohim – is worthy of our worship and devotion.
It is for this reason that the Torah employs the word Elohim almost exclusively as the name of God throughout the first two chapters of Genesis. In these opening passages of the Book of Genesis, the Almighty is creating all the powers and forces which stir and sustain the universe.
Therefore, the nation of Israel, to whom God revealed Himself at the foot of Mount Sinai, knew nothing about a plurality of persons in the godhead. No fact could be more firmly established once all of our sacred literature – both canonical and rabbinical – is used as our eternal guide. This matter is indisputable.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.
Rabbi Tovia Singer
(c) Copyright Tovia Singer 2011