What Does Elohim Mean & Why is This Name of God So Important?
What Does Elohim Mean & Why is This Name of God So Important?
“For the pastor, biblical languages are like your underpants. They are there for support but shouldn’t really be worn on the outside”. This was a statement one of my seminary professors frequently made. I’ve taken it to heart, and it’s true. There is seldom a need for a pastor to show off his understanding of the Greek by mentioning tenses and foreign words. Yet, one area in which the biblical languages might be of benefit is in using the names of God.
Each of these different names of God highlights one aspect of His character. There is only one God, but the biblical writers referred to this one God with many different monikers. One of these names is Elohim. Elohim is one of the most frequently used names for God in the Scriptures. It is this word which is used in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” In fact the word appears some 2,750 times in the Old Testament.
What Does "Elohim" Mean?
The term "Elohim" means “supreme one” or “mighty one”. It is not only used of the one true God but is also used on occasion to refer to human rulers, judges, and even angels. If you saw one who exhibiting supreme rule and expressed mighty power the word you would use would be Elohim. That does not necessarily mean that you are referring to the one unique God. But even as one comes to understand Yahweh, you might still grab hold of this particular word, Elohim, in order to emphasize God’s power and might.
This is an imperfect illustration of the relationship between Elohim and Yahweh, but perhaps it will capture enough of the thought to be helpful. If a small child sees a furry animal he may very well refer to it as a puppy dog, but as he matures he is able to clearly differentiate between a puppy dog and a kitty. Further maturation might have the child now calling the dog a specific breed—like a beagle. And if the puppy comes to live in the child’s home what once was ‘puppy dog’ will now become ‘my beagle’. In the same way, a person might see a powerful expression and say Elohim. As his knowledge of truth matures Elohim might take upon a specific character, i.e. El Shaddai. And if that knowledge moves into a relationship, Elohim is now identified as Yahweh. So, just one child might refer to a kitty cat as puppy and another refer to his beagle as a puppy, so also, one might refer to a cactus as Elohim and another who has full covenant knowledge of Yahweh refer to him as Elohim.
Elohim as "El" and Plural
We often see the personal character of Elohim when it is shortened, to El, and then coupled with another word. (Though some scholars question whether this is simply a shortening). Several names of popular OT characters have El in their name: Elijah (“El is Yahweh”) and Samuel (“Heard by El”) are two such examples. When you remember the storie of both Elijah and Samuel, you see the importance a name had in the Old Testament. Elijah is known as the prophet who was steadfast in proclaiming that Yahweh was the only true Elohim. Even the name Israel means “prince of El”.
Another interesting aspect of the name Elohim is that it is, in fact, a plural. Does this mean this is a clear reference to the Trinity? While that cannot be disproven, it also could not be proven from the plurality. Many scholars refer to this as a divine plural. I, however, agree with John Frame that this is a plural of abstraction:
“…that is, ‘a more or less intensive focusing of the characteristics inherent in the idea of the stem…rendered in English by forms in –hood, -ness, -ship”...Hebrew uses the plural form for abstract nouns such as youth, old age, maidenhood, and life. It may also (or alternatively) carry some force as a plural of amplication. Usually found in poetry, this plural is an emphatic statement of the root idea, as might and counsel.”
Experiencing Elohim in Nature
God is great and powerful. He is the epitome of might and power. This is why Paul says what he does in Romans 1:20. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” If that verse were in Hebrew instead of Greek we can be almost certain that the word translated “God” in that sentence would be Elohim. As noted above this is the word which is most frequently used when referring to God’s dealings with creation in general or “with the nations of the world apart from his covenant with Israel.”
When you have a first encounter with God—through His power displayed in nature—you will likely gravitate towards an Elohim concept. This is why Elohim, and not Yahweh, is prominent in books like Daniel and Jonah and even the first two chapters of Genesis. It is only after God further reveals himself that one will understand him to be Yahweh. Simply knowing that there is a higher power (an Elohim) means that one has merely risen to the faith of demons (James 2:19). It is only when we move from elementary knowledge of God as Creator that we embrace God as Father.
Scripture Refers to Others than God Himself
Jesus makes an interesting argument on this point in John 10:34 when he quotes Psalm 82:6. He argues that the Scriptures themselves (Psalm 82:6) refer to others than God Himself, how then can Jesus be accused of blasphemy because He claims to be God’s Son? I appreciate these words from D.A. Carson:
“In the heat of their opposition to what they hear Jesus to be saying, they are partly right (he does make himself equal with God), partly wrong (this fact does not establish a competing God), and profoundly mistaken (they have not grasped the drift of their own Scriptures to see how he fulfills them, nor have they known God well enough to perceive that the revelation he is and brings is in continuity with and the capstone of the revelation of God already provided).”
The Creator, Elohim Must Become Personal to You
God has created you. He is the Elohim above all other elohim. Yet, acknowledging this is not enough. According to Scripture, everyone knows there is a higher power. We suppress that truth in our unrighteousness. This means, we morph our Elohim impulse into worship of some lesser god or we slip into vague notions of a higher power. Or perhaps we continue in even greater suppression and fail to acknowledge any concept of Elohim, choosing instead to place ourselves as the mighty one. We make ourselves arbiters of truth.
In reality, a man drowning in ten feet of water isn’t in much better shape than a man drowning in a hundred feet of water. Likewise, acknowledging the existence of an Elohim doesn’t put you in a position any better than one who actively and aggressively denies the concept of God. It is only when our knowledge of Elohim becomes personal that we move towards what the Bible calls saving faith.
God Reveals Himself to Humanity
From Genesis onward, we see God progressively revealing Himself to humanity. While he places himself in covenant with his creation (as their Elohim), he enters into a special relationship and covenant with Abraham. These covenantal promises (Genesis 12) find their climax and fulfillment in God’s supreme revelation; namely, Jesus Christ. It is here that we move from a vague understanding of Elohim into a covenantal and relational knowledge of God.
Help me, O Yahweh my Elohim.
Save me because of your mercy. –Psalm 109:26
Such a prayer is a reflection of a saving understanding of Elohim. How do you know this God? Do you know him simply as a mighty one or a higher power? Or can you say, “my Lord and my God”?