Arguing from the English Translation?

I appreciate your willingness to discuss and find meaning in just the text, but even scholars that try to find truth in text alone will struggle unless they believe. I know this from experience. They would probably not even bother trying if they studied and understood 1 Corinthians first (or they would come to know Jesus, one or the other).

Isn’t elohim plural?

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@John_Harshman I’m reading Unseen Realm right now by Heiser. I think you would really like it. He argues convincingly that Elohim is the divine council of God. That’s why it’s plural.

Want to read it with me?

The -im ending is the normal masculine plural, but we know in almost all cases whether elohim is referring to a singular or plural because of context, and particularly because verbs are marked for number (i.e., singlular vs. plural). This isn’t the only case; e.g., the Behemoth of Job uses the feminine plural ending (-oth), but we know it’s referencing an individual creature (“mega-beast”). Conversely, Hebrew also employs collective nouns, such that a grammatical singular can refer to a plural (e.g., “humanity,” “seed”).

I have acknowledged that my interpretation is based only on the standard English translations of Genesis. My methodology is to read the words carefully. I don’t know how better to determine the meaning of text in English than by reading it carefully. What do you suggest?

That is not an apt analogy to the current situation.

A better one: I read Hawkings’s book and say “This is what I understand his book to be saying, though I realize it might not be a completely accurate representation of what is presented in the technical literature. Am I understanding what he wrote in the book correctly?”

“Your understanding seems to be correct. But maybe it’s completely wrong based on the the primary literature.”

“OK, what does the primary literature say that is different?”

“I’m saying it does say anything different. But it could, don’t you admit?”

“I guess, but I’m just asking if I understand Hawkings’s book correctly.”

“Well, there’s this invisible being that guides me when I read books, and he says it says something different.”

“???”

So far, it seems to me just the opposite is the case. The text clearly says something, but “belief” causes people to misread it.

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When it comes to works of theology I’m cheap, so probably not, unless it’s at a library (which, thanks to covid-19, it isn’t at anything I have access to). But if there’s a divine council, who’s on it? God’s wife? A Hebrew pantheon? That would explain various other plurals, such as “let us make man in our image” and “the man has become as one of us”, etc., which I presume are also present in the Hebrew.

You’re saying that the noun and verb forms can be contradictory? So when is elohim clearly singular and when is it plural?

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Morphology is different than meaning, so yes there can technically be grammatical disagreement. We know largely because of the verb forms. E.g., in phrase like “God said…” the Hebrew for “said” marked different for “he said” and “they said.” Or, take Ps 82:1, where the first Elohim is singular (based on the verb) and the second is plural based on the intro “in the midst of” (i.e., can’t be in the midst of one).

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Great. So is it singular or plural in Genesis?

Gleason Archer used to call the -im in ELOHIM “the plural of majesty” and then comment about the “royal we” in English, as when Queen Victoria said, “We are not amused.” (Years later I discovered that there is actually considerable disagreement about the context of the Queen’s disapproving comment and whether it was truly a “royal we” [referring only to herself in the plural] or simply referring to herself and all of the ladies present when they were offended.)

Sometime in the early 1980’s I went along with Dr. Archer to the Oriental Institute in Chicago. It was always fun to be with Gleason when he would read the museum’s cuneiform tablets and stelae. It didn’t matter the language. He could read them all. Sometimes he would read the entire inscription and start rattling off related ancient texts which came to mind. And this ELOHIM discussion brought that to my mind because I remember one of his tangents included mention of some ancient letter of vassal kings to the “big cheese” king—and they addressed him (in Akkadian or whatever, can’t remember the language for certain) as "O Pantheon!" They were addressing one individual but everything in the inscription addressed him in the plural, according to Dr. Archer. [I couldn’t read those language so I still take his word for that.]

The jarring “disagreement” between a singular/plural noun form and a singular/plural verb form used to greatly annoy me in various languages because I would struggle to get the grammar right. But it also brings to mind the fact that before the Civil War “the United States of America” took a plural verb but after the war it took a singular verb. (That is, “The United States of America are home to a free people.” versus “The United States of America is a powerful nation.”)

So one sometimes needs to understand history as well as culture and context to really grasp the intended meaning of a sentence and to not botch the translation.

I should send another old-guy-tells-story alert to @Dan_Eastwood. Perhaps @deuteroKJ as well.

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There appears to be some disagreement about that — not that Gleason Archer said it, but that it’s the correct interpretation.

Now, in English, names of singular things may be in plural form. What we see in “The United States of America is” resembles “The Grapes of Wrath is”; the change after the war is a change in viewpoint about whether we were a country (singular) or a collection of states (plural). But does elohim in Genesis take a singular verb?

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A classic textbook example is from Genesis 1:26:

Then God (ELOHIM, plural) said (singular verb), “Let us (plural) make (plural verb) man in our (plural) image, after our (plural) likeness.”

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Is this consistent throughout Genesis?

My recollection is yes. (@deuteroKJ is far better qualified in the Hebrew text. I have not kept up my Hebrew skills in retirement—and they were never all that great to begin with.)

And it is worth mentioning that in the garden pericope (Genesis 2:4ff),
one sees ELOHIM YHWH as the name (and title, some would say) of God. YHWH is a singular, so the singular verb agreement would be entirely expected, of course.

As a sidebar, the use of ELOHIM in the creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and ELOHIM YHWH in the garden account (Genesis 2:4ff) is one of the many contrasts which contributes to the Documentary Hypothesis (aka JEDP).

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correct. The plural of majesty is an option, but I think a divine council setting makes better sense.

Depends on which text in Genesis. Both singular and plural elohim are used. However, the term is singular, I think, throughout Gen 1-30, even though he speaks to a plural divine audience in 1:26; 3:22; and 11:7.

So who’s on the divine council?

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YHWH and many other supernatural (created) beings (who go by various labels). See 1 Kgs 22:19-22; Isa 6; cf. Ps 82; 89.

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Definitely. Gleason was WWII generation. He was a product of his times (as we all tend to be.)

I think the Scofield Bible may also have popularized the “plural of majesty”. Haven’t read it in years but it had so much influence for decades.

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Almost always in Genesis, the noun “elohim” takes a singular verb. Thus, translated with crude literalness, you generally see expressions such as: “And Gods, he said”, “And Gods, he made”, “And Gods, he separated”, rather than “And Gods, they said”, “And Gods, they made”, etc. This would seem to indicate that the word “elohim” is “felt” as singular by the writers, even though, in terms of form, it is plural. Another way of putting it is that, whatever multiplicity within God might be implied in the plural form of the noun, that multiplicity is not stressed or drawn attention to in actual usage, in most cases. The few passages where the multiplicity is brought out explicitly (Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7) are striking precisely because this is not usually something the writers do, and thus these passages have generated much commentary over the ages.

Does the plural ending on the noun indicate an original belief in a council of divine beings? Possibly. Does it indicate a male/female duality within God? Possibly. (I’m here speaking grammatically and with reference to the text of Genesis 1), not about how Christian or Jewish tradition might have felt about male/female duality.) Does it arise out of something like a “royal we”? Possibly. Are there other explanations? Possibly. The only thing we can say for sure is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the noun was treated as grammatically singular, and this presumably indicates something about how ancient writers and readers conceptualized the term, at least in normal narrative usage.

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[edited by author for clarity on points 2 and 3 below]

Greetings to all.

I don’t have time to weigh in on all the detailed claims and counterclaims and suggestions here, and for the most part very intelligent and cautious discussion of the methodological issues have already been well-sketched out by Daniel Ang, Kenneth Turner, Joshua and others. Instead, I will give some autobiographical background, not to set myself up as an authority, but to indicate why I think some of these questions are less straightforward than Faizal Ali and one or two others here seem to think.

As an undergrad, I realized that I would never be able to say anything with confidence about Genesis until I learned Hebrew. (I already had learned in some courses about the Ancient Near Eastern background, and about documentary hypotheses, and so on, but that was not enough. I needed to learn Hebrew well, so that I could follow the discussions at the highest level at crucial points.) So I set about to learn Hebrew well, and, according to my professors and my grades (and comments from my grad student colleagues who thought my proficiency worthy of remark), I seem to have done so. Of course, I am currently a bit “rusty” because I have not been working directly on Hebrew Bible for a number of years, but at my peak I knew the Hebrew text of Genesis 1-11 very well, and could recite orally and reproduce in writing the text of Genesis 1 with all the correct vowel pointing, without having to look it up. I also read most of the major modern scholarly commentaries on Genesis 1-11, and a good number of the historical commentaries, including a number of rabbinic commentaries from late antiquity and the middle ages. And daily I was engaging with very bright graduate students in the Hebrew Bible area, several of whom had already published articles in good journals well before graduation. They were very good scholars. I spent time comparing and contrasting the Hebrew text with the Greek Septuagint text, and much time discussing and debating the broader methodological questions (documentary hypotheses, narratological approaches, etc.) In my studies I was guided by Christian, Jewish, and agnostic Bible scholars who themselves had graduate degrees from places like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, etc. And what I found, after years in this atmosphere of highly trained scholars and sophisticated discussion regarding interpretive method, was this:

  1. Coming up with “the plain meaning” of the Hebrew text is far from easy, even for highly trained scholars. The Hebrew language is in many respects much less precise (regarding a number things, including “tense” and “mood”) than languages such as Greek or Latin or German or English, and so there always has to be a degree of elasticity in translation; dogmatic statements that a given passage can only possibly mean one thing are generally unwarranted, and a sign of someone who is not well-versed in how scholarship in Hebrew Bible actually proceeds.

  2. Thus, it is not surprising that there is not uniformity of translation in a number of cases. And even where there is near-uniformity in the English translation, it does not follow that the original Hebrew has only one possible meaning. The translated English sentence may itself have more than one possible meaning in English, and that might well reflect a multiplicity of possible meanings in the original Hebrew. For example, a good number of Bible translations render Genesis 1:1 as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but even in English, the meaning is not certain. Is the first sentence a summary statement encapsulating the story of Genesis 1, with details to be given in subsequent verses? Or is the first sentence a report of the first creative act of God, an act by which God created the heavens and the earth in a rough, indistinct form? The English could be read either way, which is not surprising because the Hebrew is not decisive. Thus, the common English translation is ambiguous, but that ambiguity represents responsible translation practice; trying to word the English so that only one meaning is possible would be pretending to a certainty of knowledge about the meaning of the Hebrew that we simply do not have.

  3. To take another example from our current discussion, I don’t think, as some people here appear to think, that the Hebrew – or even the most respected and scholarly English translations – can settle beyond doubt the question whether or not Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of life, or whether the tree of life only needed to be eaten of once, with permanent effect, or needed to be partaken of constantly. I wouldn’t necessarily side with George’s reading against that of others, but George’s reading is possible, and even in the English translations, that possibility comes through.

  4. As for the extreme charge that God is a “liar” in Genesis, on what is it based? That Adam and Eve did not die immediately upon eating the forbidden truth? I don’t see that Genesis requires that they would have to die immediately; the meaning might be that if they eat of the forbidden fruit, death will be the inevitable consequence – with no reference to the timing.

  5. That God wants some limitation placed upon human beings after they know good and evil, does seem to me to be the most reasonable reading of the text, but the full range of God’s concerns here (is it for God’s good that this restriction is deemed necessary, or for man’s, or both?) is not given; we have only the sketchiest outline of God’s thoughts given in the story. The stories in Genesis 1-11 are at many points maddeningly brief and often we would wish for a more expansive discussion from the text, but it usually is not there. Hence, Biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have over the centuries filled in the missing details (whether of fact or motivation) to the best of their ability, but there is no guarantee that any one of them has nailed down the meaning of any particular passage with complete correctness.

I think that most of the professors who trained me, and most of the bright graduate students I regularly interacted with, would agree, in broad outline, with what I have written above. The sort of oversimplified and overly confident statements I’m seeing here from some people, are just not statements that would pass muster in the environment of scholarly Biblical studies. Where some people here, wandering from their fields of biology or psychology or whatever into Biblical studies, see things in black and white terms, Biblical scholars typically see shades of gray.

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