Arguing from the English Translation?

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.


[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.