Lost in Translation

For the LORD is a great God and a great king above all gods.

Psalm 95:3

Even if you’ve been tracking with me to this point, I’m sure you still have a few nagging questions…especially when it comes to Trinitarian allusions that are supposedly found throughout the Old Testament.  That being the case, we will now consider how well the evidence measures up and whether or not there is a better way to interpret these alleged harbingers of a triune Godhead. 

The good news is that better explanations are forthcoming, the bad news is that we are going to have to delve into some nuances of the Hebrew language to uncover them.  And so allow me to apologize up front for the fairly technical nature of this chapter, but since the Trinitarian interpretations are likewise based upon the grammatical and linguistic details of these passages, we have no other option. 

As such, we begin our investigation with arguably the most central affirmation in all of Judaism: the shema.

From Many, One?

One of the most important passages in the Old Testament is arguably the “shema” from Deuteronomy chapter six, so-called because shema is the Hebrew word that means “hear”:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
Deuteronomy 6:4

Not only do devout Jews repeat this verse two times every day, but when he was asked which commandment is the most important, Jesus quoted this verse as part of His reply:

Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:29-31

From the standpoint of the Trinity the “shema” is inherently problematic, since worshipping three divine persons certainly seems to violate this most fundamental precept of Judaism.  The explanation, of course, is that while worshipping three gods would clearly violate this foundational truth, we proclaim one God in three persons…not three different gods.  In short, by virtue of declaring that there are “three persons in the Godhead,” the Trinity is making an implicit connection between the “Godhead” and the “one,” versus the “three persons” and the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” 

When pressed to explain how this assertion is practically any different than polytheism, the “answer” that Trinitarians typically offer is that God is incomprehensible, and that this triune aspect of God is simply part of the mystery of His being.  Really?  The Trinity is monotheistic “just because”?  I find it more than a little ironic that whereas the church was loath to appeal to mystery in response to the seminal question of “how” the Incarnation is possible – when that was actually the only legitimate answer – Trinitarians are suddenly willing to embrace mystery when challenged to justify the intrinsic contradiction of the resulting doctrine – and thereby avoid admitting that they have no answer.

What is particularly interesting about the Trinitarian viewpoint on the “shema,” though, is the perceived allusion to the plurality in God from the declaration that “The LORD is one!”  This conclusion is based upon the multiple meanings of the Hebrew word ehad (or echad) which is translated in Deuteronomy 6:4 as “one.”  Specifically, the Trinity points to the fact that ehad is sometimes used in Scripture to describe a union or unity that results from multiple things coming together and functioning as “one.”

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
Genesis 2:24

All the people answered with one voice.
Exodus 24:3

Put the clasps into the loops and join the tent together so that it will be a unit (one).
Exodus 26:11

If you assume that the Trinity is established truth then this interpretation certainly seems plausible; however, it’s really just a case of everything looking like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer.  Why do I say this?  For one thing, the verses just listed are the three examples from the Torah where ehad is used in this way.  This stands in contrast to the 383 other times in the Torah that ehad clearly means “one” or “first.”  In fact, the sense of plurality normally implied by ehad is best seen in its usage as the ordinal designation “first,” whereby ehad is singling out “one” particular entity from many others that are similar: 

The water decreased steadily until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first (ehad) day of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible.
Genesis 8:5

Does that sound like the Trinity to you?  The whole point of the Trinity is that the three are completely equal, not that one is being singled out above the others.

Furthermore, while it is certainly possible to infer a sense of union from ehad…the prospect of which the Trinity is postulating in the “shema”…take a look at the examples above and you will see that the point is that multiple, different entities are coming together to function as a whole.  Here again, this is the exact opposite of what the Trinity states, which is that all three members are the same from the start.  Because the Trinity is not about a union of three things coming together as one (which would indeed be polytheism) it is all about the “one” eternally existing as three distinct yet equal persons…almost the converse of ehad.  So rather than bolstering the case for the Trinity, ehad would appear to refute it.

Regardless of how you choose to understand ehad in this particular instance, though, its various interpretations underscore one of the key challenges when translating Hebrew words that typically have several shades of meaning.  Not only can picking the “right meaning” be difficult, but often the entire range of possible meanings is implied. 

For example, take yir’ah, the Hebrew word for “fear.” This one word can be used to communicate terror, awe, respect, or even worship.  Thus when Scripture admonishes us to “fear the Lord,” there is a sense in which all of these nuances could apply.  Context usually dictates the best option, but this aspect of word choice highlights two pitfalls that can potentially distort the essence of the original text:

  • If you are not careful, interpreting a given word too broadly can open the passage up to interpretations that were never intended.  The potential plurality of ehad in the “shema” is a perfect example, which Trinitarians have opted to see as evidence of a tri-union, rather than a simple declaration that the LORD alone is to be worshipped from among all other gods. 
  • Alternatively, trying to boil down a range of meanings to a single word might obscure important facets of the passage.  In other words, when presented with several options for a given word, the translators have to settle upon the ehad (one, as in one among many) meaning that best captures the context.  The problem, then, is that since the fullness of the word is not captured, the subsequent interpretation of the text may be diminished because elements of the original thought get lost in translation.

Hence when it comes to evaluating the Trinity’s contention that the “shema” is tacitly conveying the notion of “three persons within a Godhead,” the best way to guard against erring in either direction is by considering how ehad is used throughout the rest of Scripture.  To that end, the previous examples of how ehad is used in the first five books of the Old Testament, all authored by Moses, would appear to belie Trinitarian claims of plurality in God rather than substantiate them.  Moreover, given that Mark chose the Greek word for “one” instead of the Greek word for “union” when he recorded Jesus’ quotation of the “shema,” it seems highly unlikely that this Trinitarian proposition has any merit.

In any event, as pedantic and obscure as this single issue may seem, when it comes to understanding the “threeness” of God in the context of the entire Bible, ehad is probably the least of our problems.

In the Name of the LORD

Many English translations of the Old Testament employ a formatting convention which occasionally renders the word “Lord” in all capital letters as “LORD.”  This variation is deliberate, highlighting the fact that in the original text you are dealing with two very different words.  The former indicates that the word in the Hebrew text is a form of the word adon, which means lord or master; accordingly, when used as a title for God it is always capitalized as “Lord.”  The instances where “LORD” appears, though, mean something else entirely.

One of the ways that the Jews have traditionally shown reverence for God’s name is to refrain from saying it aloud.  This presents quite a challenge when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament, since God’s name appears thousands of times!  Regardless, it became common practice to say the word “Lord” whenever God’s name is encountered in the text, a tradition which many English translators perpetuated by replacing God’s proper name with “LORD.”  So whereas “Lord” signifies a title for God that acknowledges His power and authority, whenever you see “LORD” the Hebrew text is actually calling God by His proper name, YHVH (or YHWH), which we translate as Yahweh.

While the intention of hallowing God’s name in this fashion is certainly admirable, I submit that obscuring His name actually diminishes His glory more often than not.  Quite simply, we lose some of the import of the passage.  For example:

I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.
Isaiah 42:8

versus…

I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.

Then there’s the challenge that Elijah made to the prophets of Baal:

Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” And all the people said, “That is a good idea.”
1 Kings 18:24

versus…

Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh, and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” And all the people said, “That is a good idea.”

Or what about when the Jordan river was parted as the Israelites crossed over into Canaan?

It shall come about when the soles of the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan will be cut off.
Joshua 3:13

versus…

It shall come about when the soles of the feet of the priests who carry the ark of Yahweh, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan will be cut off.

And finally, there’s the dialogue between Abraham and God in Genesis 15? 

Abram said, “O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?”
Genesis 15:8

versus…

Abram said, “O Lord Yahweh, how may I know that I will possess it?”

Here we see the words “Adonai” (Lord) and “Yahweh” used together, and if you look carefully you’ll see that “God” is actually printed as “GOD.”  The reasoning for the capitalization is the same as for “LORD,” because in the original text Abram apparently invokes God’s proper name, YHVH.  I say “apparently” because we learn later from the book of Exodus that Abraham never actually knew God’s personal name:

God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am Yahweh (the LORD); and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, Yahweh (LORD), I did not make Myself known to them.”
Exodus 6:2-3

In short, even though Moses was the first person to actually know God’s proper name, he intentionally inserts God’s name throughout the book of Genesis to remove any doubt about whom the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob really is.  This may seem like a trivial point, but that’s only because we forget that the Old Testament is written against the backdrop of polytheism.  In fact, Israel’s biggest problem throughout its history is that it consistently struggled to keep the first commandment:

You shall have no other gods before Me.
Exodus 20:3

God isn’t talking about priority here, as if it’s fine to worship many gods as long as He is pre-eminent, He is talking about exclusivity, about being the ehad.  Yahweh didn’t want Israel to have anything to do with Baal and Asherah of the Canaanites, Chemosh of the Moabites, or with Dagon of the Philistines, and yet time and time again we see the Israelites incurring God’s wrath because they “played the harlot” and worshipped these would-be competitors in addition to YHVH, the One who delivered them from Egypt and made them His own treasured possession.

Indeed, there is something about explicitly using God’s name in a passage that inherently gives it more weight, more gravitas, because it unmistakably ascribes more acclaim, more glory to God by removing any doubt about the recipient of our praise:

“Now, therefore, fear Yahweh and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve Yahweh, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.”

The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh to serve other gods; for Yahweh our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. Yahweh drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve Yahweh, for He is our God.”
Joshua 24:14-18

Read this same passage from your favorite English translation and ask yourself if obscuring God’s name with “LORD” increases or decreases the weightiness of the passage.  Not that there’s anything wrong with referring to God as Lord, because He clearly is, but God’s personal name is unique and unmistakable whereas “Lord” is a generic title of respect that can be used in reference to anyone in a position of relative authority or power: 

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.”
Revelation 7:13-14

Thus simply invoking God’s name necessarily makes a stronger impression by means of exalting it…rather than avoiding it.  Furthermore, why would we presume to hide His name when he clearly intends it to be proclaimed? 

Thus says Yahweh to Cyrus His anointed, whom I have taken by the right hand, to subdue nations before him and to loose the loins of kings; to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:

“I will go before you and make the rough places smooth; I will shatter the doors of bronze and cut through their iron bars.

“I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden wealth of secret places, So that you may know that it is I, Yahweh, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

“For the sake of Jacob My servant, And Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor though you have not known Me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God.”
Isaiah 45:1-5

They will call on My name, And I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people,’ And they will say, ‘Yahweh is my God.’
Zechariah 13:9

So given the importance that God Himself places upon His name, what do you think Jesus actually meant when he commanded the apostles to go make disciples, baptizing them in “the name” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  The answer should be obvious…but I’m jumping ahead.  Up next is yet another aspect of our English Old Testaments which I believe, similar to the convention of obscuring God’s personal name, inadvertently diminishes His glory.

Elohim

As if the dual meanings of “Lord” and “LORD” weren’t bad enough, there is a similar challenge regarding the word Elohim. It is one of several related words in Hebrew that are based upon the root word “el,” which means “strength” or “might.”  Thus when el and its many derivatives are used in reference to YHVH, the God of Israel, they effectively mean the “strong one” or the “mighty one” and are simply translated as “God”:

Yahweh (The LORD) appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El (God) Almighty.”
Genesis 17:1

Then [Israel] forsook Eloah (God) who made him, and scorned the Rock of his salvation.
Deuteronomy 32:15

And [Noah] said, “Blessed be Yahweh (the LORD), Elohe (God of) Shem.”
Genesis 9:26

In the beginning Elohim (God) created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:1

This seems straightforward enough, until you consider that the word Elohim is actually the plural form of Eloah.  In other words, whereas Eloah translates to “God” in English, Elohim would normally translate to “gods.”  That being the case, why doesn’t the first verse of Genesis read “In the beginning gods created the heavens and the earth”?  The reason comes down to the grammatical construction of the passage, such that whenever the word Elohim is paired with a singular verb it is translated as “God,” otherwise, its normal plural sense of “gods” is used instead.  For instance, consider the first verse of Psalm 82 that employs both translations of Elohim:

God (Elohim) takes His stand in His own congregation, He judges in the midst of the gods (elohim).
Psalm 82:1

While this gives us a practical explanation for the distinction, it begs the bigger question: why would the Israelites use an inherently plural word to refer to Yahweh in the first place?  After all, since “el” and its other singular forms all mean “God,” wouldn’t one of them suffice?  Indeed, why is the plural designation of Elohim the overwhelming choice of the Old Testament authors when they refer to God?

Trinitarians are usually quick to raise their hands at this juncture, and point to the plurality of Elohim as a clear indicator that God Himself is indeed a plurality…three in fact.  They see Elohim as a veiled reference to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a kind of foreshadowing of the Trinity that isn’t explicitly revealed until the New Testament.  And quite frankly, if the Trinity were indeed true, then this explanation makes a lot of sense.

That being said, since “three persons in the Godhead” is never stated in Scripture, this hypothesis is fallacious because it is completely circular.  Put differently, while the plurality of Elohim would certainly corroborate plurality in the Godhead, it is clearly not enough to establish it.  Think about it in the context of our murder mystery: even with the mountain of circumstantial evidence that appeared to implicate the husband, it only made him look guilty because everyone presumed he already was.  In similar fashion, since we have no unambiguous Scripture that declares three persons in God, the mere suggestion of plurality does not justify that conclusion. 

Which still leaves us with the original question: why not simply use one of the singular words for God?  Other explanations have been offered, like the “plural of majesty” manner of speaking whereby monarchs may refer to themselves as “we.”  Alternatively, some have proposed that using a word’s plural form in place of its singular form was a technique that the ancient Israelites used to emphasize something, similar to the way in which we use bold or italics today.  While both of these ideas may have some merit, I have come to believe that there is a much more practical reason behind the use of Elohim.

“God of gods”

Try to put yourself in Moses’ shoes for a moment.  After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, he has finally brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan.  The arrival represents a homecoming of sorts for the Hebrew people, a return to the land once inhabited by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but reclaiming the land of their forefathers will clearly not be easy.  Because during the 400+ years that the Israelites have been absent in Egypt, the nations that subsequently occupied the land have become both numerous and strong.  And just as Pharaoh was not willing to let the Israelites go “because their God said so,” neither are the Canaanites willing to simply restore the land because Israel’s God made Abraham a promise.

Thus Israel encounters resistance with every step, and Moses knows that the battles he has already waged are mere precursors of the ones yet to come. Taking back the land will be a perilous undertaking, a daunting task that will require years of sacrifice and perseverance, but Moses also knows that the biggest threat this nation will face has nothing to do with the might of the armies that await them.  On the contrary, Moses knows first-hand that the One thing Israel needs to fear most is incurring the wrath of their righteous, holy, God:

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”

Yahweh said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
Exodus 32:7-10

So there he stands on the brink of Canaan, preparing to pass the torch to Joshua, and in his hands he holds the Torah.  Moses understands its vital role as the “plumb line” that Israel will need to return to time and time again, and so he also understands the need for absolute clarity.  Israel has already shown its propensity towards idolatry, so Moses wants to be sure that Israel’s future generations are in no doubt about the God whom they worship. This is why he added God’s name, YHVH, throughout the book of Genesis even though God never revealed it to the patriarchs.  It’s also why he couldn’t simply use the singular Hebrew word “El” to refer to God.

Archaeological evidence has shown that “el” was not a word unique to the Hebrew people.  In fact, el was not only a common word for “god” or “lord” throughout the ancient Near East, but “El” was also the proper name of the god at the head of the Canaanite pantheon!  “El” was the creator god of the Canaanites, who along with his consort Asherah fathered 70 other gods…including Baal and Ashtoreth.  So as Moses sat down to write the Torah, he faced quite a dilemma: how could he ensure that the nation of Israel never confused references to El – the “strong one” of Israel – with Baal’s father?

Again, since Eloah also means God, Moses could have simply used this word as a way to avoid any confusion between the God of the Hebrews and El of the Canaanites, but he didn’t.  He overwhelmingly chose to use the plural form of Elohim, not simply for emphasis or as the “royal we,” but as a way to make a statement about Israel’s God, YHVH, the “God of gods”:

For Yahweh is Elohe (your God), Elohe ha’elohim (God of gods) and Adone ha’adonim (Lord of lords), the great, the mighty, and the awesome El (God).
Deuteronomy 10:17

Then the king will do as he pleases, and he will exalt and magnify himself above every el (god) and will speak monstrous things against the El elim (God of gods); and he will prosper until the indignation is finished, for that which is decreed will be done.
Daniel 11:36

We need to remember that Elohim is a title for God – as opposed to His name, which is YHVH – so what if Elohim functions as a kind of shorthand for Elohe ha’elohim or El elim, which are two ways of saying “God of gods”?  Think of Elohim like a contraction that not only prevents confusion with the Canaanite’s “El,” but also avoids the nebulous and potentially fungible meanings of eloah, a more generic word for “god” that could potentially be applied to any spiritual being, including angels!  After all, who do you think that the “gods” are in Psalm 82? 

God (Elohim) takes His stand in His own congregation, He judges in the midst of the gods (elohim).
Psalm 82:1

Don’t forget that from a Biblical perspective the real problem with polytheism is not the belief in a multitude of supernatural beings, since compared to us angels are clearly “godlike,” the real issue is ascribing worship to another spiritual (or physical!) being as if it was Almighty God:

Then I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God.
Revelation 19:10

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. But he said to me, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God.”
Revelation 22:8-9

Understandably, the idea that Elohim is shorthand for “God of gods” may seem like a stretch to many, but it is nonetheless extremely consistent with the way in which the Old Testament portrays YHVH:

  • Think about the term “Almighty.”  While this certainly speaks to God’s immense power, it would also serve to distinguish Him from the other angelic beings, who while mighty in their own rights, are not all-mighty.  In other words, YHVH is not only the “strong one” of Israel, but He is also the One God who rules over all others, a “great king above all gods.” (Psalm 95:3)
  • Whenever the Old Testament speaks about the gods of the other nations, it never denies that they exist; rather, it portrays them as false gods whose power is nothing when compared to YHVH, the “God of gods.”
  • Consider Psalm 136, which gives praise to Yahweh, the God of gods:

    Give thanks to Yahweh (the LORD) for He is good,
    His love endures forever.
    Give thanks to Elohe elohim (the God of gods).
    His love endures forever.
    Give thanks to the Lord of Lords,
    His love endures forever.
    To Him who alone does great wonders,
    His love endures forever.
    Who by His understanding made the heavens,
    His love endures forever.
    Who spread out the earth upon the waters,
    His love endures forever.
    Who made the great lights –
    His love endures forever.
    The sun to govern the day,
    His love endures forever.
    The moon and stars to govern the night;
    His love endures forever.
    Oh give thanks to El (the God) of heaven,
    His love endures forever.
    Psalm 136:1-9,26 (NIV)

    This is clearly a poetic expression of the creation account in Genesis 1, which as we have already seen was the work of Elohim, or “God” in our English translations, and yet the psalmist uses three additional designations for God that effectively function as synonyms for Elohim…including “God of gods.”

Finally, this title for YHVH may also have served as a direct shot at all Canaanite gods, since the Canaanite words for “god” and “gods” were “el” and “ilhm” (alternatively “ilm” or “ihm”).  Thus the Canaanite phrase for “God of gods” would have been something like “el ilhm.”  Try saying that a few times aloud and see what it sounds like.  I don’t think it was a coincidence that Moses selected the plural of eloah Elohim – as the “default” title for YHVH, since whenever it was proclaimed it would effectively be professing YHVH as the “God of gods” not only to Israel, but also to their neighbors.

The LORD is Indeed…One

Granted, all of this does not constitute absolute proof for my theory, but since the early church was willing to create the doctrine of the Trinity out of thin air (as opposed to actual passages of Scripture) then certainly these verses deserve to be minimally viewed as precedent-setting even if not definitive.  Furthermore, try reading Elohim as “God of gods” instead of simply “God” in the following passages and see if it doesn’t make perfect sense:

In the beginning, Elohim (the God of gods) created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:1

Elohim (The God of gods) takes His stand in His own congregation, He judges in the midst of the elohim (gods).
Psalm 82:1

For You are great and do wondrous deeds;
You alone are Elohim (the God of gods).
Teach me Your way, Yahweh (O LORD).
Psalm 86:10-11

Your throne, O Elohim (God of gods), is forever and ever;
A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You, [O King], have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
Therefore Elohim (the God of gods), eloheka (Your God), has anointed You
With the oil of joy above Your fellows.
Psalm 45:6-7

And taking another look at Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, we see that while he initially refers to Baal simply as a “god,” Elijah actually mocks Baal as Elohimwhen Baal fails to answer the pleas of his prophets!

Then you call on the name of elohe (your god), and I will call on the name of Yahweh, and the Elohim (God of gods) who answers by fire, He is Elohim. (God of gods)” And all the people said, “That is a good idea.”

So Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one ox for yourselves and prepare it first for you are many, and call on the name of elohe (your god), but put no fire under it.” Then they took the ox which was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, “O Baal, answer us.” But there was no voice and no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they made.

It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a Elohim (God of gods); either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.”
1 Kings 18:24-27

Why would Elijah use the word Elohim in his taunt instead of simply using the generic word elohe again?  After all, having already acknowledged that Baal was “their god,” he surely wasn’t trying to imply that Baal was also the God of Israel.  So why invoke the one word, Elohim, that was exclusively used for YHVH?  Because this showdown was the equivalent of a heavyweight prize fight, a contest between Baal and YHVH for the title of “God of gods.” 

At the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Yahweh, the Elohe (God of) Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are Elohim (God of gods) in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, that this people may know that You, Yahweh, are Elohim (God of gods), and that You have turned their heart back again.”

Then the fire of Yahweh fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “Yahweh, He is Elohim (God of gods); Yahweh, He is Elohim (God of gods).”
1 Kings 18:36-39

In short, by opting to use Elohim as the primary title for YHVH, the God of Israel, Moses not only prevented any confusion between Israel’s God and “El” of the Canaanites, but he also exalted YHVH above all other rivals and proclaimed His absolute supremacy at the same time.  Moses chose Elohim to remind Israel that the One True God had chosen them, and by using it in conjunction with God’s personal name, he is ensuring that they never forget Whom the “God of gods” truly is. 

Indeed, Elohim ascribes glory to God’s Holy Name each time it is uttered; what it does not do, in my estimation, is foreshadow the existence of multiple persons in God.  It serves as a superlative form of address from Israel to their God, a proxy for the phrase “God of gods” that literally has hundreds of parallels throughout the Old Testament…unlike the supposed “tri-personness of God” which has none.  Consequently, this view of Elohimcertainly seems like a win-win to me, especially since reading it in this manner aligns with Scripture instead of re-imagining it to suit our preconceptions.

And so when the “shema” proclaims that “Yahweh (the LORD) is ehad (one)” it isn’t hinting at some kind of divine personality disorder in God; to the contrary, it is declaring that of all of the elohim, all of the “gods,” YHVH alone reigns supreme as Elohim, the “God of gods.”  YHVH is the ehad – the one God from amongst all others – who has no equal, and Israel is to love and to worship Him and Him alone with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: