And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said…Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hands of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness (1 Samuel 4:7-8).
The casual reader of these verses will probably be confused as to why the word “Gods” is capitalized. I know I was! Anyone who studies the Bible knows that monotheism is taught time and again in the scriptures. After all, there is “one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:6); “there is but one God, the Father” (1 Corinthians 8:6). It doesn’t make sense to refer to Jehovah as “Gods”; Jehovah himself said “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4). So why is the word “Gods” capitalized in this passage?
The answer lies with the Philistines. You see, the Philistines were trying to refer to the God “that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues”. We know that this God was the LORD Jehovah: “Thus saith the LORD…I will smite” (Exodus 7:17). But the Philistines were confused about Jehovah’s nature. For some reason they saw him as multiple beings, or persons. “Gods” is capitalized because the Philistines were referring to the LORD; and it is plural (as “Gods” instead of “God”) because they saw the LORD as more than one being (as “them” instead of “him”).
I believe I know why the Philistines were confused. Unfortunately the same thing that gave the Philistines trouble is confusing the modern church world. It is a simple misunderstanding of one word (and a few scriptures); but the effects of this error are multiple and massive doctrinal issues.
The central element of confusion is the word Elohim (אֶלהִים), the Hebrew word for “God”. Denominations that teach trinitarianism (the doctrine that the Godhead is made of three persons) or binitarianism (the doctrine that the Godhead is made of two persons) usually use the word Elohim (אֶלהִים) to support their doctrine. “Elohim is a plural word” they will tell us “and therefore God must have a plural nature”. Technically, Elohim (אֶלהִים) is the plural form of the Hebrew word El, which also means “God”. But, plural forms in the Hebrew language behave differently than in English; as a result, people holding to a pluralist view of the Godhead are confused by the nature of the word Elohim (אֶלהִים). The grammatical issues surrounding this Hebrew word have been described quite adequately by Rabbi Tovia Singer in a Q&A article he wrote for Outreach Judaism:
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).
For readers who may not be familiar with some of these grammatical terms, let me explain what Rabbi Singer is saying. When Elohim (אֶלהִים) refers to Jehovah, it has a plural form but a singular meaning. It has a plural form ONLY to intensify the meaning, not to state any sort of multiplicity in nature. It refers to only one being. When this word refers to pagan gods it has a plural form and a plural meaning. It refers to multiple beings. And lest anyone think that Rabbi Singer is twisting the facts because of his strict Jewish monotheism, we have abundant proof to bear out what he is saying.
Firstly, the word Elohim (אֶלהִים), when referring to Jehovah, takes a singular verb (1 Samuel 4:7-8 is an exception I will explain in just a bit). A perfect example of this phenomenon (which occurs nearly 2350 times in the scriptures) is Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God [Elohim (אֶלהִים)] created [bara’ (בָּרָ֣א)] the heaven and the earth.” The word for God is a plural form, yet the verb “created” is singular. The verse is saying something on the order of “In the beginning Elohim created—he singularly/alone created—the heaven and the earth”. This concept harmonizes perfectly with Isaiah 44:24, “Thus saith the LORD…I am the LORD that maketh all things, that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself” (emphasis added). If God were comprised of multiple beings then we would expect these verses to say something like “In the beginning…they created” and “we spread abroad the earth by ourselves”. But these verses, and countless others, speak of God/Elohim (אֶלהִים) as ONLY one person.
Secondly, the word Elohim (אֶלהִים) on occasion refers to people. For example, in Exodus 7:1 “the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god [elohim (אֶלהִים)] to Pharaoh”. This reference is especially significant to people who say that the Godhead is composed of multiple people. Here we see the word applied to Moses. Is Moses multiple people? Of course not! The Septuagint translates the word singularly here as θεος (theos). The idea that Moses is comprised of multiple people is preposterous; and so is the idea of a multi-personal God.
Lastly, the word Elohim (אֶלהִים) can refer to pagan false gods. This is the word that the psalmist used when he said that “all the gods [elohim (אֶלהִים)] of the nations are idols”. When this word refers to Jehovah it takes singular verbs, nouns, and adjectives. When it refers to pagan gods it takes plural verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Notice how the word “idols” is plural?
Knowing what we know, let’s have a look back at what the Philistines said in 1 Samuel 4:7-8: “And the Philistines were afraid, for they said God [Elohim (אֶלהִים)] is come into the camp. And they said…Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hands of these mighty Gods [Elohim (אֶלהִים)]? these are the Gods [Elohim (אֶלהִים)] that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.” Now we see the confusion. To the Philistines, the word Elohim looked plural; so they naturally assumed that the nation of Israel worshiped multiple gods that were somehow united as one god. That is why the Philistines used the word Elohim as singular and plural: “Elohim is come into the camp…these are the Elohim”.
Modern trinitarians and binitarians are making the same mistake as the Philistines. They see the word Elohim and assume it is plural, though simple study of the facts demonstrates overwhelmingly otherwise. Unwittingly they adopt the king of polytheism that the Philistines were assuming about the nation of Israel. Isn’t it interesting that a pluralistic interpretation of God/Elohim (אֶלהִים) comes from a pagan nation that was always the enemy of God and his people? God identifies the source of any pluralistic, multi-personal view of himself: it comes straight from pagan Philistine confusion. It is time to get back to the strict Oneness monotheism that the Bible teaches! ~CJK