I often see well-meaning Christians mention the Hebrew word Elohim (אלהים) in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity. Because the word Elohim is plural, our Trinitarian friends suggest that this Hebrew term proves that God is more than one person. The problem with this claim is that it overlooks the way that plural nouns work in the Hebrew language.
In English (and many other languages) there are only two numerical categories: singular, which refers only to one person/thing; and plural, which refers only to multiple persons/things. In languages that function this way there is no middle ground—if a thing has a plural form then it is numerically plural and if a thing has a singular form then it is numerically singular. Such is not the case in Hebrew, however.
In Hebrew, there are not two numerical categories, but three. Just like any other language, Hebrew has singular and plural; but the third option, known as the “intensive plural,” stands half way in between the other two. The intensive plural refers to only one person/thing, even though it looks plural.
Numerical plurals and intensive plurals are identical in form; for example, one cannot tell whether elohim is a numerical plural or an intensive plural simply by looking at the word. Nevertheless, intensive plurals in Hebrew are very easy to spot in context. When a Hebrew noun is numerically plural, it will be the subject of plural verbs and be modified by plural adjectives and predicate nouns. Not so with the intensive plural. When an intensive plural is being used, the noun will still look plural (with a characteristic ים or ות ending), but it will be the subject of singular verbs and be modified by singular adjectives and predicate nouns.
Hebrew often uses an intensive plural to express the greatness, hugeness, authority, or majesty of the thing being described; multiplicity, however, is not implied at all. Hebrew frequently uses elohim as an intensive plural, but it is by no means the only Hebrew word so used. Let’s look at the Hebrew word adon (אדון, pl. adonim אדנים), a word meaning “master,” “lord,” or “overseer,” to illustrate this point. In the Hebrew Bible, the term adon is used in all three categories: singular, numerical plural, and intensive plural.
- Gen 23:6—Hear us, my lord (אדני): thou art a mighty prince (נשיא…אתה) among us
The children of Heth address Abraham, who is obviously only one person, with the singular form adoni (as opposed to the plural form adonai). Abraham is further described with the singular noun nesiy’ and the singular verb attah.
- Gen 19:2—And he said, Behold now, my lords (אדני), turn in (סורו), I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry (ולינו) all night, and wash (ורחצו) your feet, and ye shall rise up early (והשכמתם), and go (והלכתם) on your ways.
Lot addresses the two angels with the plural form adonai. All of the verbs in the passage have a second person plural form. Two persons are obviously in view.
- Isa 26:13—O LORD our God, other lords (אדנים) beside thee have had dominion over us (בעלונו)
Isaiah is lamenting the fact that multiple foreign kings had controlled Israel. He uses the plural noun adonim and the plural verb bealu.
- Gen 42:30—The man, who is the lord (האיש אדני) of the land, spake (דבר) roughly to us, and took us (ויתן) for spies of the country.
Although the plural form adonei is used, Joseph is the only person being described. He is further described with the singular noun ish and the singular verbs diber and yitten.
- Ex 21:6—Then his master shall bring him (והגישו אדניו) unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore (ורצע אדניו) his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.
Only one slave owner is intended. Although the plural form adonaiw is used twice, the singular verbs “he shall bring” and “he shall bore” prove that this verse is only talking about one person.
- 2 Kings 2:3—And the sons of the prophets that were at Bethel came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master (אדניך) from thy head to day?
Although the plural form adoneika is used, Elisha’s master Elijah is obviously only one person
More instances of the intensive plural in the Hebrew Bible could be added to the above examples. Only one person is intended in all three verses, even though a plural form of adon is used. To say the same thing differently—although these verses use a plural form of adon, the referent in each case is numerically singular.
When we understand how Hebrew grammar uses the intensive plural, we understand that multiplicity is not being implied at all. Therefore, it does not surprise us when the one God is described with plural terms like adonim or elohim.
- Mal 1:6—If I am a father (אב אני), where is my honor? If I am a master (אדונים אני), where is my fear? says the Lord of Hosts
Although the plural form adonim is used, the noun “father” and both instances of the pronoun ani are singular. This shows that we are dealing with an intensive plural God speaks as if he is a singular person (I, not we).
- Ps 135:5—For I know that the LORD is great (גדול), and that our Lord (ואדנינו) is above all gods (אלהים). God is described with the plural form adoneinu, but the singular adjective gadol shows that we are dealing with an intensive plural. Note the use of elohim—which is numerically plural in this case, describing all of the other false gods. (See also Psalm 136:3 & 147:5)
These descriptions are intensive plurals, not numerical plurals; consequently they don’t imply any multiplicity in God’s nature at all. Rather, they emphasize how great and powerful God is. We know this because the plural nouns are modified with singular verbs, predicate nouns, and adjectives. Just as adonim does not imply that Joseph is more than one person, so adonim does not imply that Jehovah is more than one person. The Bible uses intensive plurals to describe God starting with Genesis 1:1, and continuing through the entire Bible. “In the beginning God (אלהים) created (ברא) the heavens and the earth.” Although the noun elohim is plural, the third person singular verb bara’ “he created” lets us know that this is an intensive plural.
In closing, I want to highlight one more example of the intensive plural in Deuteronomy 10:17:
For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward
כי יהוי אלהיכמ הוא אלהי האלהים ואדני האדנים האל הגדל הגבר והנורא אשר לא ישא פנים ולא יקח שחד
Notice that God is described with the plural forms elohei and adonei in this verse. Nevertheless, they do not imply any sort of multiplicity; just the opposite, in fact. We know that these are intensive plurals because of the string of singular descriptors that follow: the noun el, the pronoun hu’, the adjectives gadol and gibor, and the verbs nora’, yisa’, and yiqach are all singular. In contrast to the many false elohim and the many false adonim, Jehovah alone is God and Lord. They are many elohim, he is a single elohim; they are many adonim, he is a single adonim. Rather than denoting multiplicity, the plural forms emphasize how powerful, majestic, sovereign, and glorious the one true God is. He (הוא) is a great, mighty, terrifying God (אל).
5 thoughts on “Adonim, Elohim, and The Implications of Plurality”
Thanks!Very interesting & great explanation!
Amos 5:26 But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves.
If elohim = a plurality of personages within one being, thus would make Moses, certain angels and some false gods (elohim in the verse above) as being multipersonal/ personalities.
Many Christians take liberties with the Hebrew language that is downright dishonest, especially where elohim (and where echad) is concerned. Great article on your part! 🙌
Very interesting and wonderfully explained!
Thoroughly enjoyed this article and gleaned so much from it! Your presentation of sentence structure is very scholarly and appreciated. I’m not any sort of linguist, but have relied on various study helps in my personnel walk with God; your input and teaching is something that I look into and look forward to receiving in my inbox. Thank you for your diligence in study!
Excellent! Very well written and theologically sound!