ELOHIM, el'o-him". (Hebr. Elohim): Connected Names. The most common designation for God in the Old Testament, applied both to the heathen gods and to the one true God, whose proper name is Yahweh. The term most nearly related to Elohim as a designation of God, though occurring rarely and only in poetry, is its singular in the form Eloah, likewise the short and frequently used word El. The question of the derivation and significance of Elohim must take into consideration these related words.
Etymology. For a long time the derivation of Elohim received with the most deserved approval was that of Fleischer (in Delitzsch's Genesis, Leipsic, 1872, 57-58) from a root aliha not current in Hebrew but found in Arabic, signifying "to be amazed, to fear." This derivation does not satisfy because it does not account for the singular form El, and the Arabic word is itself probably a secondary formation from the word for God (cf. Dillmann, Alttestamentliche Theologie, Leipsic, 1895, 210). H. Schultz (Alttestamentliche Theologie, Göttingen, 1896, 405, note 10) derives El from ul "to be strong." El signifies then "the strong," "the mighty," and is conceived as a verbal noun. Many objections can be brought to this derivation both in regard to the significance of the name and with respect to the original shortness of the e in El (cf. Dillmann, ut sup. Theodor Noldeke derives El from a verbal stem ul or il signifying "to be in front" (Monatsberichte der Berliner Akademie, 1880, 760 sqq.). God is then to be thought of as "the leader," "the foremost one." This derivation demands the long e in El and is not satisfactory to the scholarship of to-day. Lagarde (Uebersicht über die Nominalbildung, Göttingen, 1889, 170; cf. G. Kerber, Hebräische Eigennamen, Freiburg, 1897, 83; Bäthgen, Beiträge zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte, Berlin, 1889, 272 sqq.) has sought to derive the word from the root alah to which the preposition el, "to," belongs. El = God would then indicate "the end of all human seeking" and "the object of all human Striving." This receives some support from analogous usage in the Assyrian. But the idea is too abstract to express the original first impressions of Divinity among any people. The authority of the philologist has very little weight either in the history or philosophy of religion. It is not safe to build historical or philosophical theories concerning the original conception of divinity on etymological speculations. Nevertheless one can not deny that the concept of "might," or "mighty one," has a content which, on the one hand, bears in it the essential mark of the concept of divinity, and, on the other, is sufficiently concrete to serve as a foundation for a root so ancient and original as El. If it be possible to remove the objections to the derivation from alah, "to be strong," this etymology will be the most probable.
Use in Singular and Plural. The next question concerns the relationship of Eloah and Elohim to El, and scholars are virtually agreed that Elohim is an old plural of El, while Eloah is a secondary formation from Elohim. As to the significance of this plural the main question is, does it now or did it originally signify plurality of divine being? The data are confined to the Old Testament and the text in several instances is not beyond question (cf. Strack's Genesis, 68). If one looks at the instances where Elohim must be plural, because it signifies a plurality of (heathen) gods, there yet remain a great and preponderating number of passages where it can mean only the (one) God of Israel. In these instances, it is the rule that Elohim, where it is subject and where it has an attribute takes the singular of the predicate as well as of the attribute. But there are not lacking cases in which this rule will not apply in which Elohim takes both the attribute and the verbal predicate in the plural. The most apparent explanation is that these are traces of a previous general manner of expression and consequently a proof of an old Israelitic polytheism (Baudissin, Studien zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte, Leipsic, 1876, 55-56; Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, i., Stuttgart, 1884, 376). But this argument is offset by the fact that the Hebrews used this manner of expression in later times where, considering all circumstances, polytheism can not be implied. The Hebrews used many collective nouns and many plural formations which referred to one person, the plural signifying a mass of abstractions collected from single phenomena of like character. If the Hebrew writer wished to indicate his feeling of unity in the plural, he would express it by means of the singular of the attribute or predicate. If exceptions to this rule occur, they are exceptions and not remains of an old rule. The singular of the predicate or attribute along with a plural subject is absolute proof for the monotheistic view, while the plural of the attribute and predicate is not in the same manner a proof for the polytheistic view. A plural subject with a singular predicate or attribute could only be chosen by a decision consciously made to depart from grammatical rules of speech, but if the speaker thought of God as one being, singular attributes and predicates could easily come into usage because it would be understood that the plural subject was really a collective singular.
Extra-Biblical sources afford no help. The analogy of the Phenician which possesses a plural word for a unitary God, is not significant because no Phenician document reaches back to Old-Testament times. There is the possibility that the plural Elohim has come in early times from the experience of many divine beings (Smith, Rel. of Sem., 445), but this is not more than an abstract possibility. It may be claimed that the experience of many revelations of one being could also give the thought of plurality of divine beings. The latter is probable certainly from the way in which Adhonim and Baalim are used, referring only to one Lord.
Bibliography: Consult, besides the literature mentioned in the text: H. L. Fleischer, Kleinere Schriften, i. 154 sqq., Leipsic, 1885; DB, ii. 198-199; EB, iii. 3323-25.