I’ve often heard it repeated in the Church that Elohim, the Hebrew word for “God,” refers not just to God the Father but to a divine Couple. The evidence adduced for this position is the fact that in Hebrew the term is morphologically a masculine plural. (Its singular form, Eloah, also appears in the Bible, though much less frequently, most prominently throughout the book of Job.)
I like this idea. But I find it unconvincing. Here’s why:
When the term appears in the Bible referring to Israel’s God, it virtually always takes a masculine singular verb. And it’s frequently found in apposition to the name of Israel’s God–YHWH–which looks itself like an old masculine singular verb form. In short, in spite of its plural ending, it behaves for all the world as though it is in fact masculine singular. Proponents of the theory that it refers in the Bible to a Couple therefore have a lot of explaining to do.
Perhaps, though, it’s merely the vestige of an earlier belief that had become unpalatable and had been superseded by the time the biblical authors were active? (Certainly there are various divine female figures, and divine female hypostatizations, floating around the Bible and related texts.) But if so, where is the evidence that this term itself ever referred to a couple? It strikes me as much more likely that at one point it referred to “gods” in general which perhaps came to be seen as manifestations of the one true God, because (a) indications of polytheistic belief are sprinkled throughout the Bible, and (b) the term itself can still be used as a generic for “gods” in the Bible itself (see Exodus 15:11, for example).
Furthermore, in ancient Israel’s not-too-distant past, a dual morpheme had still been productive. Words that regularly occur in pairs were inherited into Hebrew with this old dual form. So, if the term refers to two beings but not more, why is Elohim in the plural rather than the dual (Elohayim)? (Not to mention thorny hermeneutical issues surrounding the validity of reconstructing Israel’s pre-biblical religion and then extrapolating theological information from our reconstruction.)
But even if there’s no basis for positing the term’s ancient use to describe a divine duo, perhaps the term, transplanted into contemporary English, is nevertheless used to indicate divine parents?
Of course, terms can mean whatever people would like them to mean, but those who, like Humpty Dumpty, would wrench traditional meanings away from words and assign new ones are obligated to explain themselves:
“There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t–till I tell you. I mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you’!”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“when I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Alice Through the Looking-Glass
Is there, though, a Humpty-Dumpty-style explanation for this idiosyncratic usage–a revelation to the effect that when God (whoever he or they may be) uses the term “Elohim,” a divine Couple is indicated, rather than the more traditional meaning: a single masculine entity? If so, why, when Elohim is presented to us visually by name, does he appear to be single and masculine?
It seems to me that, eager to find evidence of a pairing of femaleness with divinity, we’ve seized on the single term for God that lends itself to plurality and exploited it to our own ends, with general disregard to its close association throughout scripture with terms that are unequivocally singular and masculine: Lord, Man of War, Man of Holiness, husband of Israel.
If Heavenly Mother is hiding somewhere behind our terms, behind our sacred texts, she’s all but invisible, as nebulous, unknowable and absent as she appears (or fails to appear) in our theology and worship.
- 8 November 2007