Zelophehad’s Daughters

Does Elohim include Heavenly Mother?

Posted by Kiskilili

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Perhaps, though, it’s merely the vestige of an earlier belief that had become unpalatable and had been superseded by the time the biblical authors were active?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.”

Lewis Carroll

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.

26 Responses to “Does Elohim include Heavenly Mother?”

  1. 1.

    I like this point, and I think you’re right in saying that the Elohim-is-a-plural argument fails to hold up, but I think the argument based on the other singular names for God is far stronger than the verb agreement one. While features like number and gender tend to be semantically interpretable on nouns, the way they behave with regard to verbs is erratic and generally not semantically significant. In Arabic, for instance, non-human plural nouns always take feminine singular verbs, and masculine plural nouns take masculine singular verbs when the Verb-Subject-Object word order is used. One would be mistaken, I think, in drawing conclusions about the way Arabic speakers view groups of males, or about the plurality of those groups, based on that verb agreement fact. Likewise, consider a quirk of English agreement–some speakers tend to regard some plural entities, such as, say, a rock band, as singular (“Radiohead is”), whereas other speakers treat them as plural (“Radiohead are”). Neither group would, however, insist that Radiohead must be a single person, since verb agreement is purely syntactic, not semantic.

    Now, of course, I’ve never studied Biblical Hebrew, and I assume you have, and that you would have mentioned it if Biblical Hebrew demonstrated such verb agreement behavior. Nonetheless, I hesitate to assign any semantic meaning to grammatical agreement, in any language.

    (The dual is a good point, though.)

    I’m still with you in general, though. There’s not that much linguistic evidence for either “Elohim” or “God” referring to a couple.

  2. 2.

    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.

    Why? It seems like treating a couple that functions as a single unit as a singular while at the same time referring to its name as a plural is consistent with the idea.

  3. 3.

    Thanks for your comment, Petra! That’s very interesting about Arabic (which I clearly need to learn!).

    For Hebrew and Akkadian, I would argue just the opposite: that number and gender are semantically interpretable on verbs and adjectives, but behave erratically with regard to nouns. Especially in the plural, gender morphemes are anything but reliable: the Hebrew word for “women” appears with a masculine plural morpheme (although it takes feminine verbs and adjectives), whereas the word for “fathers” appears with a feminine plural morpheme (but is otherwise construed as a masculine). (On inanimates the semantic value of grammatical gender becomes increasingly suspect: “breast” in Hebrew is masculine, where “testicle” is feminine.)

    But those are morphological discrepancies regarding gender. I can’t think off the top of my head of a regular morphological discrepancy in number between nouns and verbs in Hebrew that does not have obvious semantic import; compound subjects frequently occur with singular verbs, but that’s easy enough to explain.

    Of course, Elohim takes not only a masculine singular verb, but also masculine singular pronouns and adjectives. I think the gender and number of the verb gives us virtually definitive indication of a noun’s construed gender and number, but the combination with adjectives and pronouns is even more difficult to explain away.

    As you are no doubt aware, John, many Mormons make this move: “God” refers to a couple that is entirely united and effectively singular. But let’s not forget, he’s presenting himself as a masculine singular. So rather than rescuing Heavenly Mother from obscurity, we’re only thereby further confining her to the shadows: her personality is apparently so suppressed by her husband’s that her husband is the one who stands for the couple. If the two of them have contributed equally to this singular entity, why not refer to either member for the whole?

  4. 4.

    Isn’t it a little bit sketchy, though, to rely on Hebrew manuscripts whose accuracy is a bit questionable, for this sort of reading? Couldn’t the reason why Elohim doesn’t take plural verbs is because later writers conjured up the plurality of majesty argument to distinguish their true, non-singular God from all the other false gods dancing around? And, also, what about ancient Hebrew’s tendency to not quite be sure how to handle plurals (the Hebrew Bible has a few other examples of plural noun + singular verb).

    I’m not saying these are the case, as I actually support the idea that Elohim isn’t a plural proper. What’s weird about this reading to me, though, is the odd combination of literalism and interpretation it takes. This group claims that we have to take Elohim at face value as a plural, but then we can inject another party into the meaning that has no substantiation in the text at all.

    (Oh and not to go completely off topic, but if God’s actually living a polygamist life with more than one wife, that’d explain away the dual possibility).

  5. 5.

    That was totally a moment of spacing on my part to say that features like number and gender are meaningful significant on nouns–I should have reread my comment and restricted that statement to number only, since, as you’ve pointed out and as I know, grammatical gender is just that–grammatical.

    I think my point about number stands, though; Arabic non-human plural nouns also take feminine pronouns and adjectives, but are clearly not semantically interpreted as feminine singular, and we could easily imagine a language in which all plural nouns agree with singular verbs, pronouns, and adjectives, though I suppose we’d just go ahead and call it a language that doesn’t have number agreement at all. A language like that (and I happen to know one) would lack grammatical information about number, but still provide semantic information about number. Whether or not Hebrew shows these features is, I think, beside the point, which is just that grammatical agreement information isn’t really enough to make or break the argument as a whole. Basically, I don’t think there’s linguistic evidence for God being a couple, but I don’t think there’s solid linguistic evidence that God isn’t a couple, either. (Even the dual argument could be countered by those who contend that HF is polygamous.)

    And, food for thought, what if God isn’t presenting him/her/itself as masculine singular? What if it’s the fault of the writers and prophets to interpret his/her/its nature that way? I’m not necessarily advocating this, because I haven’t quite thought it through, just saying it’s one way one could still regard God as a couple without necessarily assuming that HF subsumes HM by any divine principle.

  6. 6.

    (Oh and not to go completely off topic, but if God’s actually living a polygamist life with more than one wife, that’d explain away the dual possibility).

    Yeah, there’s always the good old polygyny argument, with God at the center of a harem. ;)

    I’m not sure what you’re saying in your first paragraph, though, alea: that perhaps redactors changed the verbs, adjectives, pronouns, etc. to singulars without changing the form “Elohim” to a singular, as a way of advancing the view that their God was plural in majesty but not in number?

  7. 7.

    You raise interesting ideas, Petra. I guess I think if “singular” verbs are always associated with “plural” nouns, the problem lies in the labels. The reason “masculine singular” makes sense descriptively for certain Hebrew verb forms is that the overwhelming majority of subjects with which it is construed are masculine (male if animate) and singular, and most discrepancies can be explained semantically or syntactically.

    This is why I think verbs are important evidence, but even for those who reject their significance (thus disqualifying the name of Israel’s God as evidence, since it looks like a verb form), what about pronouns? “You” masculine singular is virtually always a form of address to a masculine singular being. So when the term is used and we don’t know the gender or number of the addressee in question, I think it’s safe to assume masculine singular, no?

  8. 8.

    Thanks for this, Kiskilili. Your discussion seems to make the “divine couple” hypothesis seem very tenuous indeed.

  9. 9.

    Precisely. Redactors, who felt like God should be singular for whatever reason, smoothed out the issue. Though, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have switched Elohim to Eloah or another option. The plural in majesty argument would then come later to explain the disunion between Elohim and singular pronouns/verbs/adjectives, etc.

    I don’t actually believe this. I’m just bringing up the fact that it’s a bit dicey to pin all your theological reasonsing on isolated elements of ancient texts.

  10. 10.

    If we agree that Elohim is plural I am not sure why we should it refers to just two divine persons. Why not assume 20 or 2 billion or more?

  11. 11.

    I think the more natural (and common) Mormon interpretation of the plural Elohim is as a council of exalted beings—not a married couple—that performs its cosmic work as one body. Along the lines of “we will go down” in the endowment.

  12. 12.

    You lost me at the beginning — I’ve never heard it proposed that “Elohim” refers to a divine couple, but to the Godhead, or, alternatively, to a council of the gods.

  13. 13.

    The idea of the divine couple is Kabbalistic in origin. Anonymous is right about the Elohim being “a council of gods” in LDS theology-at least according to what I’ve read.

  14. 14.

    Out of curiosity, do you know when the dual became unproductive in Hebrew?

  15. 15.

    This is why I think verbs are important evidence, but even for those who reject their significance (thus disqualifying the name of Israel’s God as evidence, since it looks like a verb form), what about pronouns? “You” masculine singular is virtually always a form of address to a masculine singular being. So when the term is used and we don’t know the gender or number of the addressee in question, I think it’s safe to assume masculine singular, no?

    All right, this is fun, I’m clarifying my position to myself: I don’t think theological interpretation should hinge on grammar, at least not grammatical features intrinsic to a certain language. Yes, the Hebrew second person singular masculine pronoun does seem to suggest that ancient Hebrew speakers, at least, saw best fit to address God as if he were both singular and masculine, but that doesn’t mean he is. Modern-day English speakers address God in a second person form that is not marked for gender or number, but refer to him with a masculine singular form; does that mean there is some conflict in his nature? Modern-day Indonesian speakers both address and refer to God with pronouns that are not marked for gender (Indonesian makes no distinction between “he” and “she”), but does that mean that he is necessarily without gender?

    Now, I’m kind of a fan of the Saipr-Whorfian idea that language affects thought (shhh–don’t tell the other linguists!) so I would be willing to believe that, in some sense, the grammatical structure of the language with which we talk about God affects our idea of God—that is, the fact that the Israelites referred to God as masculine singular might have led them towards a masculine singular interpretation. (Though I’m for a weak version of this hypothesis, in which thought is not determined, but only possibly influenced–Indonesian speakers still conceive of people as having gender, even if their pronouns do not.) I am not willing to believe, however, that the grammar of the language with which we talk about God determines absolutely who or what God is–if that were the case, it seems to me that we’d either be forced to believe in a different sort of God for each language or be forced to believe that there is one language which is intrinsically better suited to talking about God than other languages. Now, while some people do believe the latter–the refusal of Muslims to translate the Qur’an springs to mind–I don’t think that’s the Mormon position, and it’s certainly not my position. After all, the assumption that there are sacred texts other than the Bible should mean that there are other grammatical ways of referring to God, ways that maybe don’t mark gender or number. If we were all taking as our basis a sacred text written in Indonesian, we might be debating whether God has gender at all.

    (Not to say, of course, that such a debate wouldn’t be fun, only that a grammatical argument in that case wouldn’t be productive, pun intended.)

    I guess all this only supports your main point, that the plural nature of the word “Elohim” doesn’t necessarily prove anything. I just don’t think it necessarily disproves anything, either; I’d rather see and debate theology as independent from the finer points of morphology and syntax. (Much as I love those finer points!)

  16. 16.

    Great post, Kiskilli. I’ve wondered about this issue for a while.
    I’ll have to politely disagree with some comments here, though and agree with you that Elohim has been used to refer to God as a couple more often than a council, in my church experience. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it used to describe a council, except perhaps in my BYU Pearl of Great Price class.
    Thanks for the interesting discussion of Hebrew nouns and verbs, I’m trying my best to follow it. :)

  17. 17.

    Thanks, Jessawhy! Like you, I encounter this idea–that Elohim includes Heavenly Mother–frequently, although my perspective is skewed by (a) my participation on blogs (not necessarily representative of mainstream Mormon thought), and (b) my tendency to read posts on gender.

    Hi again, Petra! Thanks for giving me a linguist’s perspective. :) I think we’re basically in agreement–like you, I think a grammatical morpheme (in this case the plural ending “-im”) is far too slender a thread from which to hang a theological proposition. (Sumerian, for example, apparently like Indonesian, has no grammatical gender whatever, and no basic plural morpheme, although this surely did not inhibit speakers’ ability to observe sex differences or to count higher than one.)

    But I do think it’s significant to our discussion of ancient Israelite religion that, in verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and nouns in apposition to “Elohim,” God is almost always masculine and singular. Everyone else in the Bible who is animate, masculine, and singular is an individual male creature, so this seems at least like a good starting point in attempting to understand how ancient Israelites conceived of their God, even though it does not entirely take the unexpected plural morpheme into account. I’m also suspicious of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in rigid formulation, but obviously language bears some relation to thought or it’s not meaningful; it’s surely of significance whether we refer to a baby as a “she” or an “it,” for example. Israel’s God is a “he” and not a “they.”

    Of course, it’s much easier to argue what it does not indicate, as I’ve done here, than what it actually does indicate! As to extrapolating theological conclusions: I’m already convinced most of our beliefs do not flow naturally from our scriptures, least of all the OT. Certainly what the OT claims about God doesn’t preclude a Heavenly Mother; I just don’t think it provides solid evidence for it. (I’m setting aside for the moment textual and archaeological evidence of goddess worship, which problably deserves a post of its own, simply because I don’t think on the linguistic level Elohim includes a goddess.)

    (Hmm–I don’t know enough to be sure when the dual morpheme stopped being productive in the history of Hebrew. What little I know: our earliest epigraphic Hebrew dates to about 1000 BCE, and the earliest texts of the Bible like Exodus 15 might date slightly earlier–to 1200 BCE or so. Proto-Northwest Semitic definitely had a productive dual, as did Ugaritic in about 1300-1200 BCE. Of course, these languages don’t indicate vowels for the most part, so the evidence might not be entirely clear?–in unpointed biblical Hebrew the dual and plural look the same. But the dual in Hebrew is a triphthongization of a Proto-Semitic diphthong that monophthongized in the northern dialect, resulting in characteristic spellings without a mater lectionis, so potentially a northern spelling might indicate a distinction between plural and dual (or not)? That of course wouldn’t give us unequivocal evidence for what was happening in the south. Drat–I wish I were taking epigraphic Hebrew.)

  18. 18.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the idea that Elohim should be read as referring to a divine couple. The more common form of this I’m familiar with in Mormon thought is the one Rosalynde gives. Anyway, for my comments on the word Elohim see pp. 112–13 of my “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” BYU Studies 39/3, here.

  19. 19.

    The closest thing to a Mother that I know of in the scriptures is Moses 7:48.

  20. 20.

    Sorry to post on an old topic, but things seems slow here, so…

    My wife had an interesting thought on this topic. She suggested that perhaps the Holy Ghost is the “firstborn” spirit daughter of God the Father, just as Christ is the firstborn spirit son.

    Of course, this may seem a bit alien to us when we remember scriptures about how Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Ghost in some fashion.

    Pure speculation.

  21. 21.

    The answer to why God is referred to as “Gods” in the Bible is found in the Bible.

    In Genesis 1:26-27 we find the answer. God said “Let us make man in our image, our likeness..”

    Then in verse 27, we see how many images God made in their image. They made male and female. Therefore, God must have a male and a female image.

    How can God say that they made mankind in their image, male and female, if God didn’t exist in the male and female form?

    Can you make a copy of something without the original?

    We call the male image of God, God the Father. We are also called the children of God. Then what should we call the female image of God? God the Mother of course.

    God the Mother is the last secret of the Bible that has been revealed in these last days by our Father, second coming Christ.

  22. 22.

    Ugh. I’m probably far too out of my depth to even ask this question, but… could it be something similar to the “Royal We”, a plural used to indicate someone’s importance? I don’t know how often that happens in languages, but I know English isn’t the only one. Just a thought.

  23. 23.

    It’s a good suggestion, actually, Amber, and one that scholars have made–so you’re in good company. Or dubious company, depending on your perspective. :) If God is so much bigger and better than we are, why shouldn’t his designation take a morphologically plural form?

  24. 24.

    Look, very simple, when has there ever been a father without a wife (woman)? When has there ever been a daughter or son without a father/mother? God’s pattern on this earth is patterned after the example in Heaven. Nothing else makes any sense.

  25. 25.

    But we’re not talking here about what God is. We’re talking about what the authors of the HB understood God to be.

  26. 26.

    1. Arguments to make Eloheim singular does not take into consideration the social context of the times. El and Eloheim are Canaanite words and the context of their literature are definitely singular and plural respectively. There are stories about the Eloheim. They are a collection of gods.
    2. How does a polygamous gestalt become a man and his harem? The man is outnumbered. The women obviously rule if there is such a thing as “rule”. The gestalt is one entity.
    3. There is really good evidence that God is really an androgyne. And Adam and Eve were also “created” as an androgyne. They were later seperated as Adam and Eve later in the creation.
    4. The creation myths were collected and retold by Nehemiah and/or Ezra in post captivity times, in search of a national/tribal identity and not easily parsed by any reader. The teller tells the same story twice (such as Jacob wrestling with God) and conflates others. Discussions of gender, number, and declension , and associated pronouns become moot at this point.
    5. Which God (and it does not really make any difference) are we talking about? El, Eloh, Eloheim, Jehovah (Yawey), or any number of other names? Each have their own translation problems.
    6. The creation Gods of the LDS Endowment are three. One turns out to be Adam, one an echo (or alter ego) of Adam, and the third is orders from heaven. They are not identified in any other way. The whole story turns out to be a mystery. Several anachronisms in the story give the whole thing away. There are hidden purposes for the whole thing.

Leave a Reply