Is the Old Testament polytheistic?
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Is Judaism's foundation polytheistic, and does the name of God as Elohim prove this? A popular Skeptical, uninformed objection supposes that because Elohim is a plural form, a multiplicity of gods is indicated, and this is supported by the use of "us" and "we" in Genesis 1:26 and elsewhere in Genesis. It is also sometimes noted (and this is a point sometimes used by Mormons) that various other entities are referred to as elohim, suggesting that God is not a unique being in a "species" sense, and that there is a progression in beings along a theoretical ladder, of which men are now on a low rung.

These charges of polytheism come from different directions, but should be addressed together in the same subject category, for they are linked. Let's start with the charge that Elohim itself indicates a multiplicity. This charge is refuted by the fact that Elohim, though a plural form, was paired with verbs in the singular -- thus indicating not a multiplicity of beings, but a multiplicity of power or majesty. (Whether this melds with a Trinitarian vision is beyond our scope; I would say that it does, but that there is no evidence for a three-part entity here.)

This fact is admitted even by the ultimate source of this objection, Joseph Wheless, who wrote:

All through the Book of Genesis we see "the-gods" of the ancient Hebrews, who are throughout just like the-gods of their heathen neighbors. It is but fair to say, for what it is worth, that the verbs used, for the most part, in the Hebrew texts with this plural elohim are generally in the singular number.

Well and good. But Wheless goes on to say:

But the actual verb plural-form (which in Hebrew is the tiny vav -- "u" -- tacked on the end, as we add "s" in English to form the plural of nouns), although mostly missing, is a number of times to be found, and is undeniable proof of the plurality of ha-elohim.

We will deal with the examples cited by Wheless shortly, but first, we must tie in to the second objection, and in this case, I will call upon some personal experience on a forum with a Mormon. He argued, based on some of the same cites used by Wheless (but doubtless without any knowledge of him) that the use of elohim applied to what we would call "lesser" beings (angels, for example) favored the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression.

My point in reply -- which he gracefully acknowledged he did not have the resources to answer -- was to ask this question: How is it assumed that the word elohim is loaded with the same definitional/theological freight as our modern word god? In other words, is it possible that elohim is a more generic, abstract term? Could it be more like the word "power" in meaning (as that word is used as a noun)?

If so, then both arguments -- from Wheless and our Mormon friends -- are flawed from the beginning, based on an incorrect supposition.

With that in mind, let's now look at some of what Wheless has to say:

Father Abraham himself avows this plurality: "When elohim [gods] caused [plural: hith-u] me to wander from my father's house" (Gen. xx, 13).

This is hardly proof of polytheism in a real sense. Of course we may say "Allah is the God of the Muslims" without affirming the objective reality of Allah. There is no indication that Abraham at this point considered these gods to have an objective existence.

However, remember now also my question about the possible, more abstract use of elohim. If it refers merely to any being of power (God would be the "elohim" with the capital E, just like "gods" today), then this could include angels or perhaps demons taking the role of what we now call a pagan god.

Indeed, the next cite confirms my thesis:

Jacob built an altar at Luz, "and called the place El- bethel"; because there ha-elohim were revealed [plural: nigl-u] unto him" (Gen. x-xxv, 7)

Indeed: Jacob saw angels on the ladder; angels were in the category of elohim; but was "elohim" a restrictive or a broad category?

Wheless finds three more cites of interest:

And David makes the selfsame open avowal of the plural gods of Israel: "Israel, whom gods [elohim] went [plural: balk-u] to redeem ... from the nations and their gods [elohim]" (2 Sam. vii, 23).
Moses uses the plural adjective with the plural noun elohim: "hath heard the voice of the living gods [elohim hayyim]" (Deut. v, 26; Heb. text, v, 23).
And twice David threatens Goliath for defying "the armies of the living gods" (elohim hayyim; I Sam. xvii, 26, 36).

The thing that makes these plural is a single character at the end of a word. Given that these are the only three cites out of the OT, one might argue sensibly that they are scribal issues (or at worst, represent misconceptions by David and Moses, which are accurately reported), but even without these points, our question about the category of elohim remains the same. If elohim includes God, on down in rank through the angelic hierarchy, then this is not polytheism, but polyelohimism -- whatever that may consist of.

It is at this point that Wheless' arguments simply become pointless, based as they are on an assumed premise. What then is the solution, from our perspective, to this argument?

The nature of an elohim is to be determined not merely by the term, but by the reactions and descriptions given to the elohim. There are many elohim, but only one was ever accorded worship and designated as the Creator. That one is the "elohim" with the capital E, to say it as we might. David and Moses spoke of other elohim, sometimes as objectively real, but never other than one as worthy of praise and worship.

The arguments of Wheless and others in this regard are taking an illicit step. The arguments of Mormons are committing a category fallacy by assuming that a common designation thereby denotes a progression; but this is no more true than saying that bicycles and autos are "wheeled vehicles" proves that bicycles grow into autos. Whether the analogical case is true with elohim must be proved by other means than the common term.

That leaves the issue of who is the plural "we" in places like Gen. 1:26. Some suggest the Trinity is in view; others suggest angels. A few (as I once did) suggest a "royal we". The latter is discounted by critics because it is not evidenced before Augustus; one wonders why in fact Genesis is not then the first example of such usage and why someone else had to come first for it to be verified as such. If Genesis did not exist, would Augustus' use be not able to be proved without a later use?

Angels are discounted because they are not mentioned until Gen. 19; again I would ask why Gen. 1 and 3 can't instead reflect a first example.

Whatever the case, in light of the above use of elohim, and in light of that we are not told anything about the other "persons" God talks to (much less shown that these were persons that the Hebrews worshipped), the charge of "polytheism" on the basis of these passages is without evidence.

-JPH