A while back, I wrote a post entitled Judges 16:23-24: Plural God, Singular Verb. In it, I cited a verse in which the word “Elohim” appears with a singular verb and refers to a pagan deity, namely, Dagon. I cautioned against the tendency of many Christians to see the Trinity in the word “Elohim,” since, although it is plural, it can be used to refer to a single non-Israelite god. And we all know that Dagon was only one person, not a Trinity!
I wondered how Nick Norelli would respond to this sort of argument, since he is an apologist for the Trinity. And indeed, in his article Elohim, he cites other examples in which “Elohim” refers to individual pagan gods (see Judges 11:24; I Samuel 5:7; I Kings 18:24).
What intrigued me was that Nick also cited examples in which “Elohim” is used with a plural verb to refer to the God of Israel. There are many times when the Hebrew Bible uses a plural noun for a singular person or object, but it mostly employs a singular verb when it does so (see Gesenius 145.3). But Nick was pointing out some notable examples in which God is described as a plural, with a plural noun and a plural verb:
English Translation: God caused me to wander
Hebrew: הִתְעוּ אֹתִי, אֱלֹהִים
Literally: They caused me to wander
English Translation: God appeared
Hebrew: נִגְלוּ אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים
Literally: They appeared
English Translation: God went
Literally: They went
English Translation: God that judges
Hebrew: אֱלֹהִים שֹׁפְטִים
Literally: Gods that judge
Nick sees Trinitarianism in these passages, but I wonder if the Hebrew Bible elsewhere uses a plural noun with a plural verb to refer to a singular person or object. That would show that the passages above reflect a feature of the Hebrew language, meaning that they don’t necessarily support the Trinity.
I don’t know the answer to this. But here’s something I can say: If such a phenomenon does exist in the Hebrew language, then some prominent biblical scholars are not appealing to it to explain the sorts of passages that Nick cites!
For example, Gesenius states regarding these passages that they are “an acquiescence in a polytheistic form of expression” (145.3). I’m not sure what he means by that. Some argue that Abraham speaks like a polytheist when he’s talking to polytheists, or when he refers back to his polytheist days. So Gesenius does not appeal to a rule that allows a plural noun with a plural verb to refer to a singular person or object.
On Genesis 35:7, Nahum Sarna in his JPS Genesis commentary says that Elohim with the plural verb “means here ‘divine beings’ and refers to Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending.” Sarna continues to state, “The unresolved difficulty is that these angels did not ‘reveal’ themselves, that is, address him, unless the present text represents some tradition not told in 28:12.” Sarna is baffled by the use of Elohim with a plural verb to refer to the Israelite god, but he doesn’t appeal to anything in the Hebrew language to explain the anomaly.
A.A. Anderson wrestles with II Samuel 7:23 in his Word Commentary on II Samuel. He attributes the plural verb halchu to “a misreading of the missing definite article before [Elohim] ‘God.'” He also refers to P. Kyle McCarter’s reading of the verb as holoko, “he lead him along.” So McCarter tries to make the plural verb singular. He doesn’t say that a plural noun and a plural verb can be used for someone singular.
Another text that entered my mind was Exodus 32:4, which concerns the golden calf: “[Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” (NRSV). In the Hebrew, “gods” and “brought” are both plural, yet they seem to refer to only one calf. Many scholars try to tie this story to I Kings 12:28, where Jeroboam says about two calves that he built, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” The idea that a plural noun and a plural verb can refer to something singular does not seem to enter these scholars’ minds.
Interestingly, even biblical authors may have had problems with these kinds of texts. According to Gesenius, I Chronicles 17:21 is a revision of II Samuel 7:23 in that it uses a singular verb to describe God going with his people. And Nehemiah 9:18 redoes Exodus 32:4, saying instead, “This is your God who brought (singular) you up out of Egypt[.].” (Emphasis mine.) Both use the plural Elohim, yet they also employ a singular verb, possibly to avoid any impression that there is more than one God. So biblical authors may have had the same problems with the text as a lot of modern biblical scholars!
On my blogger blog, Nick Norelli says:
“It’s not that I see Trinitarianism in those passages so much as they make perfect sense to a Trinitarian. I’d definitely refine some of that article (which was a chapter in a book I never published) but my major contentions were that “elohim” isn’t the smoking gun in arguing for the Trinity, but neither does it hurt the Trinitarian position. It’s one piece of the puzzle.”