Monday, December 22, 2014

Maimonides' "Take" on Elohim

Although he's writing in the Middle Ages, I've often found that Rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) has many valuable things to say about Hebrew, the Torah and Tanakh:

"Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, 'and ye shall be like Elohim' (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence 'and ye shall be like princes.' Having pointed out the homonymity of the term "Elohim" we return to the question under consideration" (Guide for the Perplexed I.2).

Friedländer tr. [1904],


Duncan said...

"Elohim is a homonym" - I disagree.

It is a qualitative description. Only context can tell us where the quality is to be applied. The context is not always well defined.

Genesis chapter two verse 4 there is a clarification in this instance.

El means mighty in authority but what makes for much confusion is to translate Gibor as mighty when it actually means warrior.

"Rashi bases his commentary on Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs, 10 that offers four different exegeses concerning the identity of the giborim – “warriors” and different understandings of the herev – “sword.”"

Which leads on to a related point regarding qualitative description in the Tanakh.

The term Keruv (cherub) comes from the same route as herev above. Both terms are used in Genesis 3:24. Can a Keruv be a malak when they describe different qualities. Are they ever described as both?

The sword describes a lethal power but a messenger?

Edgar Foster said...


Admittedly, while I've read and taught Maimonides' "Guide," I have not researched his claim regarding what "every Hebrew knows" or knew in his time. However, his statement appears to be plausible in light of what we read in other sources. Elohim grammatically is a noun, and in my opinion, is not simply qualitative. It seems to be used for the purpose of denoting God, humans or angels. While I'm willing to prescind from the angel debate, that the word is sometimes applied to humans (judges foremost) is perhaps less debatable.

Hebrew etymology is also tough. How we define elohim and related terms becomes contentious and highly problematic. We are often left with approximations of how elohim/el should be defined.

Edgar Foster said...

When I speak about the complexities of defining elohim, here is what I have in mind. See TDOT, p. 272ff:

Duncan said...


Thanks for the link yet again - lots of interesting information but there are things that this does not mention.

"Enlil (nlin), 𒂗𒇸 (EN = Lord + LÍL = Wind, "Lord (of the) Storm")[1] is the God of breath, wind, loft and breadth (height and distance).[2] It was the name of a chief deity listed and written about in Sumerian religion, and later in Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian), Hittite, Canaanite and other Mesopotamian clay and stone tablets. The name is perhaps pronounced and sometimes rendered in translations as "Ellil" in later Akkadian, Hittite, and Canaanite literature. In later Akkadian, Enlil is the son of Anshar and Kishar."

The main point being - "translations as "El.lil""

So "An" becomes "En" becomes "El".

All three terms fit the proto-semitic symbolic system.

I do have much more detailed information on this subject but for expediency I am referencing Wikipedia.

And if there is one thing that we do know about Ancient Hebrew is that names are not names as we know them today. A Hebrew character can be a quality like the Sumerian above - mighty wind (similar to terms used by Australian aboriginals & north american Indians). The names are qualities & there is certainly no easy delineation of terms.

What I do not understand is why Psalms 138:1 is not seen in the light of 138:4.

So like you said, context is king but surely local context should come first. If it supplies no answer then we look further afield.

Duncan said...

"When we understand correctly all that is being taught in the episode in Eden, we will come to see that in the verse under discussion, the term Elohim could not possibly mean "God," but must refer to earthly rulers."

pg 119.

"It is also an inaccuracy to confound the honors offered in the provinces to the Roman governors, by temples and altars, with the true apotheosis of the emperors ; it was not a religious worship, for it had neither priests nor sacrifices. Augustus was severely blamed for having permitted himself to be worshipped as a god in the provinces, (Tac. Ann.i. 10 ;) he would not have incurred that blame if he had only done what the governors were accustomed to do."

Apointers of gods & god's. So even the greek does not nessacarily mean deity.