The Pluriunity of God in the Old Testament

One of the most basic tenets of Judaism – if not the most important concept it has – is the singularity of God. For many Jews, this is the defining feature of Judaism, and it is what sets it apart from Christianity. “God is one, not three,” is the catch-cry of many Jews when faced with a Christian colleague. The concept of the Trinity is, after all, a Christian idea, and found only in the dreck[1] which we call the New Testament.

 

An Oddity in Verbiage

However, one does not need to look far in the Old Testament – or, as Jews would call it, the Bible, as it is the only part of the Bible which Jews acknowledge – to cast the absolute singularity of God into question. In fact, twenty-six verses is as far as one need read to find a rather difficult oddity in verbiage:

Vayyomer elohiym na’aseh adam betsalmenu kidmotenu[2]”, translated “And God said, let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness[3].”

This verbal oddity is to be found in the word na’aseh, a form of ʔSH, meaning “to make”. In particularly, it is a cohortative verb in the first person plural conjugation[4]. I stress the word plural: Hebrew is not a language with a “Royal We”[5], and the use of a plural verb always indicates a plural subject. God also uses a plural cohortative verb for himself twice in Genesis 11:7, when he sais “let Us go down and let Us confuse” – or, as in the original Hebrew, “nerdah ve-nablah”.

In Genesis 1:26 above, God has also used a first person plural possessive in the nouns “tselem” and “dmot”, both of which may be translated as “likeness”. He does the same in Genesis 3:22, where He says, “the man has become like one of Us” – or, in Hebrew, “ha’adam hayah ki-achad mimenu”.

 

The Great Shema

What are we to make of this? After all, doesn’t the Great Shema itself say that “the Lord is One”? How is it possible for a singular Lord to refer to himself in plurals?

We need look no further than the Shema itself for a clue. Deteronomy 6:4 reads:

Shema’ yisrael YHVH eloheynu YHVH echad

It’s easy to focus on the echad – “one” – and skip the bit before – after all, Elohiym is a common designation for God throughout the Bible. The word eloheynu means “our gods”; –eynu is the possessive suffix for a plural noun[6]. A singular “our god” would be elohenu. The difference is slight – a single yud, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet – but it is there.

Besides, the designation Elohiym is all over the place, and one of the first things any student of the Hebrew language learns is that anything ending with –im is a plural! Why, then, is God called Elohiym – “gods” – rather than simple Eloh? On the face of it, the Shema makes no sense – Hear, Israel, YHVH your gods, YHVH is one. He is a plural and yet He is one? Logic dictates that this is invalid by very definition! How can it be?

God’s Glory

Let us step back for a moment to example one of the few instances where God Himself is actually seen in the Scriptures: Daniel 7. “I watched till thrones were put in place,” Daniel records, “And the Ancient of Days was seated[7].” He continues, going on to describe this Ancient of Days in terms which can only indicate the everlasting God – thousands upon thousands ministering to Him and standing before Him. We are left with no doubt that the one whom Daniel is describing is God.

And yet, let us read what Daniel says happened next:

I was watching in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before Him. Then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him[8].”

A Jewish interpretation of the interaction described is that the one “like a son of man” – ke-var enosh – is simply a human, perhaps David or one of his descendants, a righteous king who is given a kingdom over all the earth[9]. This is because a similar term, ben adam, is used more than one hundred times to mean “mortal”[10]. However, in almost every instance, the phrase used is, in fact, ben adam, not bar enosh. The word enosh is used in Job 25:6, Psalm 8:5, Isaiah 51:12 and 56:2, but in each instance only on its own. The only time at which it is used in construct with ben or the Aramaic equivalent bar is in Daniel 7.

Moreover, Daniel is quite specific in using the preposition ke, meaning “as” or “like”. He describes the figure whom he sees as ke-var enosh – “like a son of man” – and not merely as bar enosh, or “a son of man”. The implication is, therefore, that the figure seen merely resembled a human, but was not, in fact, a human.

So, in this verse, we are able to see that someone other than the Ancient of Days, someone resembling a mortal human and yet not a mortal human, came to God’s throne and was given glory. And yet, what did the prophet Isaiah record of God, but that “I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another[11]”? Since God does not lie, then he must not be giving His glory to another in the encounter witnessed by Daniel. This Son of Man must therefore not be distinct from the Ancient of Days – they must be one. And yet, Daniel sees them as two figures.

 

Thrice-Holy

We have seen now that God is a plural, and we have also seen that He has at least two aspects or persons, the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. And yet, as many a Hebrew scholar will know, the Biblical Hebrew language has not just singular and plural nouns, but also dual nouns. Were God a dual entity, He would be Elohayim, not Elohiym. Plurals in Biblical Hebrew referred to quantities of three or more.

We are given some clues as to just how many are part of God’s plurality of being. The prophet Isaiah, like Daniel, records an instance of seeing God Himself in His heavenly temple:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory[12]!”

In Hebrew, the seraphim are saying, “Qadosh qadosh qadosh YHVH tsebaot” – the Lord, thrice-holy.

The prophet Jeremiah likewise records a motif of three:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: […] ‘Do not trust in these lying words, saying “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these”.’[13]

In Hebrew, God – YHVH tsebaot – says “heykal YHVH, heykal YHVH, heykal YHVH” – three times, the temple of YHVH. God is a plural, not a singular or a dual – He is a plural, thrice-holy.

 

Pluralities in the Scriptures

We saw earlier that God referred to Himself in the plural, as well as referring to His temple three times, but is it possible that other figures in the Bible also understood God to be a plural? Yes, it must be, as throughout the Bible, we see others using plurals to refer to God. I will give you nine examples, three examples of three types[14].

For the first, in three places, God is described as doing something with a plural conjugation of a verb (verb in question emboldened in each):

Vayhiy ka’esher hit’u otiy elohiym…”, translated “And it was, when Elohiym caused me to wander[15]

Kiy sham niglu elayv ha’elohiym…”, translated “Because it was there God appeared to him[16]

Goy echad ba-arets esher halku-elohiym lifdot-lo…”, translated “The one people on earth which God went to redeem for himself…[17]

In each of the three above instances, elohiym is used with the plural verb. This is unusual, because although elohiym is a plural noun, in most of its more than four thousand occurances in the Bible, it is used with a singular verb. Additionally, three times is elohiym used in construct or predicate with another plural noun or participle:

Ayyeh eloah asay?”, translated “Where is God my Maker[18]?”

Kiy-od odenu yeshu’ot panay velohay”, translated “Because still I will praise Him, my salvation and my God.[19]

Ak yesh-elohiym shoftiym ba-arets”, translated “Surely He is a God who judges on the earth.[20]

Particular attention should be given to the second verse in the above, from Psalm 42, which uses a singular pronoun for “praise Him”, immediately followed by the plural nouns describing the one being praised. In addition, while it might be expected to use a plural in construct or in predicate with another plural noun, there are a further three instances where a plural noun is used to describe God in the absence of the noun Elohiym:

Yismach yisrael be-‘asayv”, translated “Let Israel be joyful in his Maker.[21]

Ozkar et-boreyka”, translated “Remember your Creator.[22]

Kiy bo’elayik ‘osayik”, translated “For your husbands are your Maker.[23]

This last is particularly interesting because it continues, “YHVH tsebaot shemo”, meaning “YHVH of Hosts is His name”, a designation which we have seen used by both Isaiah and Jeremiah – and “his” is singular, a contrast to the plural of “Makers”.  This, as we have seen, is a common theme: where God is concerned, singulars and plurals are freely interchanged – and possible, one might think, because God is both plural and singular.

 

In Conclusion

Thus far in the discussion, we have seen that God refers to himself in the plural from the very beginning. The third word in the Bible is Elohiym – God – and is in fact a plural, which means something of three or more. He uses plural verbs and plural pronouns to refer to himself in Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7. Other writers and speakers throughout the Bible do the same, and even in the Great Shema, the cornerstone of Judaism’s monotheism, we see this plural – YHVH eloheynu, the LORD our gods, is one, an apparent impossibility.

We have seen also another impossibility, this one in Daniel’s vision of God, the Ancient of Days, giving glory and dominion to another person – despite having told us through Isaiah that He would not do so! We are forced, then, to conclude that these two figures are in fact one and the same – both God, both the YHVH of Isaiah’s recorded statement.

But Elohiym is a plural, not a dual, and in the prophets, in Isaiah’s vision we see the heavenly host crying out “holy holy holy YHVH” – the thrice-holy God. Even God Himself repeats Himself three times, saying in Jeremiah’s vision “the temple of YHVH, the temple of YHVH, the temple of YHVH”.

Shema, Yisrael: YHVH eloheynu, YHVH echad.

Hear, O Israel: God is a plural, at least three in being – and yet He is most certainly One.



[1] Yiddish for “rubbish”

[2] A Reader’s Hebrew and Greek Bible, 2008, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA; Bereshiyt [Genesis] 1:26, transliteration mine.

[3] Genesis 1:26, NKJV

[4] Beall, T S, & Banks, W A, 1986, Old Testament Parsing Guide, Genesis-Esther, The Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, USA.

[5] There exists the idea of a Hebrew “plural of majesty” (pluralis majesticus) which has gained some credence as an explanation for the Genesis plurals. However, I do not believe it can be upheld as it is inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. Although proponents of the pluralis majesticus explanation argue that it was used by kings and rulers in the ancient world to give edicts, its use is not recorded by any of the kings in the Bible.

A good rebuttal for the idea of the pluralis majesticus may be found at: Boshoff, R P, 2013, The plural of majesty: The “We” & “Us” use in the Hebrew Old Testament, Blogspot, accessed 24 June 2016, Tessellation: Wanderings & Wonderings, <http://rabtessera.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/the-plural-of-majesty-we-us-use-in.html&gt;

[6] Pratico, G D, & Van Pelt, M V, 2001, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA; pg 82, section 9.4, Masculine Nouns with Pronominal Suffixes

[7] Daniel 7:9a, NKJV

[8] Daniel 7:13-14a, NKJV

[9] Rosencruft, E, 2012, Jewish Interpretation of Daniel 7:13-14, StackExchange, accessed 2 June 2016, Biblical Hermeneutics, <http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/1756/jewish-interpretation-of-daniel-713-14&gt;

[10] Son of Man (Judaism), 2015, Wikipedia, accessed 2 June 2016, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Son_of_man_%28Judaism%29&gt;

[11] Isaiah 42:8a-b, NKJV

[12] Isaiah 6:1-3, NKJV

[13] Jeremiah 7:3-4, abridged, NKJV

[14] This was strictly unintentional, and is just how the verses turn out. I’m not one for numerology, but it is a rather tidy way to make a point.

[15] Ibid 2; Bereshiyt [Genesis] 20:13, transliteration and translation mine

[16] Ibid 2: Bereshiyt [Genesis] 35:7, transliteration and translation mine

[17] Ibid 2: Shmuel Bet [2 Samuel] 7:23, transliteration and translation mine

[18] Ibid 2; Iyob [Job] 35:10, transliteration and translation mine

[19] Ibid 2: Tehilliym [Psalms] 43:5b, transliteration and translation mine

[20] Ibid 2: Tehilliym 58:12 [Psalm 58:11b], transliteration and translation mine

[21] Ibid 2: Tehilliym [Psalms] 149:2, transliteration and translation mine

[22] Ibid 2: Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] 12:1a, transliteration and translation mine

[23] Ibid 2: Yesa’yahu [Isaiah] 54:4a, transliteration and translation mine



An essay presented for the “Theological Overview” class at ACM in July 2016. Grade given: 87.25% (High Distinction), for a lack of bibliography (why do I always forget that?). 

The assignment given was “a research paper on any topic covered in the course”, which wasn’t an especially helpful prompt given that it was “Theological Overview” and we’d skimmed over just about everything.

But I’d been dealing with a lot of Jews and a lot of non-Trinitarian “Christians” at that point, so I wondered if it were possible to get a doctrine of the Trinity out of just the Old Testament. Only a few days before I settled on the topic, the Hebrew teacher had recited the Shema, and then turned to part of the class and emphasised, “Echad. One!” in a way which could only be a jab at the Christians. “Eloheinu,” I’d replied, “Plural.” And so an idea was born.

When I chose the topic, I thought I’d have to end the essay inconclusively, so I was quite pleased to find I could actually prove it.

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