The Curious Meaning of “God”

The Curious Meaning of “God” April 8, 2015

lifeforleaders-5This post is from Life for Leaders, a new daily devotional I am writing as part of my work at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. You can learn more about Life for Leaders or sign up to receive a daily email devotional here.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Genesis 1:1-2

I began yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion by pointing to the introduction of Pip in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations. Pip appears in the first paragraph of the novel, in which he explains the derivation of his strange name. Though officially Philip Pirrip, the boy couldn’t say his proper name when learning to talk. Instead, he referred to himself as “Pip,” and the nickname stuck.

The very first verse of Genesis introduces us to God. The word “God,” which serves here almost as God’s name, is rather like the name “Pip” in that it raises some interesting questions. Though we don’t see what’s peculiar about “God” in English translations, in the original Hebrew the oddness stands out plainly. The Hebrew word for “God,” ‘elohim, is actually plural in form. The most obvious translation of this word would be “gods” (so Ps 96:4-5). But the verb in verse 1, “created” is singular, not plural. This indicates that the correct translation of ‘elohim is “God” and not “gods.” The tension between the plural ‘elohim and the singular “created” suggests that something curious is going on here.

The singularity of God would certainly have been unusual in the Ancient Near East, where the nations recognized a plethora of gods. The oneness of Israel’s God set the Israelites apart from their neighbors, both perplexing and sometimes fascinating them. The fact that God’s people would not recognize the reality of other gods sometimes got them into a mess of trouble. But, for the most part, they held fast to the profession captured in The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel; The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”

Yet, we wonder why, if God is one God, the biblical text uses the plural ‘elohim to identify God when it could just as easily have chosen singular words for God, either ‘el or ‘eloah. As you can imagine, scholars offer differing explanations for this phenomenon. Some see it merely as a linguistic oddity. Traditionally, the plural was regarded as indicating the majesty of God, much as a sovereign ruler might refer to himself or herself as “we.” More recently, commentators see the plural as a “reference to intensification or absolutization or exclusivity” (NIDOTT, ‘elohim). Christian interpreters, reading Genesis from the perspective of Christian theology, see in ‘elohim a hint of the Triune God, who is both singular and plural, one God in three persons.

No matter which of these explanations you prefer, what I find fascinating about the singular/plural puzzle in Genesis 1:1 is the idea that God, even from the first verse of the Bible, can be known but not fully known. God is always more than we can completely understand. God, even as he makes himself known to us, resists being put in a box. Yes, God is one. But God is not merely one, not simply one, not one in a way we can control with our knowledge. The more we know God, the more we realize that God is so much more than what we know, so much more than the One whom we know. Thus, we know God with confidence and humility. We know God now, yet seek always to know God more deeply, truly, and intimately.


If someone were to ask you, “Do you know God?” how would you respond? If that person were to ask you, “How do you know God?” how would you respond? Can we have confidence in our knowledge of God while admitting that our knowledge is incomplete and approximate?


Thank you, Gracious God, for making yourself known to us. Thank you for using words that convey to us who you are and what you have done. Thank you for the confidence we can have in our knowledge of you.

Yet, we recognize the limitations in our knowledge of you. In fact, Lord, the more we know you, the more we realize how much we do not and cannot know. So we hold our knowledge of you humbly, receiving it as a gift from you rather than as something we have mastered.

Help us, we pray, to grow in our knowledge of you. May we know you more truly and fully. May we know you more deeply and personally. May our hearts yearn to know you more each day. Amen.

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  • El and Yahweh were separate gods, El the God of the Cannanites, Yahweh the personal God of the Israelites.

  • WeldonScott

    Funny how the gods of the Old Testament were plagiarized from Ugaritic clay tablets.

    Mark Smith (2001) The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press.

  • Thank you for this book title. Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed opened the first window to let the truth float out to those who are willing to accept quite a different view of ‘truth.’

  • Astvatz_Troov

    Both equally horrendous. In actuality this god of the Israelites was really a projection of power along “supernatural” lines. A way to create an ultimate and irrefutable source of authority to be channeled by the priesthood. It gave force to kingly decrees, to laws and calls-to-arms etc.

    This anthropomorphic monstrosity called for genocide… wiping out of men, women, children and livestock… demanded vengeance, single minded devotion, exhibited jealousy, rage. In every sense a projection on a macro level of very human impulses… but now clothed in the autocratic aura of divinity and infallibility. Clever… and in many ways highly effective.

  • Great points, thank you. Nonetheless try telling that to a Bible-believing fundamentalist. Might as well talk to a tree.

  • TomBk

    Helpful, insightful post, Mark.