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(disclaimer, I am a gentile and don't know how to type in square script)

My question applies to the whole Tanakh, but I'm specifically curious about Genesis. Translating strictly literally (ie, etymologically), Genesis 1-3 seem to indicate some sort of polytheism. The Hebrew etymologically translates as "the gods said let us make man in our image", and such plural language recurs pointedly throughout the book.

I'm just wondering what sort of Jewish reflection there has been on this scriptural phenomena? What do the Rabbis (both ancient and modern) say and what sorts of official histories/explanations are put forward? At face value, Genesis seems to be an ancient text produced by a polytheistic culture, and later reinterpreted in line with Monotheism. I'm wondering what opinions and explanations have been put forward by the Jewish tradition itself. So far I have only read Christian theories (which inevitably read the Trinity in) and Academic theories (which double down on the "polytheism" hypothesis)

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    Haven't got time now to write a complete answer, but in biblical Hebrew terms indicating ownership, mastery, etc., are often phrased and conjugated in the plural. (Also, for example, the verse you cited is immediately followed by one in with verbs and possessives in the singular - "and He created... in His image.") – Meir Aug 14 at 21:22
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    See also several Indo-European languages where the "formal" second-person singular is the same as the third-person plural. And in English, the "royal we". – OrangeDog Aug 15 at 10:47
  • It is indeed perfectly possible; but what also has to be taken into consideration is that abstract terms (such as the notion of deity, for instance) ultimately derive from more down to earth concepts; in this particular case, the heavenly ruler(s) are called by a word initially referring to earthly one(s). Since on earth the members of the ruling class contain (far) more than just one single individual, it is therefore not entirely surprising that its celestial counterpart came to be denoted by a plural as well. – Lucian Aug 15 at 22:13
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    No more than the grammatical gender of my name, "Michah", or that of "Yonah", meant those prophets were women. Names are names. – Micha Berger Aug 16 at 23:39
  • "Hearken"? I do not think it means what you think it means. – msh210 Aug 17 at 14:42
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The reason this is confusing is that in Biblical Hebrew, the plural can be used to denote a position of authority. For example, in Exodus 22 the Bible refers to a property owner in the plural even though from context there is only one person. See specifically Exodus 22:10

שְׁבֻעַ֣ת יְהוָ֗ה תִּהְיֶה֙ בֵּ֣ין שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אִם־לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֛ח יָד֖וֹ בִּמְלֶ֣אכֶת רֵעֵ֑הוּ וְלָקַ֥ח בְּעָלָ֖יו וְלֹ֥א יְשַׁלֵּֽם׃
an oath before the LORD shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner must acquiesce, and no restitution shall be made.

From context it is clear there are only two people, but the verse still says בעליו, which is a combination of בעל, meaning owner, and the suffix יו, which is plural possessive.

Another example with the word Elohim specifically comes from Exodus 7:1

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה רְאֵ֛ה נְתַתִּ֥יךָ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֖יךָ יִהְיֶ֥ה נְבִיאֶֽךָ׃
And the L-rd said to Moses: See, I have made you an overlord to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your spokesman.

Obviously, Moses was one person, but the plural Elohim is still used.

Yet another example comes from a case of idol worship. By the Golden Calf the plural is also used to describe one idol

וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it a molten calf: and they said, These are thy gods, O Yisra᾽el, which brought thee up out of the land of Miżrayim.

When it comes to pronouns, sometimes they are also plural to grammatically match the noun in the verse, as in the last example, and sometimes they are singular to match the reality. Hebrew is a very flexible language, and there are often multiple ways to say the same thing that are all grammatically correct.

In regard to the case Let Us Make Man, the simplest explanation is that this is the royal we, see here and in the commentary of Rashbam

נעשה אדם - כמו שמצינו במיכיהו בן ימלא במלכים, ובישעיה: את מי אשלח ומי ילך לנו, וגם באיוב.
“Let us make man” – like we find with Michayahu ben Yimla in Kings, and in Yeshayahu, “Who shall I send, who will go for us”, and also in Job.

There are also deeper meanings, just as every verse has layers of meaning, but the deeper layers cannot and do not contradict the fundamental of our faith, that G-d is one.

Hear, O Yisra᾽el: The Lord our God; the Lord is one.

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    Considering that both terms (adonai and elohim) are grammatical plurals, the shema is not quite as straightforwardly obvious in Hebrew as it is in English, for instance; in fact, it reads almost counter-intuitively. – Lucian Aug 15 at 21:57
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    Lucian: To an English speaker, using the plural as a form of respect is counter-intuitive, but every language has quirks that seem odd. For example, in Yiddish, it is considered respectful to address someone in the third person, even to their face. So, if you spend time in a yeshiva, you might hear myself and others talking to our Rabbis in the third person. As a native English speaker it can feel weird, but that is a cultural Yiddish thing that transferred over to the English. Learning a book in another language requires the ability to adapt to such differences. – N.T. Aug 16 at 12:32
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    Except it isn't. As I showed, in Biblical Hebrew using the plural form to denote authority was not only not odd, it was standard. And when dealing with the highest authority of all- G-d- it becomes even more standard. – N.T. Aug 16 at 19:04
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    Adonai is NOT a grammatic plural. The nun has a qamatz; in the plural form it would have a patach. – Micha Berger Aug 16 at 23:38
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    I'm not going to keep repeating myself. I gave the examples you want in my original answer. And just because you say that in your opinion, priest and king etc. aren't specific ENOUGH, that does not affect the actual grammatical rules of Hebrew. To paraphrase Moses, "Who am I that you argue with me?". I did not make the rules, I just showed them to you. You can keep banging your head against the wall if you like, but I won't. – N.T. Aug 19 at 22:14
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R. Judah Halevi addresses this in Part IV of the Kuzari:

The word has a plural form, because it was so used by gentile idolaters, who believed that every deity was invested with astral and other powers. Each of these was called Eloah; their united forces were therefore, called Elohim.

(Hirschfeld translation p. 198)

So it’s not that it was written by a polytheistic culture, but that it was written against the backdrop of a polytheistic culture.

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Often I see ignorant skeptics of the Torah as using this argument to "prove" that Judaism adopted terms from polytheism, but this not at all the case.

The reason why Elohim ends with "-Im", (which usually implies a plurality) is because "-Im" is used in this instance in a respective, majestic form.

(the following is a rephrased summary from Isaac Troki's book against christianity, Chizuk Emuna chapter 9)

Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning Elohim [God] created the heaven and the earth." Elohim, ending in a plural form as though it meant Gods, has been interpreted by Christians as an evidence of the plurality in the Deity, consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, who are denominated Trinity. The correct terminology of Elohim is as follows: —

Those who know the Hebrew language are aware that Elohim relates not merely to the Supreme Being, but also to angels and human authorities. Manoah, the father of Samson (mentioned in Judges 13:22), after he found that he had perceived "an angel of the Lord," said, "We shall surely die, for we have seen Elohim." In reference to human authorities, we read in Exodus 22:9, "Before the Elohim [judges] the cause of the two men shall be brought, and he, whom the Elohim [judges] shall declare guilty, shall pay twofold unto his neighbour."

We should like to understand how the name of Elohim.....in Exodus 7:1 "Behold I have made you an Elohim to Pharaoh," can be allowed by Christian expounders to allude to a plurality of persons, and represent in a mortal creature a visible Trinity?

The real object in the plural form in Elohim is to represent authority and power. This respective plurality is not just used for Elohim, but in words of profane signification. For an example, Adonim (lords) instead of Adon (lord). For instance, Isaiah 19:4, "In the hand of a hard Adonim [lord, literally lords], Genesis 39:20, "And the Adonai [lords instead of Adon, Lord] took him, viz., Joseph,"

The plural form is used instead of the singular in many modern languages (for instance you instead of thou).

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You should check Maimonides who says that G-d has no body and is one, that “the term image (ẓelem) is applied to the natural form . . . It is the true reality of the thing. . . . That which was meant in the scriptural dictum ‘let us make man in our image’ was the specific form, which is intellectual apprehension, not the shape and configuration” Guide of the Perplexed 1:1, (Shlomo Pines translation).

Furthermore, El means “powerful.” It is not that the Bible is polytheistic, far from it. G-d is called Elohim (plural) in the Bible because G-d is more powerful than anything else.

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  • The term elohim is used also for people. When the Bible wants to show that G-d is greater than other powers, it uses the term Elohei haElohim, Ruler over all rulers. – N.T. Aug 19 at 7:46
  • @N.T. Yes, I forgot to mention that the elohim can also be used for people who are very powerful. Good point. – Turk Hill Aug 19 at 17:59
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Another explanation given by the kabbalists is based on the fact that the translation of the word אל = El means power (see Gen. 31-29). As such Elo'him means "powers". G'd is called like that because He is the source of all powers in the world, hence the plural.

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