Grammatical Plurality and Polytheism

Throughout the ancient world, there are many references to deities in the plural- Ba’alim [בעלים], Elohim [אלהים], Adonim [אדנים], etc. Most translators of ancient texts tended to make it normative to portray this as a polytheistic reference. I have been pondering the possibility that the plural in those texts may not have- always- represented polytheistic undertones.

In the Hebrew Text, there are many references to foreign deities- polytheism; the fact that the Hebrews worshiped only One Deity alone was sufficient grounds for many translators to overlook the plural usages of deity for the Deity of the Hebrews. However, there are many plural nouns used in the Hebrew Text which may suggest that those plural nouns were not always indicative of plurality, but of honored position or a high status. Further, there are clear passages in the Hebrew Text which used, in conjunction with plural nouns, plural verbs in reference to the Deity worshiped by the Hebrews; these plural noun/verb constructions demonstrate that by simple grammatical construction plurality is not always indicative.

And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander [hit’u oti Elohim-התעו אותי אלהים] from my father’s house, that I said unto her: This is thy kindness which thou shalt show unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’

JPS Genesis 20:13

And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-el, because there God was revealed unto him [niglu elaw haelohim-נגלו אליו האלהים], when he fled from the face of his brother. JPS Genesis 35:7

And who is like Thy people, like Israel, a nation one in the earth, whom God went [haleku Elohim-הלכו אלהים] to redeem unto Himself for a people, and to make Him a name, and to do for Thy land great things and tremendous, even for you, in driving out from before Thy people, whom Thou didst redeem to Thee out of Egypt, the nations and their gods? JPS 2 Samuel 7:23

And men shall say: ‘Verily there is a reward for the righteous; verily there is a God that judgeth [elohim shoftim-אלהים שׁפטים] in the earth’ Psalm 58:12.

The plural usage of Adon is also indicative of a non-plurality in meaning. With the 1st possessive pronoun- my, the plural Adonai [אדני-literally my lords] is used exclusively for the One Deity of Israel. There are many places in which the plural Adonim [אדנים]- with the 3rd possessive pronoun [ו]- was employed to refer to one person and never meant, in any way, a plurality of person.

And the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master [אדניו-adonaw] and swore to him concerning this matter. JPS Genesis 24:9

And the servant took ten camels, of the camels of his master [אדניו-adonaw], and departed; having all goodly things of his master’s [אדניו-adonaw] in his hand; and he arose, and went to Aram-naharaim, unto the city of Nahor. JPS Genesis 24:10

These two verses lead to a possibility that the vocalization of the following verse may have originally been Adonai [אֲדֹנָי] and not Adoni [אֲדֹנִי]- the spelling, minus the vocalization, is identical in either case.

And he said: ‘O LORD, the God of my master [אֲדֹנִי -adoni] Abraham, send me, I pray Thee, good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham. JPS Genesis 24:12

Even if the present vocalization is correct, this is sufficient proof to demonstrate the non-plurality of meaning in this juxtaposition.

A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master [אדניו-adonaw]; if then I be a father, where is My honour? and if I be a master [אדנים-adonim], where is My fear? saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise My name. And ye say: ‘Wherein have we despised Thy name?’ JPS Malachi 1:6

These uses of grammatically plural nouns/verbs to indicate positions of greatness or honor demonstrate that not every usage of grammatical plurality in ancient texts may have- necessarily- held polytheistic meaning.

About Ya'aqov ben Yisrael

I am simply a man with questions and trying to figure out the answers; my greatest joys are found in the study of Torah: its language and exegesis.
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