[b-hebrew] elohim, meaning and referents

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Tue Nov 11 08:35:58 EST 2003

>Can anyone help me in a matter of meaning and referent with the word 
>ELOHIM(Forgive me if I have not transcribed this correctly for this 
>My questions are: Does this word have a 'basic' meaning and if so 
>what is it? Secondly, when we look at such lexicons as 
>Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius and it mentions "judges" and "angels" 
>is this indicating the _meaning_ of the word or its _referent_ in 
>any given Biblcal scripture?
>In anticipation of your help,
>Rebecca E Barnard

Dear Rebecca,

It is fine to distinguish between the meaning and the reference of a 
word, as you do. A word (i.e. its letters or sounds) has no intrinsic 
meaning, but it signals a concept in the minds of native speakers. 
This concept often has a rather clear core but becomes more fuzzy 
towards its edges. This means that a word by means of its concept has 
meaning apart from a context. The context does not generate lexical 
meaning, but it helps the reader or listener to ascertain which part 
of each concept (signalled by the word) that the author wants to make 
visible. This view of lexical meaning is based on the results of 
Psykho-linguistic research, and it indicates that lexical meaning of 
the more complex words such as verbs, substantives and adjectives 
cannot be conveyed by writing or speaking, it must be *known*. 
Lexical meaning is therefore not found in lexicons, but in the minds 
of living people, those who have the same presupposition pool. In 
lexicons do we find glosses, i.e. the most common English words used 
to translate a given Hebrew word.

When we try to give a core sense of the concept of a word in another 
language, it should be viewed as a tentative attempt, because we are 
not always hitting the mark. It seems to me that the core sense of 
)E:LOHIM is something like "a being higher than man that should be 
revered (perhaps "revered" should be substituted by "worshipped" ). 
As you know, )E:LOHIM is a plural word, and it can therefore *denote* 
several beings, including angels and judges.  The translation of 
)E:LOHIM by the Septuagint may throw some light on your questions.

When the LXX translators worked with Psalm 97:7 and 138:1 they had to 
make a decision as to the reference of )E:LOHIM in these verses. The 
word does not refer to YHWH in these passages, it does not refer to 
idols, but - when polytheism is excluded - it logically refers to the 
angels.  In this case the LXX translators would not use QEOS in the 
singular, because YHWH was mentioned in addition to the )E:LOHIM. 
They would not use QEOI  (plural), because that would signal 
polytheism. So they chose to use the designation of those whom the 
word denoted, namely ANGELOUS, the angels. In Psalm 8:5 the LXX 
translators used ANGELOUS as well, and these words are quoted in the 
NT (Hebrews 2:7).  If the LXX translators had followed the same 
procedure in Psalm 82:1, they would have used the Greek word for 
judges to render  )E:LOHIM, But in this case they used QEOUS.  This 
word is applied to humans in the NT (John 10:34-36). Asking for the 
lexical meaning  )E:LOHIM , we can say that "judge" or "human being" 
were not a part of the concept signalled by  )E:LOHIM. The same is 
true with "angel", but the word  )E:LOHIM can denote angels and 
judges. What the LXX translators did in Psalm 97:7, 138:1 and 8:5 was 
not really translation, but rather substitution.

An example that can illustrate the case is Genesis 6:2. In 
Pseuepigraphic works, such at the Ethiopic Enoch  (ch. 6-8) and in 
the NT (Jude  1:6) "the son's of God" are said to be the angels. If 
the LXX translators entertained the same view and they had followed 
the same procedure in Genesis 6:2 as in the mentioned Psalms, they 
would have rendered "the sons of God" with "the angels" as well. The 
concept signalled by BEN does not include "angel," and even if the 
word is qualified by  )E:LOHIM, the concept does not include angels. 
But even if we leave alone the more controversial Genesis 6:2, we see 
that BE:NE HA )E:LOHIM,  can denote the angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; Psalm 
29:1 and 89:6).

An example where substitution seems to be legitimate but may be 
misleading, is the translation of RUX QODE$  in the Qumran Rule of 
the Community 9:3 (and in other places)  by "His holy spirit". In the 
English presupposition pool "The Holy Spirit" or "His holy spirit" 
signals a particular Christian concept, which is expressed in the NT 
as PNEUMA hAGION. However,  QODE$ is a substantive whose core sense 
is "holiness". It can be legitimate to use an adjective in the target 
language where the source language has a substantive. But  it is not 
given in this case that "the spirit of holiness" at Qumran is the 
same as The holy spirit of the English presupposition pool. Thus it 
can be argued that the rendering "His holy spirit" is substitution, 
and it can mislead the readers.  An example where substitution 
clearly is misleading is the rendering of YHWH by "The Lord" in 
English Bible translations. This is a violation of the fundamental 
translation principle that a proper name with a specific reference 
can not be translated  or substituted, it must be transcribed (or a 
transliteration must occur) in the target language. The only possible 
exceptions are when the context definitely show that the meaning of 
the name is what the author wants to convey.

By way of conclusion I will say that we, in our linguistic study 
should differentiate between the concept signalled by a word and what 
the word denotes. We should also learn to deal with substitution and 
its weaknesses, and we should be aware of the advantages and dangers 
in the use of lexicons.

Best regards

Rolf Furuli

University of Oslo.

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