This Changes Everything

…We might point out that the name of God, Elohim, which appears in the first verse of the Bible, is also a plural, though the verb it governs is in the singular (‘In the beginning the Gods made [sing.] the heavens and the earth’) and that this locution has been called the plural of plenitude.

—Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

What? Since when did multiple gods create the Earth in Genesis? Why was this not reflected in any English translation I’m aware of?

The passage quoted in English doesn’t make much sense because third person singular and third person plural conjugate simple past tense verbs the same way: God made the heavens and the earth, Gods made the heavens and the earth. It looks a little different in Borges’ original Spanish, however: “En el principio hizo los Dioses el cielo y la tierra.” The verb hizo, to do or to make, is conjugated here in the singular; under normal circumstances it would be hicieron. In English this is like writing “I likes my coffee black.” The subject and verb don’t agree.

If we have a look at the original Hebrew side-by-side with English, we get the same result: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Is there a millennial conspiracy afoot? Why is it that philologists are probably the only ones aware of this discrepancy? Why make the choice to translate the plural noun, Elohim, into the singular?

The wikipedia page for Elohim explains the word as a kind of holdover from the extensive polytheistic past of the Jewish religion; in other words, Jews did not always worship only one god. Borges, in this part of The Book Of Imaginary Beings, uses the first verse of Genesis to explain that in the Hebrew Bible, plural nouns are sometimes used to show how massive a single thing can be: the word behemoth means beasts, even though it apparently refers to only a single monster, the elephant, which is as massive as multiple creatures put together.

There are further explanations of this bizarre discrepancy on the internet which essentially say that sometimes plurals in Hebrew are singular or because the verb is singular it makes more sense to translate the noun into the singular as well. In English, though, the verb made is the same regardless of whether it’s He or They conjugating it, so there really is a conscious choice being made, across the centuries, to render Elohim as God in English, when it really means Gods, because when these stories were first being told the people telling them and listening to them were polytheists; the story of the Flood, which is also in Genesis, has close parallels with polytheistic Mesopotamian literary works like Gilgamesh, which were apparently popular for thousands of years—the oldest versions are about four thousand years old, while the most recent date to the 7th century BC, around the time the Bible was being written down—supposedly, according to Wikipedia, at the behest of the Jews’ Persian overlords.

This changes everything for me because, while I was aware that at one time the Jews or their ancestors worshipped multiple gods, I had no idea there was any real evidence of this in the Bible—much less in its first, and most famous, verse.

If only Hebrew and English were more like Korean, a language which has, for the most part, no plurals.