Elohim is a Hebrew word that denotes “God” or “god.” It is one of the most common names for God in the Old Testament, starting in the very first verse: “In the beginning [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The name Elohim occurs over 2,500 times in the Tanakh.
The basic meaning behind the name Elohim is one of strength or power of effect. Elohim is the infinite, all-powerful God who shows by His works that He is the creator, sustainer, and supreme judge of the world. “Bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure—you, the righteous [Elohim] who probes minds and hearts” (Psalm 7:9).
Sometimes the word Elohim is shortened to El and used as part of a longer name. El Shaddai, for example, means “God Almighty” (Genesis 49:24); El Elyon means “God Most High” (Deuteronomy 26:19); and El Roi means “God Who Sees” (Genesis 16:13). Personal names of people can include the name of God: Daniel (“El Is My Judge”), Nathanael (“Gift of El”), Samuel (“Heard by El”), Elijah (“El Is Yahweh”), and Ariel (“Lioness of El”) are examples. Place names, too, can contain the shortened form of Elohim: Bethel (“House of El”), Jezreel (“El Will Sow”), and, of course, Israel (“Prince of El”) are examples.
When Jesus cried out from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34), He addressed the Father with a form of Elohim, Eloi. Mark translates Jesus’ statement for us: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Making Bible translation more complex is the fact that Elohim has other usages in the Old Testament besides referring to the One True God. In some contexts, elohim refers to human rulers or judges (see Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34)—the idea is that such people are to act as God’s representatives on earth, exercising authority wisely and ensuring justice. The warning of Psalm 82 is that the human elohim must answer to the Supreme Elohim some day. Elsewhere, elohim is used to refer to false gods (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:28). “They have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the [elohe] of the Sidonians, Chemosh the [elohe] of the Moabites, and Molek the [elohe] of the Ammonites” (1 Kings 11:33). Note that elohe is a form of elohim used with qualifying words or phrases and translated “god of.”
Interestingly, the word Elohim is grammatically plural rather than singular (the -im suffix in Hebrew indicates the plural form). The singular form of Elohim is probably Eloah. What are we to make of the plural? Does the plural form of Elohim imply polytheism? No, the Torah makes clear that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). Polytheism is expressly forbidden in the Old Testament.
What about Trinitarianism? Does the fact that Elohim is plural suggest the triune nature of God? It is best to understand the word construction as a plural of majesty; that is, writing “Elohim” is a stylistic way of emphasizing greatness, power, and prestige. With that said, and in light of the overall teaching of the Bible, the plural form of Elohim certainly allows for the further revelation of God’s triune nature; the Old Testament hints at the Trinity in order to prepare people for the Messiah who would be much more than a human prophet. When Jesus appeared, He more fully revealed mysteries hinted at in the Old Testament. At Jesus’ baptism we have all three Persons of Elohim present: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16–17).
Our God is great and mighty. His power is on display every day and night in the universe He has made. “Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). This great power that no one can restrain is the characteristic of God basic to His name Elohim.