In our modern society, I may meet a person who shakes my hand and says: “I’m Sidney. My pronouns are they, them.” I never know what to say: Am I expected to offer my pronouns as well? Am I going to be blamed if I don’t get theirs right in our continuing conversation?
In the first few words of the Bible, God is introduced as Elohim, presumably he, him (Genesis 1:1). Then a few verses later he’s quoted as saying “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, cf. Genesis 3:22, 11:7). Hadn’t he just spoken as the singular Creator God? Wait, his very name in Hebrew, Elohim, is plural. We’re confused the first time we meet him.
We’re confused! Imagine how the first Jewish readers felt. The God who called them to be his own people had identified himself as Yahweh, the only true God (Exodus 3:13-14). But in the opening words of the inspired Book he gave them, he referred to himself as Elohim; literally gods. This was the plural word the Jews used to talk about all the hundreds of pagan deities worshiped by the tribes and nations around them. Wasn’t Yahweh calling them away from these gods, Elohim, to honor him as the one Creator God? Was God that careless about the language he used?
Actually the word Elohim is used over 2,500 times in the Old Testament of our Bible. In the great majority of these passages, Elohim identifies the one-and-only God of the entire universe. The plural form has been described as the “majestic plural,” all the different facets of divinity worshiped as gods in the world’s religions wrapped up into one, deity to the nth degree. It may be mysterious and a bit confusing, but it’s an awesome way to describe God.
Still, there are a few places in the Old Testament where Elohim is used to describe the many gods of the pagan peoples around Israel. It is accompanied with plural verbs and pronouns. An example is: “On all the gods (Elohim) of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh” (Exodus 12:12). Apparently, God is willing to live with the pronoun confusion in order to embrace a greater truth about himself.
There’s another intriguing factor. Christians since the second century have seen in the plurality of Elohim a subtle reference to the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the same time as God was teaching the Israelites the baseline truth of monotheism, he was including a hint about a pluralism within. In the second verse of the creation account, we are introduced to “the Spirit of God brooding over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). In later revelations through the Prophets, he would predict what would be fulfilled in the New Testament, that in the person of the Son he would come in human flesh. Christian teachers ever since have used the plurality in Elohim as a hidden reference to an eternal Trinity.
Here’s an additional twist. Though Elohim is a masculine noun, there are a number of Old Testament passages where God’s care is described in clearly feminine images. He is “the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18); he suffers when his people turn away from him, “like a woman in labor, gasping and panting” (Isaiah 42:14); but when they return, “as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). When William Young authored the Christian novel The Shack (published 2007), he surprised/shocked the readers by portraying “Papa,” the Father in the “Trinity” characters, as a woman. When the movie version came out in 2017, this part was played by Octavia Spencer, a familiar black actress (on the left in the photo above). The other members of the “Trinity” were “Sarayu” (the Holy Spirit), played by Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara, and Jesus (the Son), played by Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush. Quite a statement about God and his pronouns!
I wonder if God smiles at my discomfort with the current conversations about the pronouns people would like me to use when referring to them. I also wonder if he had some far-off private secret in mind when he selected the rainbow as the symbol of hope for Noah and his family after the Great Flood.