The name EL was used firstly as a generic reference to deities (similarly to the way we use the word “god” today), many of whom were associated with special sacred locations. Traces of such deities can be found in the Hebrew Bible, e.g the reference to “EL Ro’i” (“God of Seeing”) which Hagar encountered at the well “Beer-lahai-roi”’ (Genesis 16:13-14); or the patriarch Jacob’s interaction with the “EL” of “Bet-el” (“House of EL”) in Haran, where Jacob had erected a “pillar” (Genesis 31:13), etc. Such references to local “ELs” associated with sacred locales can also be traced in a variety of ancient near eastern texts. However, the name “EL” was also used as the name of a specific deity. In this regard, see for example the texts discovered at Rash Shamra, ancient Ugarit, like “The Birth of the Gracious and Beautiful Gods” devoted to “EL,” the primordial creator “father-god,” who has also been portrayed as the great “bull-god,” the beneficent “high god” of the Phoenician pantheon. The name “Elohim” has likewise been used as both a generic term for deities of a general kind and as a specific Divine Name, such usages being attested to in the Hebrew Bible itself, hence the translation “gods” is equally correct.
Tracing the history and usage of Hebrew Divine Names is quite an arduous task, one made particularly difficult when one has to wade through the arguments between those who approach the topic from religious perspectives especially, and those who put religious convictions aside for the sake of clarity and truth, not to mention the heated diatribes between scholars themselves. Naturally, a combination of both the religious and secular approaches would be ideal. In this regard, we are certainly most fortunate to have been left the superb literary legacy of the late Umberto Cassuto, erstwhile Chief Rabbi of Florence, Italy, who later became professor of Bible studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He combined impeccable scholarship with excellent insight, and he certainly did not shy away from investigating the Hebrew Bible in conjunction with other ancient near eastern writings, e.g. the Ugaritic texts. His “The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch” and the two volumes of his “Biblical and Oriental Studies,” all published by Magnes Press, are of particular importance as far as trying to get a thorough understanding of Hebrew Divine Names is concerned.
Regarding the Name “Elohim” he said “The designation Elohim was originally a common noun, an appellative, that was applied both to the One God of Israel and to the heathen gods (so, too, was the name El). On the other hand, the name YHWH is a proper noun, the specific name of Israel’s God, the God whom the Israelites acknowledge as the Sovereign of the universe and as the Divinity who chose them as His people.....When the ancestors of the Jewish people realised that there is but One God, and that only ‘YHWH, He is Elohim’ (I Kings 18:39), then the common substantive Elohim also acquired for them the signification of a proper noun, and became synonymous with the name YHWH.....But as a rule synonyms are not quite identical in meaning, and this is true in the present instance, too. The original connotation of the name Elohim, its use as an appellative, could not be completely forgotten. It was impossible for one who spoke or wrote Hebrew not to be aware that only the name YHWH expressed the particular personality of Israel’s God, and on the other hand, he could not fail to be conscious of the fact that the deities of the Gentiles were also designated Elohim.....”
It is generally clear that the term Elohim is sometimes used in a singular sense, and at others in a plural sense. Similar usages can be found in Aramaic writings, e.g. the “Romance of Achikar” and “Letter of Chananiah” in which, depending on the context, the word “Elahin” (the Aramaic equivalent of Elohim) is used in both a plural and singular sense. An important point in the El/Elohim saga is the fact that the plural of the singular El is Elim and not Elohim. We know that the term Elim has been used in ancient semitic writings with reference to “gods,” like those associated with specific locales. Regarding this W. Robertson Smith wrote “If the oldest sanctuaries of the gods were originally haunts of a multiplicity of jinn, or of animals to which demoniac attributes were ascribed, we should expect to find, even in later times, some trace of the idea that the holy place is not inhabited by a single god, but by a plurality of sacred denizens. If a relation between the worshipping community and the sanctuary was formed in the totem stage of thought, when the sacred denizens were still veritable animals, all animals of the sacred species would multiply unmolested in the holy precincts, and the individual god of the sanctuary, when such a being came to be singled out from the indeterminate plurality of totem creatures, would still be the father and protector of all animals of his own kind. And accordingly we do find that many semitic sanctuaries gave shelter to various species of sacred animals.....But, apart from this, we may expect to find traces of vague plurality in the conception of the godhead as associated with special spots, to hear not so much of the god as the gods of a place, and that not in the sense of a definite number of clearly individualised deities, but with the same definiteness as characterises the conception of the jinn. I am inclined to think that this is the idea which underlies the Hebrew use of the plural Elohim, and the Phoenician use of Elim, in a singular sense.....Merely to refer this to primitive polytheism, as is sometimes done, does not explain how the plural form is habitually used to designate a single deity. But if the Elohim of a place originally meant all its sacred denizens, viewed collectively as an indeterminate sum of indistinguishable beings, the transition to the use of the plural in a singular sense would follow naturally, as soon as this indeterminate conception gave way to the conception of an individual god of the sanctuary. Further, the original indeterminate plurality of the Elohim appears in the conception of angels as Bne Elohim, ‘sons of Elohim,’ which according to linguistic analogy, means ‘beings of the Elohim kind.’ In the Old Testament the ‘sons of God’ form the heavenly court, and ordinarily when an angel appears on earth he appears alone and on a special mission. But, in some of the oldest Hebrew traditions, angels frequent holy places, such as Bethel and Mahanaim, when they have no message to deliver (Genesis 28:12; 32:2). That the angels, as ‘sons of God,’ form part of the old Semitic mythology is clear from Genesis 6:2, 4, for the sons of God who contract marriages with the daughters of men are out of place in the religion of the Old Testament, and the legend must have been taken over from a lower form of faith.....”
Be that as it may, scholars recognised the singular of Elohim to be Eloha, the Aramaic equivalent of which is Elah, another word which was employed in both a singular and plural sense. For example, in Ezra the term Elah is used in reference to the God of the Jews, whilst in Jeremiah, originally written in Aramaic, it is used in a plural sense referring to “gods.” In Daniel the term Elah is used in both the mentioned ways. As said, Eloah is the singular form of Elohim, and some researchers have found this somewhat odd, indicating that it is a feminine singular having a masculine plural. This has led to the claim that both sexes are conjoined in the word Elohim, which hence could be translated “gods-goddesses.”
(more to follow)