The following post originally appeared on Things Above Us in October 2019.
A good friend in the ministry recently raised a question she was asked by someone else concerning Genesis 3:5 in the context of a conversation with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and it’s a very good one. In this article, I’ll answer the question with a moderate level of detail and examine the theological and evangelistic implications.
I have been around Mormon theology most of my life, and was talking to some missionaries saying that the Bible can be trusted, because it is not a translation of a translation, as they assume, but each new (good) version begins with translating from the original Hebrew and Greek. The LDS KJV was interpreted by Joseph Smith, under what they call the influence of the Holy Spirit. The point I was trying to make that Joseph Smith did what he ironically claims the rest of the Christian world has done; creating his translation of a translation. I was also saying that the whole of LDS theology is based on the original deception; you can be like God, big g. They are saying no, not like God, big g, but like gods, little g. I don’t use the KJV much, so I was a little surprised it differed so much.
I looked up a quick Google search, and it said that in that verse, the Heb word is Elohim, and the first part of the verse, referring to God, is the big E Elohim, but the second one is little e elohim, and why the KJV was translated gods instead of God.
So why does the NKJV, AMP, NCV, NIV, all say, “like God”, and the KJV says gods? (I know, I know, I only looked at one site, but they were sitting there, and I didn’t want to make them sit through my research)
I’d like to know if the words are Elohim and elohim, and why, if so, do the other translations interpret it the way they do.
Sorry for the long question, it may really be a simple answer, but the theology here is important.
I love this question! Let’s do some digging.
The Translation Issue
It’s worth noting as an aside that the Joseph Smith Translation appears to have a great deal of added material. I’ve never examined it until writing this post, but just a glance reveals that what the rest of us understand to be Genesis 3:5 is actually Genesis 3:10 in the Joseph Smith Translation because there are five added verses. That aside, we’re still examining the ‘normal’ Genesis 3:5.
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (KJV)
For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (NKJV)
Everyone agrees that the first instance of “God” is God, but there is disagreement on the second. Moreover, both instances are the same Hebrew word, elohim, which is grammatically plural but can be translated “God,” “gods,” or “divine beings.” We don’t have the help of uppercase and lowercase letters in Hebrew. Unlike with many instances of comparing the KJV New Testament with modern translations, there are no differences between manuscripts here in Genesis 3:5.
The difference on the surface level is purely translational, but there is indeed some theological incentive involved. Joseph Smith (and the Latter Day Saints in general) clearly have an incentive here to show that the Bible is okay with multiple small-g ‘gods.’ They would be correct to point out that the KJV translated ‘gods’ long before Joseph Smith and his translation, which he adapted and revised from the KJV, came about. In fact, the translation ‘gods’ came long before the KJV. The Septuagint translates the second elohim as “gods” rather than “God.” Thus, the people in New Testament times who spoke only Koine Greek likely understood this passage to say “gods” or “divine beings.” The Septuagint translators, being in the third and second centuries B.C., had no concept of supporting or opposing trinitarian theology. The Latin Vulgate (late 4th century A.D.) translates dii (“gods”).
Later Christian translations around the time of the Reformation varied. The Calvinist Geneva Bible (1560) and the Anglican Bishops’ Bible (1568) both translate ‘gods.’ The counter-Reformation Douay-Rheims (1609) translates “Gods,” which is weird but plausible, given that equality with God might entitle Eve to a capital ‘G.’ But both William Tyndale (d. 1536) and Martin Luther (d. 1546) translated “God” (Gott in Luther’s case, but you get the idea). John Calvin (d. 1564) was aware of the issue, as he explicitly mentions it in his commentary on Genesis 3:5. More on that later.
In modern English translations, the vast majority side with Tyndale and Luther and translate “God,” but there are a few exceptions. The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (1985), obviously not seeking to prove trinitarianism, translates “divine beings” but still includes a footnote to account for other translations stating “God.” The Roman Catholic NABRE somewhat follows the Douay-Rheims and translates “gods.” The NET Bible 1st edition chooses “divine beings, but the 2nd edition interestingly switches back to the singular divine “God” without any sort of minor mea culpa. If you’re interested in the grammatical particulars of each option, the NET notes (1st | 2nd) might be worth your while, but they are quite technical. The short version is that both “divine beings” and “God” are grammatically possible, so we must decide how to translate from the context.
What If It’s ‘gods’?
For argument’s sake, let’s, for now, operate from the standpoint that the correct translation really is “gods” or “divine beings.” After all, centuries of English-speaking Christians operating from the Latin Vulgate, the Bishop’s Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the King James Version have maintained their trinitarianism in spite of Genesis 3:5. Consider the apparent plural references to God in Gen. 1:26 and 3:22.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26 KJV)
And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: (Genesis 3:22 KJV)
The NET Bible 1st edition argues, “It is probable that God is addressing his heavenly court (see the note on the word ‘make’ in 1:26), the members of which can be called ‘gods’ or ‘divine beings’ from the ancient Israelite perspective.” That note in 1:26 reads in part, “In its ancient Israelite context the plural is most naturally understood as referring to God and his heavenly court (see 1 Kgs 22:19–22; Job 1:6–12; 2:1–6; Isa 6:1–8). (The most well-known members of this court are God’s messengers, or angels. In Gen 3:5 the serpent may refer to this group as ‘gods/divine beings.’ See the note on the word ‘evil’ in 3:5.)” Thus, there is no mandate that we understand ‘gods’ in the sense of the LDS, as ‘gods’ who were once like us. It undoubtedly fits better with the rest of the Hebrew Bible for us to understand these ‘gods’ not to be like us.
And Why Not?
The strongest Hebrew linguistic argument for translating “God” is a very simple one from the immediate context. In Genesis 1:1–3:24, elohim appears 59 times. In 58 of those 59 times, the indisputable referent is God. As already stated, Genesis 3:5 uses elohim twice, and the first time is indisputably God. To conclude with certainty that the second time is multiple gods would take something especially compelling.
A second argument involves the actual target of the serpent’s lie. There can be no doubt that the serpent’s aim is to provoke Eve to jealousy and doubt against God, who has withheld her from knowing what He knows. Why doesn’t He want her to know these things? Is it right for God to withhold His glory from Eve in this way? While it is plausible that the serpent could have provoked Eve to become jealous of the angelic realm’s knowledge rather than God’s knowledge, it’s certainly not as compelling.
But Let’s Get Out of the Weeds
It’s also way too easy to get stuck in the weeds on this. I sure did as I was researching for this post. Let’s not forget who’s actually saying Genesis 3:5 — the serpent! Should we really get caught up in what the serpent wants to teach us about the nature of God or the angelic realm? Should we change our view of the Godhead based on what Satan thinks? John Calvin (d. 1564) makes proper note of the translational controversy but doesn’t lose sight of the big picture.
Ye shall be as gods. Some translate it, ‘Ye shall be like angels.’ It might even be rendered in the singular number, ‘Ye shall be as God.’ I have no doubt that Satan promises them divinity; as if he had said, For no other reason does God defraud you of the tree of knowledge, than because he fears to have you as companions. Moreover, it is not without some show of reason that he makes the Divine glory, or equality with God, to consist in the perfect knowledge of good and evil; but it is a mere pretense, for the purpose of ensnaring the miserable woman. Because the desire of knowledge is naturally inherent in and happiness is supposed to be placed in it; but Eve erred in not regulating the measure of her knowledge by the will of God. And we all daily suffer under the same disease, because we desire to know more than is right, and more than God allows; whereas the principal point of wisdom is a well-regulated sobriety in obedience to God.
And yet, this kind of promise, the promise to be like God and gods, is exactly what Latter Day Saints theology teaches its adherents! If you do well enough, you can be a God!
Mormonism may be on a statistical decline, but that will be no comfort to anyone in the LDS church who dies in unbelief. Let’s pray for our Mormon neighbors and share the Gospel whenever and wherever the Triune God gives us opportunity. The Gospel that Christ lived, died, and rose again to save His people, give them the Spirit, and present them to the Father is far better news.