This is one of the more awkward moments in the story of Abraham – and comes in a passage where Abraham tells several half truths to Abimelech. s The most famous one being that Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister, leading Abimelech to try to take Sarah as a wife, though God intervenes before Abimelech touched her and rightly complains that Abraham lied to him. Abraham justified himself by stating that Sarah is his half-sister, something which itself may not by physically true but a result of adoption or other family relations.
Focussing on “the gods”: the problem in the question is why does the Hebrew noun elohim occur with a plural verb. Elohim is one of a small number of Hebrew nouns with masculine plural -im ending or feminine plural -oth ending which are not really number plural, but augmentative. So to take another noun in this small category, Behemoth, with plural verbs means “beasts”. So “the behemoth eat (plural verb) = many beasts, but with singular verb “the behemoth eats” (singular verb) means “one great beast”.
11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’(Genesis 20:11-13 NIV)
The NIV and almost all modern versions have cleaned up what the Hebrew text says. Yet equally all detailed commentaries on Genesis note the plural verb:
“And it was when the gods caused me to wander (hit‘u oti Elohim) from the house of my father, that I said to her, this is the righteousness that you shall do with me, to every place which we come, say about me, he is my brother”
There is no grammatical doubt here hit’u is the hiphil past third person plural of the verb ‘to cause’ – an apparent mistake that it must have been so tempting for generations of Jewish scribes to correct, and yet is left here in the text, not displaying Abraham in a good light. Of course “the gods” with a plural verb occurs multiple times in the context of mocking the idols of the neighbouring nations, but this is from the mouth of Abraham himself.
To make it clear, contrast Genesis 24 where Abraham again refers to God taking him from his father’s house but this time all three of the verbs with Elohim are singular.
“YHWH, the Elohim of heaven, who took me (lekachani יִנַחָ קְ ל ) from the house of my father, and from my birthplace, and who spoke (diber רֶבִּ דּ ) to me, and who swore (nishba‘ עַבְּ שִׁנ ) to me saying, to your seed I will give this land” (Genesis 24:7)
So what is the answer? The suggestions in commentaries include that Abraham is packaging his excuse for lying in terms that include also Abimelech’s gods, in the hope of moderating the real danger of Abimelech punishing Abraham for his deception. Another suggestion – without any direct evidence in the chapter – is that perhaps Abimelech had himself been consulting his own gods about his illness. Another suggestion is that this compares to Exodus 7:1 where God says “I will make you elohim to Pharaoh” in having Aaron as the oracle for a silent Moses. But this is not really a comparable example since “I will make you elohim to Pharaoh” assumes the unwritten “as”, in “as a god”, in a rather odd triangle between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh with little similarity to Abraham’s “the gods caused (plural)”.
The fact is that we don’t know why this exceptional verse has Abraham saying this. We only know that what Abraham said led to a very positive result for Abraham, and then the narrator reverts to the normal Elohim + singular verb “Elohim healed (singular verb) Abimelech”. So we have a monotheistic conclusion with an encounter with a polytheistic king.
14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” 16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels[a] of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah. (Genesis 20:14-18)
Appendix – additional examples of Elohim with the plural verb possibly referring to the one true God.
The above question about Abraham arises because it is very unusual, to have Elohim followed by a singular verb when it speaks of the one true God. And of course Jesus and the New Testament writers render Elohim plus singular verb as ‘God made’, ‘God said’ etc. These are the other places where Elohim is possibly used of the one true God, but has a plural verb. This listing mainly per Heinrich F. E. Schmid (1811-1885) with revisions:
Genesis 35:7: “There God [Elohim] had revealed himself to him.” [Literally: “They” appeared unto him.]
Exodus 22:9 “ the one whom God condemns”. Hebrew condemn is plural, suggesting the alternative translation, “they [the gods] condemn.” – though the plurality here may be influenced by urim and thummim being assumed.
2 Samuel 7:23: “God [Elohim] went.”” [Literally: “They” went.]
Psalm 58:11: “Surely there is a God [Elohim] who judges.” [Literally: “They” judge.]