"In the very beginning the Bible shows there is a plurality
of Gods beyond the power of refutation."1
Joseph Smith explained that Genesis 1:1 inherently taught a plurality of gods in its usage of the word ’ĕ·lō·hîm. He discussed this principle in his famous funeral sermon for King Follett (amalgamated, parallel) as well as during his "Sermon in the Grove" (HC, parallel), where he "turned commentator" on the Hebrew text of the Bible. Joseph undoubtedly drew upon his Hebrew studies with Joshua Seixas, and may have referred to Professor Seixas (or to Dr. Peixotto, Seixas' predecessor in teaching Hebrew at the School of the Prophets) when he declared, "I once asked a learned Jew, 'If the Hebrew language compels us to render all words ending in heim in the plural, why not render the first Eloheim plural?' He replied, 'That is the rule with few exceptions; but in this case it would ruin the Bible.'"2
I suspect that the text of Seixas' Hebrew Grammar used in the School of the Prophets provided Joseph with the foundation for his critical exegesis. The transliterated elohim is defined as "God; a sing. noun with a plur. form":
The transliteration of this verse (bə·rê·šîṯ bā·rā ’ĕ·lō·hîm; ’êṯ haš·šā·ma·yim wə·’êṯ hā·’ā·reṣ) is somewhat obfuscated in the text of the two sermons as "Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aushamayeen vehau auraits." This is easily explainable as the result of William Clayton, Willard Richards, and Thomas Bullock's attempt to transcribe Joseph's discourse while he spoke.3 Phonetically, however, the transcription is easy to match with the transliteration.
It is interesting to note that James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ provides commentary upon Elohim asserting that the term, while being a "Hebrew plural noun," referred to the "plurality of excellence or intensity, rather than distinctively of number. It is expressive of supreme or absolute exaltation and power."4 Elder Talmage apparently drew upon the scholarship of peers in his day and for whatever reason, prioritized their interpretations over Joseph's. This may have been the result of Talmage's perceptions regarding advances in scholarship from Joseph's day, and accordingly, opted to privilege Biblical scholars over Joseph Smith when it came to exegesis based on textual criticism.5 Regardless, Joseph's interpretation has found support through advances in modern scholarship. In a recent article, Jürg Hutzli provides an explanation of the various ways that Elohim can be interpreted, and with reference to Genesis 1, he asserts that the "formulation stands in relation with the conception of the 'Royal Household of God'":
We have to stop briefly to ask if 1:26 really expresses a “polytheistic” conception (which then would bring tension into the statement of 1:27). In scholarship there are three interpretations of the use of the 1.p. pl.: (a) The formulation stands in relation with the conception of the “Royal Household of God,” it expresses (b) a “selfconsultation” (grammatical explanation: pluralis deliberationis) or (c) the idea of sovereign rule and majesty (pluralis majestatis). As for the first and the second understanding of the formulation there are several instances in the Hebrew Bible where the respective use may be intended by the authors. The third proposed interpretation of the pl. form, however, seems less probable, since there is only one late instance (Ezra 4:18) where the pluralis is used in this way. A decision between the first and the second explanation seems difficult since other possible instances: Gen 11:7c Isa 6:8c 2 Sam 24:14 are open to both interpretations. Nevertheless, in what concerns Gen 1:26 there is an argument for the first explanation. Given that the idea of the royal household of God is well attested in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 1 Kgs 22:19–23c Job 1:6–12c 2:1–6c 38:7) and that an Assyrian text uses the same plural formulation for the creation of humanity (some deities confer and announce the decision by using 1. p. pl., cf. AOT 135 [B 13–17.22f]), it is in principal possible to understand 1:26 in relation to the conception of the royal household. The author of the text must have been aware that if he uses the respective formulation, the statement is open for a “polytheistic” interpretation. He would not have chosen the formulation if he judged the idea of the royal household incompatible with his own theological perception.6The concept of a royal household is also referred to as the divine council.7 The recognition of a divine council is intriguing, considering Joseph's comments in these two sermons that "The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods," and "The Head one of the Gods said let us make man in our image..." This concept can also be found right at home in the Book of Abraham (3:21-28) as well. Interestingly, David Bokovoy pointed out that Moses 7:35 initially referred to God as "Man of Council," which was later changed to "Man of Counsel" in 1878 by Orson Pratt.8 Based on the given considerations, Joseph's exegesis fits perfectly with the advances of modern scholarship with respect to his interpretation of Elohim, as well as the idea that there was a council of Gods held at the creation of the earth.9 While Elder Talmage may have had reservations about Joseph's interpretations,10 the exegesis provided by the "Prophet of the Restoration" has found considerable scholarly support over time as objective studies have broken down the barriers of orthodox Christian and Jewish belief. The Bible is not ruined, but can be better appreciated for what it actually teaches.
1 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1938), 371-372
2 Ibid, 372
3 Stan Larson points out that Bullock, Clayton, and Richards all wrote while Joseph spoke, but Wilford Woodruff's journal is likely a polished version based on notes taken during the sermon that are no longer extant; see Stan Larson, "The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text," BYU Studies 18/2 (Winter 1978): 193-194
4 James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1915), 38
5 R. Scott Lloyd points out that Jesus the Christ was dependent upon the works of "prominent biblical scholars of the day, including Frederic W. Farrar, Cunningham Geikie, Alfred Edersheim, Charles F. Deems, and Samuel J. Andrews," in R. Scott Lloyd, "Church Classic Jesus the Christ Published 100 Years Ago," Church News (Sept 11, 2015); for commentary on Genesis 1:1, see Frederic William Farrar, History of Interpretation: Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year MDCCCLXXXV  (London: MacMillan and Co., 1886), 34; Cunningham Geikie, Hours With the Bible; or The Scriptures in the Light of Modern Discovery and Knowledge: From Creation to the Patriarchs (New York: John B. Alden, 1886), 20
6 Jürg Hutzli, "Tradition and Interpretation in Gen 1:1-2:4a, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 10 (2010), Article 12, 10-11
7 Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 78; Smith explains that the Divine Council represents the top tiers of the royal household, see Mark Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 107
8 David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis - Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 151-152; see "Extract From the Prophecy of Enoch," Evening and Morning Star 1/3 (Aug 1832): 45
9 David Bokovoy, "Ye Really Are Gods": A Response to Michael Heiser Concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John," FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 267-313; David Bokovoy, "Joseph Smith and the Biblical Council of Gods," 2010 FAIR Conference (http://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2010-David-Bokovoy.pdf), accessed 10/27/15; Daniel O. McClellan, "Psalm 82 in Contemporary Latter-day Saint Tradition," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 15 (2015): 79-96; Stephon O. Smoot, "Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 28-39
10 In addressing Elder Talmage's masterful work Jesus the Christ, I mean no disrespect to him or to his influential book. Unfortunately Elder Talmage is not here to explain his treatment of Joseph's interpretation, but this is in no way intended to denigrate Elder Talmage or his book Jesus the Christ.