Psalm 82

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 82.  I’ll use as my pivot-point Psalm 82:1, 6, which states (in the King James Version): “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods…I have said, Ye [are] gods; and all of you [are] children of the most High.”

Who are the “gods” of Psalm 82?  There are at least three ideas:

1.  The “gods” are human judges.  Exodus 22:8-9 states (again, in the KJV): “If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges, [to see] whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods. For all manner of trespass, [whether it be] for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, [or] for any manner of lost thing, which [another] challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; [and] whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour.”  (Emphasis mine.)

The word that the KJV translates as “the judges” is elohim, which means “God” or (literally) “gods”.  Some suggest that the parties are being brought before a priest, who will deliver an oracle from God declaring whether the accused is guilty or innocent.  I think that there is good reason, however, to see the elohim as human judges.  Notice that Exodus 22:9 has “whom the judges shall condemn”.  The Hebrew word translated as “shall condemn”, yarshiun, is plural.  If elohim in that verse refers to God, then the verb would probably be singular.  We’re dealing with a plural, and so my hunch is that the verse is about a plurality of judges, not the one God of Israel.  

But my opinion is not infallible.  For one, there are times when elohim refers to God and takes a plural verb (see here).  Second, the Septuagint for that part of the verse translates into English as “the one condemned by God”, so it may be dealing with another Hebrew manuscript, or perhaps it assumes that the verb has a different vowel-pointing than what came to be in the Masoretic Text, one that makes the verb passive (“they will be condemned”).

2.  Another view is that the “gods” are actual gods of the nations.  As W.O.E. Oesterley and Marvin Tate document, there was a notion within the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism that gods or spirit beings ruled over the Gentile nations (Deuteronomy 32:8 in the LXX; 29:26; Isaiah 24:21; Daniel 10:13, 20-21; Sirach 17:17; I Enoch 20:5; Jubilees 5:31-32; 35:17).  According to Sigmund Mowinckel, Psalm 82 is lamenting that the Israelites are being oppressed by the Gentile nations and their gods.  The Jewish Study Bible says that Psalm 82 is challenging the notion that the gods have a right to the other nations, as it expects for the God of Israel to take possession of his inheritance, the entire world (Psalm 82:8).

There may be something to this interpretation, but something about it bothers me: Psalm 82 focuses a lot on the need to execute justice—-to punish the wicked and to vindicate the innocent.  Psalm 82 relates to judging, which is why the interpretation that the gods are human judges (presumably in Israel) is so attractive.  Would the Psalmist, an Israelite, really care that the other gods do not execute justice in their own countries?  I’m sure that, if you asked him, he’d say that his god is better than other gods because his god judges righteously, but would the Psalmist of his own initiative criticize how the other gods are ruling their nations?

Is Mowinckel right that Psalm 82 is about the oppression of Israel at the hands of the Gentile nations and their gods?  That depends.  Are the Gentiles oppressing Israel in a judicial capacity?  It can’t just be oppression, for Psalm 82 focuses on judicial things.  Perhaps there were Israelites who were dragged before Gentile courts and were judged unjustly.

Despite my reservations, I cannot dismiss this second view because Psalm 82:8 does mention God possessing the nations.  That tells me that the Gentiles are somehow relevant to this Psalm.

3.  The third view is rabbinic.  It states that the “gods” are the nation of Israel, which became immortal (like gods) at Sinai, yet lost that immortality on account of sin.  The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bachodesh 9 presents this view, and many have dated the Mekhilta to the second century (though there is another idea about its date).  According to scholar Jerome Neyrey, this third view was the one that was assumed by the Johannine Jesus when he quoted Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34-36: “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?”  (KJV).  According to Neyrey, the part in John about the Psalm calling those to whom the word of God came “gods” is a reference to the Sinai revelation, which is when the word of God came to Israel.

This third view regards the sin that cost Israel her immortality to be the Golden Calf.  Suppose, however, that we regard injustice as a sin that cost her immortality, which would be consistent with Psalm 82’s focus on justice in the judicial sphere? 

I’ll stop here, though I realize that my post has more questions than answers.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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