Friday, May 6, 2011

Psalm 82

Psalm 82 is often cited in defense of the idea that the Bible teaches a kind of henotheism (there’s more than one God, but there’s only one that we should be concerned with), or polytheism (there’s more than one God, and we should be concerned with them all). For example, it has been quoted in defense of the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression, which holds that our present Heavenly Father had a Father before Him, who had a Father before Him and so on, and that all these beings (including us, if we subscribe) are progressing eternally in ever increasing states of knowledge and glory.

What I hope to demonstrate is that if that’s your view, then Psalm 82 is not your friend. The reason is because of the relationships between the “Gods” that it describes.

There are three things we need to comprehend in this Psalm, and all of them are interesting in their own right;

• The use of the Hebrew word “Elohim”, which can be properly translated as “God”, “Gods”, or “gods”

• The duties and responsibilities of these “Gods”, and how they were failing in them

• To whom these “Gods” were answerable, and who has the prerogative of judging them

Here’s the Psalm in its entirety, according to Professor Robert Alter in his "The Book of Psalms, a Translation with Commentary":

An Asaph psalm
1 God takes His stand in the divine assembly
in the midst of the gods he renders judgment
2 “How long will you judge dishonestly,
and show favor to the wicked?


3 Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
Vindicate the lowly and the wretched
4 Free the poor and the needy ,
from the hand of the wicked save them
5 They do not know and do not grasp,
in darkness they walk about.
All the earth’s foundation totter
6 As for me, I had thought: you were gods
and the sons of the Most High were you all.
7 Yet indeed like humans you shall die
and like one of the princes, fall”
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth
for You hold in estate all nations

A couple of footnotes for the curious;

• Like the Professor and all modern renderings, I have retained the verse numbers for ease of reference, but they do not appear in the oldest texts

• The opening phrase “An Asaph Psalm” attributes the Psalm to Asaph, who might have been the father of King Hezekiah’s secretary, or a son of Berechiah, chief Levite musician under David.

• Nobody knows what the word “Selah” means, but the consensus is that it is likely a musical or poetic note. I like to think it probably means something like “pause here”, or “play a few bars of music here” like “bridge”, as in “verse, chorus, bridge, chorus”.

Firstly, let’s tackle the use of the Biblical Hebrew word “Elohim” which occurs twice in Verse 1 (see!bible/Psalms+82 and open the tab “Grk/Heb” to see the English and Hebrew side by side). Like most modern translations, the Professor’s translation renders it as “God” and “gods” so, how many “Gods” are there?

Nobody disputes that the first “Elohim” refers to the God. In the Biblical idiom, nobody else would have the right to “stand” in judgment in the assembly of someone else. It’s the same word for God that’s used in Genesis 1:1 and it’s actually plural in form because it bears the “im” plural suffix of all male Hebrew nouns. But, when referring to the God, it should considered to refer to a singular “God”, not “Gods” for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the “Spirit of God” in Genesis 1:2 is singular. If there were “Gods” involved in the Creation, then Genesis 1:2 should have “spirits of the Gods”, but the Hebrew word for “spirit” is firmly singular, not plural (it does not bear the “ot” plural suffix of all female Hebrew nouns and the Hebrew for “spirit” is a female noun).

Some commentators and translators understand the second word “Elohim” to refer to human judges, kings or leaders, but I’m not convinced because it doesn’t fit with the story that unfolds in the Psalm. The least forced reading is that the Psalm refers to “real” deities, not mortals, because the worst that happens to them is that they are condemned to mortality (Verse 7). That is hardly a fitting judgment if they were mortal to start with. The scenario in Verse 1, then, is that the God turns up in the “assembly” of the “lesser” gods, rather like He is walking in to Mount Olympus.

This, I believe, is not out of line with other Biblical texts; I find it quite natural to place these “lesser” gods within the context of the creation of “all things” in John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16. The Bible, in my opinion, does not dispute the existence of these “lesser” heavenly beings, but it does profoundly challenge their status and their relevance to us.

This brings us to what those “lesser” gods should have been doing, and why the God judges them. As the Psalmist notes in Verses 3 and 4, the "lesser" gods should have been upholding justice. However, they were derelict in their duties, and the God holds them to account. Perhaps they were too busy enjoying the latest chocolate confection or beer, as some recent TV ads would have us believe.

There’s a very important aspect to this in Verse 5, which Professor Alter remarks upon as follows;

All the earth’s foundations totter: This is not, as may first appear, a non sequitur. The order of creation itself, in the view of Biblical monotheism, is founded on justice. When the lesser gods allow injustice to become rampant, the very foundations of the earth are shaken – the perversion of justice is the first step towards the apocalypse.

I find the Professor’s comments startling in our modern context. The Biblical authors considered human justice to be an extension, or even an expression, of the natural justice upon which the universe is founded. For them, the breaking of the law on a human scale was not merely a question of personal preference, but something that had significant cosmological implications. If a wrong was committed, it was not merely an offense against the victim, but something that shifted earth and heaven, rather like the way that a tremor or earthquake is the extension or expression of plate tectonics. Of course, the corollary is true; that the enactment of human justice restores the cosmological order of things. As a side note, I believe that this is a proper approach to the work of Christ as described by Paul in Colossians 1:19-20.

So, when the God turns up in the assembly of the lesser Gods, He does not like what He sees, and he pronounces judgment on them. No longer are they given the privileges of deity, they are effectively cast down into the human realm, where they will die like humans (Verse 7). They might have it good for a while, like the eponymous prince of the Psalm, but their days are numbered. Empirically, we know this to be true, because who today worships Zeus, or Apollo, or Baal, or Ashteroth, or any of these pagan tribal deities? They starved to death when their followers stopped feeding them with their sacrifices. For all intents and purposes, they have “died”.

Finally, then, one has to wonder at the “uber-ness” of the God in judging these “lesser” gods. This is not a case for either henotheism or polytheism, but rather a case against them both in no uncertain terms. There is only One God who has the right and the authority to judge these lesser gods. He calls them to account, and they are subject to Him. The implication in the Psalm is why bother with the monkey when you should be dealing with the organ-grinder.

The fact that the God judges and outlives the “other” Gods should be enough to dismiss this Psalm as supporting the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression. It must be noted that the direction of travel for these other heavenly beings is not upwards, as Eternal Progression proposes, but downwards. These “Elohim” are not headed to eternal life, but to mortal death because of their manifest failures and injustices. They are subject to the judgment of the “Elohim”, which would be a reversal the Biblical idiom, because, if Eternal Progression were true, the son would be judging his fathers.

In conclusion, I believe Psalm 82 has a message that is highly relevant in today’s pluralistic culture. Whatever “gods” are worshipped today, they are subject to judgment by the God, who guarantees that justice will prevail.

The Psalm also speaks of a perspective that is foreign to us in our modern context; that the upholding of human justice has cosmological implications. Today, we tend to view morality as a question of personal choice, or preference. In the Psalmist's view, the failure of the "gods" in upholding justice threatened the very fabric of the universe, and only the intervention of the God could save the world from oblivion.

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