Elohim in the assembly of elohim (Psalm 82)

I have been prompted by a discussion on Dustin Smith’s blog in connection with his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God to share some thoughts about the divine council in Psalm 82. Dustin critiqued Ehrman’s analysis of this psalm and argued that the Psalm speaks of human judges as elohim, using the regular Hebrew word for God (or ‘gods’) and applying it to “the human rulers who judge on God’s behalf, thus effectively taking the title of elohim onto themselves as God’s agents”. I read this psalm differently.

Some scholars regard Psalm 82 as being one of the oldest psalms in the collection, and showing evidence of Canaanite influence. It is also argued by some that Psalm 82, and others, may have been written at a time in Israel’s development when its religion was monolatrous (i.e worshipping one god while allowing for the existence of others), rather than monotheistic (recognising the existence of only one god). The psalm begins with what appears to be a reference to a heavenly council and in this detail shares some similarity with Canaanite texts. Mitchell Dahood argues that it is directed aginst the Canaanite gods: “the first section (vss. 1-4) is a depiction, or rather a vision, of the heavenly tribunal where God passes judgment on the pagan deities (vs. 1) and a summation (vss. 2-4) of the charges on which they are convicted.”1 The introductory verse is chiastic2:

אֱֽלֹהִים נִצָּב                                            God [אלהים elohim] presides

 בַּעֲדַת־אֵל                                                    in the divine council,

 בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים                                                in the midst of the gods [אלהים elohim]

 יִשְׁפֹּט                                                   adjudicates.3

There appears to be an intentional ambiguity here with אלהים elohim presiding in the midst of the אלהים elohim. Most translators translate the first אלהים elohim as “God” and the second as “gods” or “divine beings”. Some scholars attempt to resolve the difficulty by arguing that the first אלהים elohim should be replaced by the divine name יהוה (YHVH) on the assumption that the divine name was replaced by an ancient Elohistic editor.4 If we accept this emendation יהוה YHVH is consequently represented as a participant deity in the council of gods led by El (and subordinate to El) as an accuser against the other אלהים elohim/gods, and rather than “presiding” over the council he “takes a stand” (נִצָּב) as a prosecutor.5 Other scholars variously identify the second אלהים elohim as human officials (although the expression כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן “you will die like men” in verse 7 would seem to rule out the possibility of these אלהים elohim being human), angels, heathen gods, or “divine kings”.6

There is an interesting chiastic structure in Psalm 82 suggested by the second and third grammatical persons. This structure could further indicate that there may be two (or three) speakers and the juxtaposition of the voices suggests a forensic setting.

Section Verse            Person Subject matter Speaker
A 1 Third person singular אלהים/יהוה in the divine council. Psalmist
B 2-4 Second person plural The charges: question and a series of imperatives addressed to the accused. אלהים / יהוה as Prosecutor
C 5 Third person plural Those addressed in 2-4. Psalmist
B1 6-7 Second person plural The verdict and sentence. New speaker? Possibly Presider over council.
A1 8 Second person singular Addresses אלהים/יהוה using an imperative to judge. Psalmist

We could call this a grammatical chiasmus with sections A and A1 in the singular, either addressing or referring to אלהים/יהוה, the god of Israel, sections B and B1 in the second person plural, and section C (at the crux) in the third person plural. Verse 6 seems to introduce a new speaker with אֲֽנִי־אָמַרְתִּי “I, I have said …”,7 although this could also be read as the verdict in response to the charges brought in verses 2-4, and the speaker would therefore be the presider over the divine council. Perhaps the psalmist envisages a council where אלהים or יהוה, the god of Israel, is both prosecutor and judge.8 In verse 8 אלהים9 elohim is called on to קוּמָה and שָׁפְטָה, “arise, judge”, and Dahood claims that קוּמָה here “designates the intervention of God as judge and ruler”.10

The crux appears as an aside, almost parenthetical, and is possibly the psalmist’s own verdict on the accused.11 He claims that the injustice and lawlessness of the accused אלהים elohim shakes the very foundations on which the earth is ordered (the “foundations of the earth are shaken”), possibly suggesting that they are responsible for cosmic disorders, although, more likely, referring to the disrupted ‘order of things’ in society.12  The world is founded on justice for the poor, the oppressed, the needy, and the disenfranchised; and injustice disrupts this order and causes chaos. The frequent mention throughout the psalter of the antagonism between the righteous and the wicked, the oppressed and their oppressors, suggests the existence of an enmity in Israelite society between two primary classes: (1) the poor, but pious, and (2) the rich and powerful.13

According to several scholars Psalm 82 shows signs of possible Canaanite influence. However, it may have been written as a polemical response to Canaanite religion rather than merely mimicking its forms, using the language of the Canaanite texts while delivering a message against the gods of those texts. It may in fact be a caricature or parody of the Canaanite idea of a divine council, in which the god of Israel stands up among the gods of the surrounding nations and accuses them of failing to do what gods are meant to do, asserting that Israel’s god alone acts righteously.

1 Dahood, Mitchell, Psalms: Introduction, Translation and Notes Vol. II: 51-100, (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 268.

2 We could also call this an introverted parallelism.

3 Following the translation of Mitchell Dahood , Psalms: Introduction, Translation and Notes vol. II: 51-100, (New York: Doubleday, 1968).

4 James M. Trotter, “Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131.2 (2012): 221-239,222-224. There is evidence elsewhere in the Psalter of an Elohistic editor replacing the divine name with elohim, especially in the group of psalms 42-83. For example, Psalms 14 and 53 are very similar, with the major difference being that Psalm 53 uses elohim while Psalm 14 uses the divine name.

5 Morgenstern, however, argues for “presides” (Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 29– 126, 71). The inferences drawn from the meaning of נצב in this context are crucial in determining whether יהוה is standing as Prosecutor or Judge. In this text it appears as a niphal participle (HALOT 714f: to place oneself, to be positioned, stand; BDB, 662: station oneself, take one’s stand). It has the sense of supervising (to be set over) when accompanied by עַל (HALOT) but this is absent in Ps. 82:1. It differs from עמד which suggests standing motionless.

6 Trotter, argues for “divine kings” (Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82, 230ff) and against Morgenstern who argued that the content of vv. 2–4 “can refer only to human beings who discharge the judicial function in a consciously and grossly corrupt manner.” (Morgenstern, The Mythological Background of Psalm 82, 31).

7 Dahood translates this as “I had thought …”, arguing that the speaker is the psalmist, and noting how אָ֭מַרְתִּי introduces one clause, followed by אָ֭כֵן introducing a second clause, which suggests “I had thought … but …”. “The psalmist has been under the impression that the pagan deities were of some importance, but now realises they are nothing, because they are quite incapable of defending the poor and rescuing the downtrodden.” (Dahood, Psalms: Vol. II, 270).

8 In a similar way, God is portrayed in the book of Job as both defendant and judge, so reading God in Psalm 82 as having dual-roles is not unreasonable.

9 Or יהוה if we accept the possibility of an Elohistic emendation, as in verse 1.

10 Dahood, Psalms: Vol. II, 271.

11 Surprisingly, Oesterley says this verse “seems to have little to do with the rest of the poem, and is best regarded as an accidental insertion”. (W.O.E. Oesterly, The Psalms: Translated with Text-Critical and Exegetical Notes (London: SPCK, 1962), 373.) My own view is that this is a disappointing way to deal with what seems to me to be the crux of the psalm.

12 A similar metaphor appears in Psalm 75:3-4 where equitable judgment is said to keep firm the pillars of the earth.

13 Oesterley argues for this antagonistic theme in his chapter “Saints and Sinners in the Psalms”. (Oesterley, Psalms, 56-66).