Maklelan: “elohim” in Psalm 82 are not “judges”

LDS poster Maklelan from MADB and from CARM has put together a fine essay addressing the issue of the identification of the “elohim” in Psalm 82. Maklelan originally posted this on the CARM message board, but he has since touched it up for publication here. It is with his permission and with gratitude for his research that I post this here for all to enjoy. Everything after this sentence are his words.


I hope this short treatise will serve as a useful reference for future questions regarding the meaning of this chapter of scripture. The entire chapter reads as follows (in the Hebrew, Greek, and then my translation into English):

מִזְמֹ֗ור לְאָ֫סָ֥ף אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים נִצָּ֥ב בַּעֲדַת־אֵ֑ל בְּקֶ֖רֶב אֱלֹהִ֣ים יִשְׁפֹּֽט׃
עַד־מָתַ֥י תִּשְׁפְּטוּ־עָ֑וֶל וּפְנֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים תִּשְׂאוּ־סֶֽלָה׃
שִׁפְטוּ־דַ֥ל וְיָתֹ֑ום עָנִ֖י וָרָ֣שׁ הַצְדִּֽיקוּ׃
פַּלְּטוּ־דַ֥ל וְאֶבְיֹ֑ון מִיַּ֖ד רְשָׁעִ֣ים הַצִּֽילוּ׃
לֹ֤א יָֽדְע֨וּ ׀ וְלֹ֥א יָבִ֗ינוּ בַּחֲשֵׁכָ֥ה יִתְהַלָּ֑כוּ יִ֝מֹּ֗וטוּ כָּל־מֹ֥וסְדֵי אָֽרֶץ׃
אֲֽנִי־אָ֭מַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִ֣ים אַתֶּ֑ם וּבְנֵ֖י עֶלְיֹ֣ון כֻּלְּכֶֽם׃
אָ֭כֵן כְּאָדָ֣ם תְּמוּת֑וּן וּכְאַחַ֖ד הַשָּׂרִ֣ים תִּפֹּֽלוּ׃
קוּמָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים שָׁפְטָ֣ה הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־אַתָּ֥ה תִ֝נְחַ֗ל בְּכָל־הַגֹּויִֽם 


Ο ΘΕΟΣ ἔστη ἐν συναγωγῇ θεῶν, ἐν μέσῳ δὲ θεοὺς διακρινεῖ. 2 ἕως πότε κρίνετε ἀδικίαν καὶ πρόσωπα ἁμαρτωλῶν λαμβάνετε; (διάψαλμα). 3 κρίνατε ὀρφανῷ καὶ πτωχῷ, ταπεινὸν καὶ πένητα δικαιώσατε· 4 ἐξέλεσθε πένητα καὶ πτωχόν, ἐκ χειρὸς ἁμαρτωλοῦ ρύσασθε αὐτόν. 5 οὐκ ἔγνωσαν οὐδὲ συνῆκαν, ἐν σκότει διαπορεύονται· σαλευθήσονται πάντα τὰ θεμέλια τῆς γῆς. 6 ἐγὼ εἶπα· θεοί ἐστε καὶ υἱοὶ ῾Υψίστου πάντες· 7 ὑμεῖς δὲ ὡς ἄνθρωποι ἀποθνήσκετε καὶ ὡς εἷς τῶν ἀρχόντων πίπτετε. 8 ἀνάστα, ὁ Θεός, κρίνων τὴν γῆν, ὅτι σὺ κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἔθνεσι.


1. Psalm of Asaph. God stands in the council of the gods; he judges among the gods.
2. How long will you judge unjustly, and show preference to the wicked? Selah.
3. Judge the poor and the orphans; do righteousness to the afflicted and dispossessed.
4. Deliver the poor and oppressed; save them from the hand of the evil.
5. They do not know and they have no understanding; they walk about in darkness. All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6. I said, “You are gods, and children of Elyon, every one of you.”
7. But you will die like mortals, and fall like one of the princes.
8. Rise up, O God, and judge the earth, for you have inherited all the nations.


The questions surround the meaning of the word אֱלֹהִ֣ים, which some insist is used to mean “judges” here. There are several reasons why this reading is not only unlikely, but absolutely precluded. I will explain why the reading has arisen and then explain why it doesn’t work.

The idea that elohim refers to judges and not gods comes from the early Rabbinic texts, namely Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Mishna (b. Ber.6a), Targum Onkelos (Exod 21:6), and the Midrash  (Midr. Ps. 82). The Septuagint appears partially influenced by this thinking, translating Exod 21:6, “the judges of God,” although a similar reading is translated “God” in the next chapter. The “judges” reading, however, was not widely accepted, and other interpretations became mainstream. Christian scholars from the early and mid twentieth century CE appealed to this reading in their commentaries on John (B. F. Westcott, M. J. Lagrange, and R. H. Lightfoot). (The best article on the Christian interpretation of Psalm 82 is Anthony Hanson, “John’s Citation of Psalm 82 Reconsidered,” New Testament Studies 13 [1966-67]: 363-67. A more recent treatment is Jerome H. Neyrey, “I said: You are Gods”: Psalm 82:6 and John 10,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108.4 [Winter 1989]: 647-63.) The outdated Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, hugely popular among students and others without access to the more expensive modern lexicons, lists “rulers, judges” as the first translation of ‘elohim.

Carl Mosser (an Evangelical Christian) recently published a paper called “The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalm 82, Jewish Antecedents, and the Origin of Christian Deification,” Journal of Theological Studies 56.1 (2005): 30-74. In it he discusses the early Christian interpretations of the verse alongside the earliest Jewish beliefs. He points to the earliest appeals to this scripture as indications of early Christian intimations of divinization, but more importantly, divine sonship. The “judges” reading is completely absent from Jewish and Christian texts of this time period.

Michael Heiser, another Evangelical Christian scholar (and a darn good one), translates elohim as “gods,” and states that it should not be translated “judges.” He cites Cyrus Gordon’s paper, “elohim in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54 (1935): 139-44. He also states that Isa 24:21 delineates God’s hosts from the earthly rulers, precluding “judges” as an interpretation for elohim. He then states (as I will state below),

Internal features of Psalm 82 place the argument that elohim in v. 1b and 6a are divine beings and not human judges beyond dispute.

Two other articles he cites that support this are worth mention: W. S. Prinsloo, “Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?”Biblica 76.2 (1995): 219–28; and Lowell Handy, “Sounds, Words and Meanings in Psalm 82,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 47 (1990): 51–66. Heiser’s paper can be found here, and his discussion of Psalm 82 begins on page 10.

Another indication that a correct reading precludes human judges from this chapter are the many Greek translations. The LXX translation I provided above (Ps 81 in LXX) uses the plural of theos to translate elohim, which can only mean “gods.” The Septuagint only uses the word theos to translate elohim, no matter where it appears, although it adds the word for “judges” to the construct pair “judges of God” in Exodus 21.

What these different perspective clearly show is that “judges” was not posited as a valid translation prior to the Rabbinic Period.

Next we’ll take a look a more up-to-date and respected Hebrew lexicon, the Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Koehler and Baumgartner. It should be no surprise that the entry on elohim explains the translation can only be “gods,” or “God.” “Judges” is mentioned as a rare Midrashic translation that is not accurate. Older dictionaries and lexicons are generally based on the early twentieth century Christian apologetic readings of Ps 82 that I discussed above.

The context of this chapter and its rhetorical purpose also preclude the “judges” reading. God is mentioned as a judge, and judging is important to the chapter, but the very obvious wordplay between shafat and shoftim is explicitly avoided. That’s rather bizarre for Hebrew poetry, which is principally built upon wordplay and parallelism. It also doesn’t work when you consider “you are judges” as the antecedent to the clause “but you will die like mortals.” First off, human judges are already mortal. Secondly, nothing about being a judge would render their mortality noteworthy. The conjunction (”but“) clearly indicates the clause stands contrary to the normal course of events. Third, telling a group of judges “you are judges” is rather banal and meaningless. As Heiser puts it (he prefers to use “Adam” where I have translated the word “mortals.” The word can mean both things, in addition to “humanity,” “human,” “man,” etc.):

Consequently, interpreting the phrase “you shall die like Adam” to be referring to human judges would contradict the contrasts required by the syntax.

He cites another article that explains elohim simply cannot mean “judges”: Elmer Smick, “Mythopoetic Language in the Psalms,” Westminster Theological Journal 44 (1982): 95.

Another consideration that bears on this discussion is the history of the usage of the word ‘elohim. The best treatment of the question is Joel Burnett’s recent dissertation, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (SBL Dissertation Series 183; Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001). The first section of his book finds the plural form of the Semitic word for “god” repeatedly used in reference to singular subjects. It occurs numerous times in the Amarna Letters, and at Qatna, Mari, and Taanach. It was originally an abstract plural, similar to the Hebrew word for “fatherhood,” ’abot, which is the plural of ’ab, “father.” Thus ’elohim was originally “divinity,” or “deity.” It’s repeated use in reference to Israel’s god “concretized” the word, making it a proper noun, or title. Its abstract sense was not lost, however, and by the time of the composition of the Hebrew Bible it could be used as an abstraction (“divinity, deity”), a title (“god/God”), a plural title (“gods”), or even adjectively (“divine”). It is used exclusively to reference a specific taxonomic category, specifically those who inhabit the divine realms. Thus it is once or twice used in reference to angels, and once in reference to a dead king (divinity according to Ugaritic literature). It is not used in reference to mortals, irrespective of their position. Exodus 7 is unique, however Moses’ position is only called “divine” in relation to pharaoh. Moses was not made a god, or a ruler, but as divinity in pharaoh’s eyes.

In conclusion, “judges” is simply an apologetic translation appealed to by early Rabbinic texts in an attempt to avoid a monolatrous or polytheist outlook. The translation has been shown to be incorrect, has been shown not to have been used prior to the Rabbinic Period (when Hebrew was virtually a dead language), and has been shown to be rejected outright by contemporary scholars, including prominent Evangelical scholars. The word elohim simply cannot mean “judges.”

This entry was posted in ..

18 comments on “Maklelan: “elohim” in Psalm 82 are not “judges”

  1. Kerry Shirts says:

    Excellent analysis!

  2. James says:

    Yep. Maklelan does some great work here.

  3. James says:

    For those interested, Maklelan’s original posting of this material in its unpolished form can be seen here:

  4. Paul says:

    The ‘elohim’ in Exodus 21 and 22 are obviously judges. Lengthy scholarly sounding arguments about Psalm 82 don’t change that.

    • Daniel O. McClellan says:

      I suggest you take a look at Gordon’s 1935 article where he shows Assyro-Babylonian parallels for the idea of bringing suspected criminals before idols to swear an oath concerning their innocence. The vernacular is identical and provides an explication for the rather bizarre biblical language. I cover the article briefly in a blog post of my own on this subject:

    • Yosef says:

      How do you deal with Jesus’ statement in John 10 when referring to those is Psalm 82 in his denial of being and claiming to be the Son of God? He compares the identity to those is Psalm 82 in direct relation to himself to deny that he is (g)od. Notice the little ‘g’ in god as those accusing him would never have thought he could be the almighty God (YHVH), but rather claiming to be a god (superior). If you take the NT as a credible document then Jesus’ statement holds weight in defining whom the ‘elohim’ are in Psalm 82.

    • James says:

      Hello Yosef. You can see how I deal with John 10 here:

      I’m curious about your interpretation of John 10. Feel free to share your thoughts about it over at my other blog post provided in the link above.

  5. Raul says:

    more of a question. does the small ‘e’ have any signifiance? in other words would Elohim have any different meaning than elohim? thanks

  6. James says:

    Hi Raul. I don’t really know Hebrew, but I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as capitalization in Hebrew. We only capitalize it in English but it doesn’t have anything to do with the original Hebrew.

    Someone who knows more than me might say otherwise.

  7. Robert Boylan says:

    In Biblical Hebrew, there is no upper-case and lower-case letters, as one finds in other alphabets, such as the Latin and Greek alphabets.

    Robert B (who studied Hebrew at a University-level)

  8. Juan from Miami says:

    Your commentary was very useful.

    However, I think understanding of “Elohim” can be correct in both ways.

    1) That the psalm had a present application for Israel. Where God is calling to judgment Israel’s princes.

    2) That the psalm has an apocalyptic meaning. Where Jesus, in John 10, is saying he is the fulfillment of the psalm 82 and He as God will judge heavenly rulers and principalities.


    I feel like that the witness the Lord puts in my hearts when I read verse 1. It seems like God is sitting down to judge, and its a serious and great matter at hand.

  9. You’ve got to be kidding me…The reviewer “Meklelan” is saying the Septuagint is inspired by Rabbinic commentary? The Septuagint was translated by Jews for Jews around 200BC, and used as the source of Scripture everywhere in the Greek speaking Diaspora outside Jerusalem…That’s 400 years before the Talmudic literature was composed. Of course it’s translated as theos, but does that speak at all to its context? As another poster mentioned, John 10, from Christ Himself, is a great explanation for the context of this. ‘gods’ is rulers, or gods by grace.

    • James says:

      I think you’ve misread the commentary here, Michael. The wording of the Septuagint was not inspired by Rabbinic commentary, but the interpretation of “elohim” in Psalm 82 is inspired by Rabbinic commentary.

      John 10 does not help your case. I quote Professor Daniel Peterson of BYU:

      “But there is another and, for Christians, more fundamental problem. It does not seem that Jesus’ citation of a metaphorical use of the term god, as applied to human beings, would go very far toward justifying his ascription to himself of literal divinity. So understood, Jesus would seem merely to be playing a word game, practicing a semantic sleight of hand, and, in fact, to be committing the logical fallacy of equivocation, wherein a word surreptitiously changes its meaning from one part of an argument to another. (The point of Jesus’ argument is not that the Jews are unrighteous judges, but that it is not blasphemy for him to call himself divine.) It would be as if someone were declaring himself, madly enough, to be a vast ball of fusion-inflamed gases. We would scarcely be convinced if he were to offer, as evidence for the plausibility of his assertion, the fact that Rudolph Valentino, Lucille Ball, and John Wayne are generally called stars, and to demand that we, in fairness, grant the same title to him.”

  10. James,

    There is a problem, further, with assuming that the interpretation in Psalm 82 of gods is anything other than rulers. The early Church simply did not receive it as otherwise. Review page 145:

    This is the Apostolic Tradition of its reception, not Talmudic Rabbinic commentary as developed in later times from an entirely different group and tradition.

  11. Alasdair Maclean says:

    I also agree that the ones Yahweh is speaking to are gods. I don’t mean that they are like the LORD God who is unique compared to these create beings. Yahweh put those “gods” in charge of the nations at the Tower of Babel as Yahweh had enough of the people. So Yahweh put some of the Angels in charge over the 70 nations.
    However, these beings in Psalm 82 are those whom God is judging because of their wickedness inflicted upon mankind. God said “you are gods, sons of the Most High, but you shall die like men”. No one wants to be associated with these gods in Psalm 82 because they are to judged and will die like men.
    The Bible calls the gods of the other nations Demons (Deuteronomy 32:17). All the gods in the Old Testament are demonic entities that the LORD will judge.

    They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.

    The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Dt 32:17).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s