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׃
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.
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.”