אלהים Does Not Mean “Judges”

Something I run across rather frequently on the internet and occasionally in person is the idea that the Hebrew אלהים was used to make reference to human rulers or judges. Some are quick to point out that the BDB gives “rulers, judges” as the first definitions for the word. Some modern translations of the Bible even render these verses with “judges.” My intention today is to explain that this is simply wrong. Cyrus Gordon addressed this issue in JBL (54.3 [1935]: 139-44), and that pretty much settled the issue for academia, save a short note on Psalm 82 by one Roger O’Callaghan in CBQ (15 [1953]: 311-14) that was never considered very convincing.

The main texts from which this idea derives are Exod 21:6; 22:7, 8, 9; 22:27; Judg 5:8; 1 Sam 2:25; Ps 82:1, 6; 138:1. In Onkelos and the Peshitta Exod 21:6 (Herbew = והגישו אדניו אל־האלהים) has the word “judges” in Aramaic and Syriac, respectively. The Septuagint has  τὸ κριτήριον τοῦ Θεοῦ, or “the tribunal of God.” These readings are based on two ideas: (1) we certainly can’t translate it “God,” or, even worse, “gods,” and (2) the context is juridical.  The Septuagint does less damage to the text, but they all misrepresent it. Deuteronomy 15:17, where this law is repeated, omits the entire beginning clause. In Exod 22:27 (“You shall neither curse the gods nor curse a ruler of your people”) the Septuagint and the Vulgate both leave the word “gods,” but Onkelos uses “judges.” Several later Rabbinic texts would follow Onkelos, although interpretations and translations varied.

The rationale behind these translations is no longer an acceptable excuse for seeking out an alternative translation. To begin with, the presence of numerous gods thoughout the Hebrew Bible that exist with God’s approbation and even act under his authority is unquestionable. Divine Council ideology pervades every historical layer of biblical literature, from the monarchy (and before) to the late Second Temple Period.  This council acted in an administrative capacity, but also in a juridical one. Psalm 82 is the best example of this, where YHWH judges in the midst of other judging deities. He condemns them for their neglect vis-a-vis humanity and is called upon by the psalter to rise up and take over their stewardships. Gods, then, are perfectly comfortable as judges in human juridical contexts. Verse 6 precludes reading the אלהים as humans, since their death, which will be like that of humanity, is strongly contrasted with their nature as sons of Elyon. The word אכן, especially in connection with אמרתי, marks a strong contrast. See Isa 49:4; Zeph 3:7; Ps 31:23; Jb 32:8.  כאדם is frontloaded and emphasized, and there is nowhere in the Bible to find a justification for the idea that the בני אל can be considered humans.

Others have argued that the “come before the gods” passages refers to תרפים, which are “household gods,” or penates. This is another possibility. Gordon’s paper points out several Assyro-Babylonian parallels where oaths were sworn to the gods and where judgments were passed because individuals were afraid to swear before the gods. He also points out a Nuzi tablet (N 1.89.10-12) that has an Akkadian phrase that is identical to the Hebrew קרב אל־האלהים, “come before God/the gods.” That Akkadian phrase, ana ilani qarabu, uses ilani to mean penates.

These examples show that there is no reason to search for a different meaning for אלהים. The context does not support a reading of “judges,” but strongly supports “gods,” or “God.” Rejecting it based on the idea that it isn’t monotheistic ignores Israel’s history and some of the most prevalent literary conventions used in the Hebrew Bible. In sum, אלהים does not mean “judges.”

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23 responses to “אלהים Does Not Mean “Judges”

  • Claude Mariottini

    James,

    Thank you for this good post. I agree with your conclusions.

    I have argued the same issue before, but some people are afraid to say that if we use the words “gods” then this use contradicts the monotheism of the Hebrew Bible.

    Claude Mariottini

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the kind words Claude. I think that is the main objection to that reading, and I think it’s a shame that objection is so strong.

  • Nick

    The correct word is gods, and do remember the words of Christ, where He quotes the Scriptures which call the Jewish leaders “gods”. They act as representatives, vicars, or ambassadors of God, and so, are called gods, or, in other places, sons of God. In an interesting twist, the Jews were expecting a true son of God to come to establish eternal peace; but they didn’t actually think the Messiah would literally be the Son of God!

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment Nick. This is not an uncommon reading. There is a question of historical layers, though. The New Testament comes from a much different time period than Psalm 82. By this time the monolatry of exilic and pre-exilic Israel had been whittled down to an inclusive monotheism (with the help of Greek thinking) that needed an out for many ideas in the scriptures handed down to them. This is why the angels are suddenly filling the roles of the sons of El (LXX, for instance, usually translates בני אלהים with αγγελος θεου), but a supreme angel ideology was still current. During Jesus’ time (and for a while afterward), these “sons of Elyon” were interpreted a bunch of different ways; among them, the elders of Israel at Sinai, Adam and Eve, and all of Israel upon receiving the law. This is the idea when John 10 was written, but not the idea when Psalm 82 was written.

  • Rick Wadholm Jr

    “the presence of numerous gods thoughout the Hebrew Bible that exist with God’s approbation and even act under his authority is unquestionable.”

    WOW! Talk about a highly suspect over-reach…what do you mean by “the presence of numerous gods”?

    Also, the early dating of Ps. 82 seems to me to be rather presumptuous (and more in line with an evolutionary theory of the development of monotheism than anything explicit in the text). I find it rather interesting that you were so dismissive of Christ’s interpretation of the text.

    The argument that they will “die like the men, and fall like every other prince” seems to only be spoken as a strong contrastive to their stature (and all the inherent blessings of life that pertain to such) as ‘gods’, [that is as] sons of the Most High (Elyon).

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments, Rick. By “the presence of numerous gods” I mean the belief that YHWH was one of 70 sons of Elohim/Elyon who were given stewardships over the several nations of the earth. This is manifested in Deut 32:8-9, 43; 4:19; Psalm 29; 82; 89.

      Psalm 82 appeals to very early ideology, since it has YHWH as a subordinate of Elyon in the council, but it is subsequent to Deut 32:8-9, and so probably dates to around the time of the exile. Monotheism didn’t evolve so much as develop as Israel responded to their status with theological rhetoric, which incorporated whatever ideas were a part of its cultural milieu.

      The contrast in vv. 6-7 is in the nature of their dying. The word כאדם is frontloaded, meaning it’s emphasized. It’s not stature being contrasted, but taxonomy. Gods will die as if they were human. That’s the emphasis.

  • Rick Wadholm Jr

    Thank you for your response Daniel. I suppose that your presuppositions about ‘YHWH’ and ‘El’ are helpful to an overall Mormon theological structure. It certainly would benefit Mormon monolatristic (?) theology if what you propose is true, but I do not find YHWH to be different from ‘El’, in the Hebrew Bible…He is ontologically indistinguishable and in fact identical. To speak of ‘El’ is to speak of YHWH and vice versa. The passages which you referred to in no way make your case (neither implicitly, nor especially explicitly). The way I understand the emphatic כאדם is that it is being used much as the notion of ‘goyyim’. It is to say that though they were ‘sons of Elyon’ (elect and therefore blessed with life) they are in fact going to die ‘like man’ (as the unelect and therefore experiencing death and suffering as all the other nations) indeed like every other prince or leader. Instead of experiencing the promise of life and blessing (through covenant obedience), they will experience the promise of death and the curse (through covenant disobedience).

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Rick-

      Thanks for the comments. I appreciate that you take the time to respond. By way of clarification, my position has nothing to do with Mormonism. That may seem unlikely, but I think you’d be hard pressed to support the notion that my conclusions regarding YHWH as an Israelite analog to Baal and one of El’s seventy sons, or teraphim as legitimate judges, is sound Mormon doctrine. My conclusions do not at all depart from the mainstream of biblical scholarship.

      As far as the separation of YHWH and El, I discussed this in another post:

      http://danielomcclellan.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/decoupling-yhwh-and-el/

      Your reading of “as humanity” is not uncommon, but I believe it reads into the text a context that is not found except through the importation of unrelated ideologies. On the other hand, the only other instance of the phrase בני עליון is from Deut 32:8-9. That combined with the mention of rule of the nations makes it pretty clear to what this psalm is referring, and how the context should be understood. That’s my reading, but I am always open to new ideas.

      • Rick Wadholm Jr

        Daniel,
        Interesting blog post that you linked to. I do recognize that much of ‘the mainstream of Biblical scholarship’ would agree with many of your presuppositions (I simply do not fit into that mold). I do enjoy reading your blog (even when I disagree with your presuppositions and/or conclusions). You are typically very thought provoking. I still find the idea of Ugaritic and/or Akkadian pantheonistic as bearing a direct (unfiltered?) influence upon the text of the Hebrew Bible to be quite a stretch. While the religious influence is apparent upon the practice of Israel throughout their history this is outright condemned through the text of Israel. In fact, the text stands as prophetic condemnation (even when recording the history of such events without explicity immediate condemnation of such) of the very things which the ‘other nations’ were doing and which Israel freely participated in as well. In other words, I see the text of Israel and the practice of Israel to be in conflict. It would seem that ‘mainstream’ Biblical scholars tend instead to see the practice to be tied to an ‘early’ form of the text. While this might be theoretically possible, I find it textual weak.

        Keep up the great posts though!

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Rick-

    Thanks for the kind words. I wouldn’t call the Ugaritic and Assyro-Babylonian influence unfiltered. I would say they are all drawing from the same ideological matrix, with the regional and cultural proximity of Ugarit to Israel accounting for the closer similarities between the two. Many of the differences are significant, but they seem to draw upon the same fundamental structures around which to form their narratives.

  • Rameumptom

    I think Job 1 is a perfect example of Daniel’s points. Satan (Adversary) and other sons of El go to challenge Yahweh for primacy over the nation of Israel.
    There is no other easy or clear way to read Job 1, except through this ancient lens of El Elyon having divine sons/gods that are all in competition with each other.
    There is a clear belief that Yahweh is not the only son of El, nor that he stands alone as the only existing God. Rather, we have him being challenged, not by underlings, but by peers.

  • Hebrew Scholar

    Thanks for your post, but I am not convinced, since (as you say) both the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos and the Syriac Peshitta translate elohim as judges, and elohim also being used of human rulers elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Onkelos and the Peshitta were translated by Jews who knew both Hebrew and Aramaic inside out, and if that is how they understood the word in this verse, it should be final. They saw the judges as being inspired like Moses, and hence when you went before a judges which Moses appointed, it was as if you were going before God (Elohim) himself.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments. I’m going to have to disagree, though. It is constantly asserted that elohim is used in reference to human rulers or judges elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, but I know of no single instance where this is the case. No such reading is demanded or even preferred anywhere. Exod 7:1 certainly doesn’t equate elohim with humans. It just says that Moses will be made to seem divine to pharaoh. If we understand elohim to mean human ruler or judge it makes no sense in the context. It only works if elohim means “divine/divinity.” The reference to Samuel doesn’t work, since Samuel’s spirit isn’t represented in the mortal world but in a heavenly one (and that’s one of the primary distinctions).

      The translators of Onkelos and Peshitta knew Hebrew fairly well as a written language, but not well as a spoken one (and they even had issues understanding a lot of written Hebrew). It’s really irrelevant in the end, though, since the development of their interpretation of elohim has no bearing whatsoever on its meaning in the Hebrew Bible. In addition, the only instances where their reading is posited are those verses where it undermines strict monotheism to interpret it traditionally. Since it’s absolutely clear that the Hebrew Bible maintains no strict monotheistic outlook, such a reinterpretation of the word is unnecessary. Onkelos and Peshitta cannot be appealed to, all by themselves, in an effort to support an understanding of a Hebrew word as it was used centuries before them. LXX is much closer, and it doesn’t support them. The etymology also undermines them.

  • Zeus

    I think you’re nuts.

  • Calba Savua

    Onkelos was an ideological translation meant to establish a certain rabbinic POV. Like much rabbinic work, it is geared towards what was once the then-and-now.
    Personally I’m not even sure that Onkelos considers elohim as human judges, but is trying to convey a lesson to its readers on how they should act. I admit that this is as of yet still an hypothesis.
    The talmuds, mishna and tosefta certainly don’t refer to human judges as elohim.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      From the top of my head I seem to recall Onkelos using rbrby(‘/n), or “rulers/powerful ones,” to translate אלהים in Exodus 22:8 and in some other places that make mention of the sons of God, the angels of God, and other gods (Gen 3:5; 33:10; maybe even 6:2?). I recently attended a lecture from Robert Hayward where he seemed to be saying they used vague vernacular in places like this so they could consolidate these sticky verses into a unifying ideology. That may be something worth looking into.

  • Calba Savua

    I looked, in Ex 22:8 it is dayana, the judge. In Gen 3:5 Elohim is Yeya, but Adam and Eve will be as rbryn. Definitely something to look into.

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  • WalkerW

    I was wondering what you thought of David P. Wright’s view of Ex. 21:6 and Gordon’s take on the Nuzi tablets. See Wright’s footnote #74 on pg. 462 in ‘Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi’ (Oxford: 2009). He seems to somewhat reject Gordon’s association of ‘elohim’ with the household deities (I think Heiser does the same).

    Then again, I just barely starting looking at the book. I could have misunderstood him completely.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I got the same impression, but I haven’t sat down to read it carefully. At some point I’ll get around to it.

  • WalkerW

    “Just barely starting looking”

    Me no speak English. I changed how I wanted to say it without adjusting the grammar.

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    [...] Simply put, the Hebrew אלהים never referred to human judges. I have discussed this previously here, but I have provided a more detailed discussion in this document. For this review, I make some [...]

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