NET Bible Footnote on Exod 21:6

In a recent discussion someone referred me to a footnote in the NET Bible for Exod 21:6 regarding the proper understanding of the verse’s use of אלהים. I had cited a 1935 JBL paper by Cyrus Gordon regarding the proclivity of early lexica to offer “judges” or “rulers” as a translation equivalent for אלהים and the person told me they didn’t think I’d actually read the paper, given the footnote they found, which follows:

The word is הָאֱלֹהִים (haelohim). S. R. Driver (Exodus, 211) says the phrase means “to God,” namely the nearest sanctuary in order that the oath and the ritual might be made solemn, although he does say that it would be done by human judges. That the reference is to Yahweh God is the view also of F. C. Fensham, “New Light on Exodus 21:7 and 22:7 from the Laws of Eshnunna,” JBL 78 (1959): 160-61. Cf. also ASV, NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, NLT. Others have made a stronger case that it refers to judges who acted on behalf of God; see C. Gordon, “אלהים in its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” JBL 54 (1935): 134-44; and A. E. Draffkorn, “Ilani/Elohim,” JBL 76 (1957): 216-24; cf. KJV, NIV.

I’ve discussed this issue before here. The bold portion above is a completely inaccurate description of the two articles. In neither article can I find a reference to the idea that אלהים is at all associated with human judges. Both articles, in fact, argue that the word should be seen as analogous to ilâni from the Nuzi tablets. Thus the reference is to statuettes that represent deities (teraphim). The individual would be brought before the statuettes to swear an oath or perform a certain ritual. From Gordon’s article:

Thus the oath of the gods is a well attested ceremony in ancient oriental court procedure and there is no doubt that the same ceremony is indicated by ונקרב בעל־הבית אל־האלהים. It is interesting to note that this idiom, קרב אל־האלהים, is found in its exact Akkadian counterpart in the Nuzi tablets (N I 89:10-12) ana ilâni qarâbu, where the ilâni mean the תרפים.

From the Draffkorn article:

C. H. Gordon was able to point out in a brief study that the term ilâni ‘gods’ was used in Nuzi legal texts in ways that closely paralleled some of the atypical occurrences of OT elohim. These parallels, he concluded, militated against the traditional rendering “judges.” Gordon’s view is borne out by further material that has since come to light.

The article then goes on to provide more insight into the nature and use of the teraphim, before whom the various cases would b dbrought. The reason for the misunderstanding which resulted in the late “judges” translation is also explained:

Nor need we look far for the reason behind the traditional rendering “judges.” The only alternative available to the ancients was “gods,” and this would have come close to idolatry. The use, on the other hand, of divine symbols as aids in deadlocked legal cases must have been discontinued far too early to leave any impression on traditional interpretations.

It seems that whoever is responsible for the footnote here in the NET Bible either didn’t read those two articles, or is being dishonest about what exactly they say.


5 responses to “NET Bible Footnote on Exod 21:6

  • Rick Wadholm Jr

    The articles cited in the NET note do not have to support the notion of “judges” it only has to discuss those who would hold such a view. That is at least how I understand the note. They only appear to be articles cited in support. The note does not however specifically say that. Hope that clarifies.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      But neither article cites scholarship that insists elohim refers to judges acting on God’s behalf. I also find it a little problematic to indirectly cite two articles that explicitly mitigate the view the editor wants to advocate. “cf.” would be more appropriate than “see,” and the individual pages with the references would have been cited, not the entire articles.

      • Rick Wadholm Jr

        Having just read each of the articles…Gordon discusses briefly why he believes elohim was translated as “judges”, even though he rejects this reading. Draffkorn actually suggests they represent a “quasi-judicial” function and while he does not discuss specific translation as “judges” he nevertheless discusses throughout his article the judicial nature of the elohim in Ex.21:6 in relation particularly to the Nuze texts about ilani. One could in fact righly translate elohim in such a context as “judges” while understanding such (in light of the two articles here) as referring to some sort of household gods used in judicial determinations or images associated with the judicial determination of God. So in that sense they would be functionally “judges” of matters needing divine determination/settlement. At least that is my understanding. Also, have you specifically posted your question of the footnote on the Bible.org website? You can actually create a tag on this exact verse in reference to the footnote and propose whatever you think about it and see what they say in return.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the follow up, Rick. I’ll post my comment there and see what they say.

    While I see that, functionally, the gods are acting as judges, I don’t believe the footnote can possibly argue that was the intention of pointing to those articles. The footnote clearly tries to insist the word refers to human judges acting on behalf of deity. Again, we’ll see how they respond.

  • NET Bible Footnote on Prov 8:22 « Daniel O. McClellan

    [...] two years ago I posted a criticism of a footnote in the NET Bible, specifically on Exod 21:6. I pointed out that the papers cited in [...]

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