Scholarly Hubris, James White, and Psalm 82

I recently commented on Michael Heiser’s posts about ETS, Psalm 82, and James White, and his discussion has catalyzed further posts from others that I thought merited some attention. I’d like to comment more fully on the arguments put forth by the Alpha & Omega Ministries vis-à-vis Psalm 82, as well.

A&O Ministries Responses

I’ll start with James White and Alpha & Omega Ministries. I’ve written a post responding to James’ critique here of Michael’s position regarding deities vs. humans in Psalm 82. It is rather lengthy, and deals point by point with his comments, so I’ve put it in PDF form and posted it online here. I will summarize by stating James’ criticisms fall well short of substantiating his position. Heiser’s thesis, that Psalm 82 refers to gods and not humans, is supported by the literary and grammatical context, and James doesn’t really engage either. I’ve not rehashed Michael’s discussion in the post, but those interested in his argument can find his ETS paper here. I agree with Michael that one would have to address the issues he brings up in order to undermine his reading. Simply asserting a different reading with only token jabs in the direction of his argument will not do the trick.

One of James’ colleagues, going by the moniker Tur8infan, has also posted a response to Michael (here). This post makes a much more concerted effort to respond to the literary context, but also misses the mark with some rather peculiar exegesis. For instance, he states, “God accuses these judges of judging unjustly, and particularly accepting the bribes of the wicked.” I find no mention of bribes anywhere in Psalm 82. Ps 82:2 asks (literally), “How long will you render iniquitous judgment and lift up the faces of the wicked?” To “lift up the face” of someone is to show them favor or partiality. The notion that bribery is compelling this partiality is not found in the text. Why does Tur8infan read it into the text? It’s a lot easier to read the text as a reference to human judges if it references bribery. Gods would have no need of bribery. Whether Tur8infan simply misreads the text or intentionally skews it in favor of his reading is unclear.

Tur8infan then goes on to argue that Michael’s argument regarding Ps 82:6–7 is problematic. Michael argues (as do I) that the combination of אמרתי and אכן in those two verses combine to rhetorically assert a stark and unexpected contrast. Since the first verse highlights the divine nature of the beings in question, and the second highlights the fact that they will die “as humanity,” we must understand the contrast to be between their nature as gods and the fact of their impending deaths (which are never narrated anywhere).  Tur8infan argues, however, that כאדם, “as humanity,” is used elsewhere (Job 31:33; Hos 6:7) in ways that point to identification with humanity and not distinction from it. This is specious reasoning, though. The two examples use the term in drastically different contexts, and the end result is still a reference to behavior characteristic of humanity (or of a particular human). That’s exactly the usage in Ps 82:7, only parallel passage contrasts that behavior with the nature of divinity. He goes on to argue that reading “one of the princes” in the second half of Ps 82:7 supports reading the first half “as a man,” or even “as Adam,” rather than the collective “humanity,” since the former are singular. How this argument undermines Michael’s reading is beyond me, but the collective “humanity” is still morphologically singular in Hebrew, and so his argument has little force. He concludes this section:

The best sense of the text is that God is warning these judges of their impending doom. We might paraphrase God’s comment as: “Everyone dies (both ordinary men and princes), and you won’t be an exception.” Dr. Heiser views the comment from God as a sentence imposed on the judges, and – of course – death is a sentence for sin. It is sufficient, however, to simply view this as a proclamation of the doom that awaits unjust judges. They must die and come before the Judge of judges to answer for their injustice.

This neglects to respond to the problem of the contrast drawn between vv. 6 and 7, and it doesn’t really explain how the two previous arguments support this conclusion. At the conclusion he appears to respond to the question of this contrast, but seems to misunderstand the difference between a “contrast” and a “negative consequence”:

Dr. Heiser’s comment that “This sounds as awkward as sentencing a child to grow up or a dog to bark,” seems to fail to appreciate the very different negative consequences of dying as opposed to growing up (unless one is Peter Pan) or barking. A better comparison would be the comparison in the Proverbs:

Proverbs 26:11 As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.

Cautioning the fool that he will return to his folly or a dog to his vomit is not an empty statement devoid of negative connotation. Indeed, the apostle Peter refers us to this very proverb:

2 Peter 2:22 But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.

Even so, contrary to Dr. Heiser’s suggestion that “The point of verse 6 is that, in response to their corruption, the [elohim] will be stripped of their immortality at God’s discretion and die as humans die,” the point is that these judges should be aware of their mortality and the impending judgment of God.

Tur8infan then discusses allusions to earlier sections of the Pentateuch. He states,

Dr. White has already addressed more than sufficiently the relationship of this text with the New Testament. That by itself should be a sufficient basis for rejecting Dr. Heiser’s position. Nevertheless, the Old Testament also provides additional light.

First, James White does not hold a recognized doctorate. I don’t know why he is called “Dr.” here. This page lists a “Dr. James White” as a “Critical Consultant for the NASB Update.” If this refers to the same James White, it is also mistaken. Perhaps this has slipped by James, but I wonder if he is willing to offer a correction.

Next, James’ arguments from the New Testament only hold if one presupposes the univocality of the Bible. I do not. In fact, biblical univocality is flatly precluded (see here). There are far too many ideological and factual disagreements between the testaments and books, and even within books, to assert that the Bible is unified from beginning to end. Tur8infan goes on:

The question is, where did God describe these unjust judges as “gods” (elohim)? It seems unlikely that this is simply a reference back to verse 1 of the psalm, though we cannot completely eliminate the possibility.

There are several places where judges are referred to as “elohim” in the Pentateuch:

Exodus 21:6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges (elohim); he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

Exodus 22:8-9

If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges (elohim), to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods. For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, which another challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges (elohim); and whom the judges (elohim) shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour.

Exodus 22:28 Thou shalt not revile the gods (elohim), nor curse the ruler of thy people.

And beyond the Pentateuch:

1 Samuel 2:25 If one man sin against another, the judge (elohim) shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD, who shall intreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them.

It should be noted, of course, that although that is the KJV’s translation of the verses, as is so often the case, many of the modern translations disagree, using “God” instead of judges. Probably the strongest of these verses is Exodus 22:28, in that it provides a parallel between “reviling the gods” and “cursing the ruler of thy people,” which serves to demonstrate that the two concepts are analogous.

I’ve dealt with these texts here, and will reiterate that the word elohim simply does not mean “judges” or “rulers.” There is plenty of scholarship on this issue (see pp. 255–58 here, for instance), but Tur8infan does not address it and is likely not aware of it. I’ve come across a single publication from the last 75 years which defends the reading “judges” at Exod 21:6 and 22:8–9. It dismisses reading the text as a reference to deities simply because teraphim are “almost always condemned directly” by the biblical text, and thus, “It is inconceivable that this law, or any of the laws, of which God has said, ‘these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them’ (Ex. 21:1), would contain an injunction to go before the teraphim” (J. Robert Vannoy, “The Use of the Word ha-elohim in Ex 21:6 and 22:7, 8,” in The Law and the Prophets [Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974], 228–29). The author then goes on to list texts from Exodus 20 and 23 which he feels preclude reading “gods” in Exod 21 and 22. Again, univocality is presupposed. That the texts in question might represent older laws which were incorporated verbatim into the Covenant Code (a well established practice) is not addressed. The author rejects the idea that the text refers specifically to Israel’s God (the conclusion favored by most these days) because the verb in Exod 22:8 is plural (which is not unheard of in reference to God), and because bringing someone “before God” sounds vague to the author and might just refer to bringing someone before God’s representatives. See Wright’s book, linked to above, for further discussion of why “judges” is unacceptable.

Scholarly Hubris

James White’s most recent post on A&O Ministries chides Michael Heiser for what James calls “scholarly hubris.” Because Michael would prefer to engage this discussion on an academic level rather than a purely devotional one, James takes issue. He states,

Heiser is basically attempting to “pull rank” based upon some kind of academic authority

Never mind that Michael has provided a rather detailed argument that James’ post manages to never acknowledge. James is also in disagreement because he feels their debate must presuppose the univocality of scripture, and that Michael isn’t playing by the rules:

I do not apologize for calling for an interpretation of sacred scripture that actually takes the entirety of its revelation into consideration.

Can James defend this presupposition on academic grounds? Certainly not. James appears to be criticizing Michael for his academic integrity. For James, such “integrity” is worthless, as it neglects what James believes to be the primary (sole?) purpose of Evangelical scholarship:

Christian scholarship is a practice of SERVANTHOOD, period, end of discussion.

For James, Evangelical scholarship must “edify the body.” He concludes:

We have different audiences, to be sure. But I refuse to give up the middle, balanced ground we have staked out over the decades. On the one side you have the likes of Dave Hunt, who mocks all study of the original languages (except when it suits his purposes). He represents the reprehensible attack upon serious study of the biblical text that is so common in certain elements of evangelicalism. On the other hand you have the attitude expressed by Heiser here, which elevates the academy above the church, makes “peer review” the standard rather than the expression of the mind of the church in the wisdom of those men called as elders whose duty it is to actually teach and preach the Word of God, so that the edification of the body and training in godliness and truth becomes a mere “by-product” of the all-important intellectual activity of the academy. Hebrew and Greek are vital, but if you become so focused upon the languages so as to lose the balance and harmony of all of Scripture, well…you are not helping yourself or anyone else.

In other words, facts are only useful insofar as they support one’s religious dogmas. Once they stop doing that, they’re “unbalanced,” and useless.

A Rarity

Nick Norelli has responded to Michael’s comment by pointing out that he didn’t find James’ original post to be impugning Heiser. After reading over it carefully, I must agree that I don’t see much in the way of impugning (aside from his implication concerning Michael’s “scholarship”). The tone, for the most part, is not unlike the tone of many academic papers, although you do get the sense James feels he is condescending to address these questions, as if his time is much to valuable for those misguided academicians. James’ more recent response, however, appeals with much more regularity to ad hominem to mask its refusal to respond to the points of Michael’s argument. Regarding Nick’s agreement about Psalm 82 referring to humans and not deities, I would point to Michael’s ETS paper and my discussion here and in the short response to James that I put online. I think Psalm 82 is a fascinating text and would love to see more discussion of it on the blogs.

Conclusion

I think Michael is doing an important service to his faith community by bringing these issues to light and trying to help them understand the biblical text better. I have attended universities with Latter-day Saint and Evangelical biases, and a primary concern among students and professors in both is how to help wider lay audiences come to better understand what the Bible really says instead of just letting them perpetuate traditional dogmas, especially where they are at odds with the texts (I’ve also attended a strictly secular university). Michael is taking a big step in that direction, and I appreciate that.


8 responses to “Scholarly Hubris, James White, and Psalm 82

  • Tweets that mention Scholarly Hubris, James White, and Psalm 82 « Daniel O. McClellan -- Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve D., Evangelical. Evangelical said: Scholarly Hubris, James White, and Psalm 82 « Daniel O. McClellan http://bit.ly/e4KZa1 #Jesus #christ #god [...]

  • Chris

    For what it is worth (not much most likely), Deut 10:17 & 2 Chr 19:7 both mention elohim in relation to taking bribes — the text seems to definitely suggest that some elohim were involved in taking of bribes.

    Thoughts?

    P.S. I am not Tur8infan but someone who follows this blog and [now] Dr. Heiser’s.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment, Christ, and for bringing up these two texts. They cast a bit more light on the situation in Psalm 82, especially since the Deut text comes from around the same time period. Notice the reference to the orphans and widows again, and even the provision of food and clothing (Deut 10:18). These are things Yhwh provides. They are the purview of the deity who has responsibility for the nation, not the nation’s judges. Both texts also list “lifting up faces” (נשא פנים), or “partiality,” separate from “taking bribes” (לקח שחד), showing that they’re not the same thing. The Chronicles text provides an exhortation to newly assigned judges (and does not mention the orphans or widows). They must not pervert justice. Yhwh wouldn’t take a bribe, and you represent him, so you shouldn’t either. I think it would be a stretch to suggest, based only on these verses, that some elohim were taking bribes. Rather it seems Yhwh is promoting himself according to the ideals held by the community to which he is talking. He will maintain cosmic order. I don’t think it unlikely that these texts at least partially have Psalm 82 in view. It should also be noted that there is no indication in the Chronicles text that the judges were considered nominally divine or given any special recognition with any divine epithet, nor is the punishment for their failure to maintain justice at all associated with that of the elohim in Psalm 82.

      • Chris

        Daniel,

        Thanks for the reply! Has anyone take the opposite stance, that elohim is not divine? (I think you’d have to leave out Gen 1 for that but…)

        It often crosses my mind that our “big” view of God may be much larger than the ancient’s view of the nature of God. For example, an ancient might view God as really being “up there” above that “blue stuff”, whereas we know that space exists above the sky and seems to be infinite and God then must be even more infinite (so to speak – limitation of language here)

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    No problem, Chris. I appreciate the dialogue. Our view of the divine is definitely far more transcendent and spiritual than that of early Israel. A good illustration of a common cosmological outlook from roughly that time period is found here:

    http://skepticblog.org/wp-content/uploads/heaven_of_heavens.jpg

    They certainly viewed deity as anthropomorphic and as living on a higher plane than the rest of us. Their views were in constant flux and were probably never synchronically consistent, though, so it’s not helpful to speak broadly about it. Joel Burnett’s book, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim, is the best contemporary look at what the word means in the Hebrew Bible.

  • Biblical Studies Carnival נז (November 2010) | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

    [...] in two separate papers, and provides links to both papers. Discussion ensued in a detailed post by Daniel McClellan and a post by Nick Norelli (Rightly Dividing the Word of [...]

  • diglot

    Great read! Your response to White (in the PDF file you linked to) has helped me understand better the arguments supporting the consensus interpretation of Psalm 82.

  • When the New Testament Misreads the Hebrew Bible « Daniel O. McClellan

    [...] my previous discussion of James White’s reading of Psalm 82 I pointed out that James appeals fallaciously to the [...]

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 246 other followers

%d bloggers like this: