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 : 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 : 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 (Hebrew = 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 throughout 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.”