Psalm 82

Here’s the text of the Psalm:

מִזְמֹ֗ור לְאָ֫סָ֥ף אֱ‍ֽלֹהִ֗ים נִצָּ֥ב בַּעֲדַת־אֵ֑ל בְּקֶ֖רֶב אֱלֹהִ֣ים יִשְׁפֹּֽט׃
עַד־מָתַ֥י תִּשְׁפְּטוּ־עָ֑וֶל וּפְנֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים תִּשְׂאוּ־סֶֽלָה׃
שִׁפְטוּ־דַ֥ל וְיָתֹ֑ום עָנִ֖י וָרָ֣שׁ הַצְדִּֽיקוּ׃
פַּלְּטוּ־דַ֥ל וְאֶבְיֹ֑ון מִיַּ֖ד רְשָׁעִ֣ים הַצִּֽילוּ׃
לֹ֤א יָֽדְע֨וּ ׀ וְלֹ֥א יָבִ֗ינוּ בַּחֲשֵׁכָ֥ה יִתְהַלָּ֑כוּ יִ֝מֹּ֗וטוּ כָּל־מֹ֥וסְדֵי אָֽרֶץ׃
אֲ‍ֽנִי־אָ֭מַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִ֣ים אַתֶּ֑ם וּבְנֵ֖י עֶלְיֹ֣ון כֻּלְּכֶֽם׃
אָ֭כֵן כְּאָדָ֣ם תְּמוּת֑וּן וּכְאַחַ֖ד הַשָּׂרִ֣ים תִּפֹּֽלוּ׃
קוּמָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים שָׁפְטָ֣ה הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־אַתָּ֥ה תִ֝נְחַ֗ל בְּכָל־הַגֹּויִֽם

1- A Psalm of Asaph: God stands in the Council of El. In the midst of gods he judges
2 – “How long will you administer iniquity, and show favor to the wicked? Selah.
3 – “Administer to the poor and the orphan. Bring justice to the afflicted and the needy.
4 – “Deliver the poor and the oppressed. Save them from the power of the wicked.”
5 – They do not know, and they have no understanding. In darkness they walk about, and all the foundations of the earth stagger.
6 – I have said, “You are gods, and sons of Elyon, all of you;
7 – “But as humanity you will die, and as one of the princes you will fall.”
8 – Rise up, O God. Judge the earth, for you have taken possession of all the nations.

The first clue to interpretation here is the identification of its genre. It is a hymn of praise that appeals to the Divine Council type-scene.[1] While there is mythic imagery in the psalm, it is most likely not alluding to any actual mythological narrative. It simply draws upon stock literary conventions to produce a short scene that communicates a specific message. While the general message is praise, there is obviously a more specific one as well. In the past, owing to an understanding of word אלהים as referring to human judges, some posited that this psalm condemns the leaders of Israel for negligence. The rhetorical value of such a reading is weak, however, and contributes little to the praise of YHWH. The “judges” reading of אלהים has also been roundly rejected by scholarship, beginning in 1935 with Cyrus Gordon, which has led to the acceptance of a less tendentious reading of the chapter.[2] It is universally recognized as referring to ontological deities.[3] In the text they are arraigned for negligence vis-à-vis the poor and afflicted and are condemned to die. As a result of their sentence, YHWH is said to have inherited all the nations and is called upon by the psalmist to rise up and judge the whole earth. The chapter is thus concerned with the condemnation of the deities mentioned and YHWH’s appropriation of their stewardships. Praise is directed at YHWH for his acquisition of rule over the entire earth and the expected administration of justice.

The next question that arises in understanding the psalm concerns the station of YHWH in the psalm. Is he presiding over the council or is he simply a member? Again, genre helps to illuminate the proper understanding. While a simple judicial context is clear, it is not the primary motif to which the vernacular appeals. That divine council imagery takes priority over a straight juridical type-scene is evident in the psalm’s departure from normal judicial convention. YHWH stands to judge, for instance, which conflicts with biblical representations of court scenes.[4] In the divine council, however, the members of the council stand. They may pass judgment as plaintiffs, but they stand, collectively, before the highest authority, who sits.[5] This is YHWH’s position in the chapter: standing among the other members of the council. Simon B. Parker has suggested two texts that may parallel Psalm 82 literarily.[6] 2 Samuel 15 and KTU 1.16.6.39–54 describe indictments brought by subordinates (David’s son Absalom and Kirta’s son Yassub) against a superior (who is also the father) for neglecting justice. The indictments take the form of speeches and the subordinate demands the ruler turn over authority. While YHWH is not a subordinate of the other gods of the council in Psalm 82, he is a subordinate of Elyon, his father. His indictments also address the gods’s negligence vis-à-vis justice, and the outcome is the relinquishment of rule to YHWH. The psalm thus gives YHWH success where Absalom and Yassub fail.

Another biblical text that supports YHWH’s subordinate status is Deut 32:8–9, which describes the separation of the nations according to the number of the “sons of Elohim.”[7] The text puts YHWH in a position subordinate to that of the head deity, El Elyon.[8] The nations are portioned out to the individual sons of El. YHWH is among them and he receives Israel.[9] Psalm 82 follows Deut 32:8–9, chronologically. While YHWH is a recipient only of the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy, he is called upon to rise and judge the earth after inheriting all the nations in Psalm 82. The other players in the drama, Elyon with his children, are unique to the two texts. These are also the only two texts in the Hebrew Bible that explicitly present Elyon as YHWH’s superior. Some manner of linear literary relationship is beyond doubt.

Elsewhere in the biblical corpus the member of the divine council are referred to variously as the בני אלים (“Sons of God,” but see here),[10] בני אלהים (“Sons of God”),[11] קדשים (“The Holy Ones”),[12] צבא השמים (“The Host of Heaven”),[13] and כוכבי בקר (“The Stars of the Morning”).[14] During periods of increasing contact with Assyro-Babylonian ideology and literature the divine council moved toward a more astral composition, accounting for the use of “Host of Heaven” and “Stars of the Morning” in texts from the late pre-exilic and later. Deut 4:19 manifests one of these late reinterpretations of Deut 32:8–9 and Psalm 82. The author could not extend the literary outcome of Psalm 82 since the deities of the nations continued to exist, and so in Deuteronomy 4 the gods of the nations have been recast as astral bodies. While YHWH is the recipient of a nation portioned out by Elyon in Deuteronomy 32, he is doing the portioning in chapter 4. This puts the composition of chapter 4 chronologically after that of 32 and Psalm 82.[15]

All three texts show a movement toward a consolidated and universalized Israelite deity.[16] This kind of theological innovation has long been understood to be a response to socio-political crises, and the history of Israel’s interactions with foreign powers corresponds to its trajectory. The sins of Israel have caused God to incite another nation under his power to punish them. The same ideology is present in the 9th century Mesha Inscription, which attributes Israel’s oppression of Moab to Chemosh’s anger with “his land,”[17] and the 8th century Sefire Inscription, which attributes the loss of Tal’ayim to the punishment of the gods.[18] Psalm 82 stands at a threshold between a national view of YHWH and a universal one. If the God of Israel was to survive the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian exile a paradigm shift would need to take place that would expand his hegemony beyond Israel to include the Assyro-Babylonian nations to the east, which would be viewed as instruments of punishment in YHWH’s hands.

Some points of summary. The “Sons of Elyon” are considered ontological deities by the author, even if they are nameless and faceless. The foundations of the earth are shaken as a result of their neglecting justice in their several stewardships. Assyria and Babylon’s violent and unjust subjugation of the nations of the Near East are the manifestation of this upheaval. The gods are condemned to die as a result and YHWH is exalted to a position of rule over the whole earth, rationalizing the loss of Israelite autonomy without undermining the authority or power of her deity. The hymn thus updates YHWH’s position and glorifies him as god of all of humanity.


[1] See Min Suc Kee, “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31 (2007): 259–73.

[2] See my post Elohim Does Not Mean “Judges.” Advocates of this reading cite either BDB or the dictionary from Strong’s concordance, which were both published over 100 years ago. No modern lexicon agrees with that reading. As Morgenstern pointed out in 1939, the only modern scholar who has approved of the “judges” reading is Kittel, who later abandoned it. See Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 30 (n. 3). On the contemporary understanding of אלהים in Psalm 82, see Robinson, “The Council of Yahweh,” Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1944): 155; Cooke, “The Sons of (the) God(s),” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 35.1 (1964): 25; Rosenberg, “Yahweh Becomes King,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85. 3 (September 1966): 306; Tsevat, “God and the Gods in Assembly: An Interpretation of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 40/41 (1969–1970):  126; Simon B. Parker, “The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” Revue Biblique 102.4 (1995): 532–59; Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001): 10–13; Kee, “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene,” 262.

[3] It is primarily fundamental Christian apologists who continue to advocate this reading (see, for instance, here and here). The notion that the human-like deaths of the “Sons of Elyon” in v. 6 precludes their divinity is also rejected. See Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 34: “The oft-repeated argument against this conclusion, that it is impossible to conceive of gods dying as men do, we shall see, is altogether gratuitous and mistaken and misses completely the real point of the v. Unquestionably this v. has to do just with gods or divine beings of a certain class who were actually condemned by Yawheh to die, or at least to become mortal, like human beings.”

[4] See Tsevat, “God and the Gods in Assembly: An Interpretation of Psalm 82,” 127–28. Tsevat includes v. 8 in his interpretation of Yahweh’s stance, which is incorrect. V. 8 is the voice of the psalmist. While God is occasionally represented as standing to pass judgment on humanity (Isa 3:13; Ps 76:10), he is acting as the plaintiff (See Parker, “The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” 536–37), and never in a divine council context.

[5] See, for instance, Job 1:6 and 2:1, where the בני אלהים come to “take their stand” (להתיצב) before YHWH. See also Kee, “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene,” 263–68. On occasion the members of the council will be represented in the action of taking their seats, but this is not found in the Hebrew Bible. Heiser has argued that the imperative to rise in v. 8 indicates Yahweh had been seated, but, again, v. 8 is not internal to the narrative.

[6] Parker, “The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” 543–48.

[7] MT has a corruption that has long been evinced in the Septuagint translation “angels of God” (the normal translation of the Hebrew בני אלהים). The Dead Sea Scrolls also attest to the proposed Vorlage to LXX Deut 32:8, בני אלהים. For the most recent scholarship in this text, see Joosten, “A Note on the Text of Deuteronomy xxxii 8,” Vetus Testamentum 57 (2007): 548–55. “Sons of Bull El” would be the translation if Joosten’s theory is correct.

[8] The correct interpretation of v. 9’s כי does not bear on the discussion, as LXX Deut32:9 has και εγενηθη, derived most likely from an original ויהי.

[9] See Eissfeldt, “El and Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies 1.1 (1956): 29–30.

[10] Ps 29:1; 89:7.

[11] Gen 6:2; Job 1:6; 2:2; 38:7.

[12] Deut 33:2, 3; Isa 13:3; Zech 14:5; Prov 9:10; 30:3; Ps 89:6, 8.

[13] Deut 4:19; 17:3; 1 Kgs 22:19; 2 Kgs 17:16; 21:5; 23:4, 5; Isa 34:4; Jer 8:2; 19:13; Jer 33:22; Zeph 1:5; Dan 8:10; Neh 9:6; 2 Chr 18:18; 33:3, 5.

[14] Job 38.7.

[15] This also presents problems for those who insist Deuteronomy rejects the existence of other deities. It explicitly accepts their existence and even states that God has placed them in their positions of authority over the other nations. It is illogical that such would be the case if the foreign gods are considered simple lifeless idols or demons. They are clearly presented as actual deities subordinate to YHWH.

[16] See Rosenberg, “Yahweh Becomes King,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85. 3 (September 1966): 297–307.

[17] Mesha Inscription 1.5. See also Routledge, Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 158.

[18] Sefire Inscription 3.23–25. See Fitzmyer, The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire, Revised Edition (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1995), 40–41.


11 responses to “Psalm 82

  • Zakuska

    Is there any illusion in the Pslam that these Dieties that are being judged might just be some of the Angels (“sons of God”) identified in Duet 32:8 that where placed as stewards over the other nations?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I think this is the main thrust of the psalm. The author inherits a text that says (twice) that God set the other gods up over the nations. He decides that he wants YHWH to be over all the nations, so he asserts that they were all negligent, leaving YHWH to condemn them and take over their stewardships. Now YHWH gets to rule the whole earth and the earlier text isn’t undermined. This is another reason YHWH must be read as a subordinate of Elyon. If he is the boss the whole time the psalm makes little sense.

  • Zakuska

    Good stuff Mak!

    I read an ECF, Justin Marytr IIRC, who interpreted the pslams as refering to the Fall of Adam and his eventual judgment and return to his former glory.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      This was a common interpretation during that time period. Justin Martyr also claimed that it was blasphemy to say the “Sons of Elohim” were anything other than men, but the Hebrew Bible clearly refers to other gods on numerous occasions, and the word elohim is never used to mean anything human. It is very rarely used metaphorically in reference to a human, but it is always explicit when this is the case, as in Exodus 7.

  • David Bokovoy

    Thanks Daniel. This is a very nice summary and I’m really looking forward to seeing a completed article from you on the subject.

    In the summary, you automatically assume that the deity who stands is YHWH, even though the text uses the divine name elohim.

    I with you BTW on this reading, but wondering if you assume that an editor changed the divine name from YHWH to Elohim or whether Elohim is perhaps original to the text?

    Best,

    –DB

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments, David. If you look at the earlier articles on Psalm 82, like Morgenstern there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the idea that YHWH should be restored to verse 1. I think the word definitely refers to YHWH whether it’s original or not, and I haven’t really given the restoration of the name very much thought. I think the psalm is late enough that there was no real confusion between ‘elohim and YHWH and just draws on older literary conventions like Deut 32:8-9.

  • Seth Payne » Blog Archive » Strict Monotheism, the Biblical Text, and Mormon Theology relating to a “Plurality of Gods” — Part Two

    […] can even find evidence of a divine council in Psalm 82: Psa. 82:0 A Psalm of Asaph. 1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the […]

  • Keivn Christensen

    Impressive work. By the way, have you noticed that King Benjamin’s temple discourse contains the themes of Ps 82, but in the context of keeping the covenant, rather than a broken covenant?

    God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods [cf. Mosiah 2:28]. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked [cf. Mosiah 4:20–27]. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness [cf. Mosiah 2:32–33]: all the foundations of the earth are out of course [cf. Mosiah 2:32–33; 3:21]. I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High [cf. Mosiah 5:7]. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes [cf. Mosiah 2:36–41]. Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations [cf. Mosiah 3:10, 13, 20]. (Psalm 82:1–8)

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  • David Frankel on Psalm 82 « Daniel O. McClellan

    […] the words of El. Looking past the argument for Yhwh and El’s distinction (for which I argue here), and his later discussion of the relationship of Daniel 7, I take issue with the primary arguments […]

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