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 (ha’elohim). 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.