David Frankel on Psalm 82

The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures has a new article up by Rabbi David Frankel entitled, “El as the Speaking Voice in Psalm 82:6–8.” The article argues that the psalm depicts Yhwh as a distinct deity from El, but also, against most readings of the psalm, interprets vv. 6–8 as 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 R. Frankel advances for reading El as the speaker in vv. 6–8.

The main consideration R. Frankel discusses focuses on v. 8. Most scholars see the imperative “Arise, O God . . .” as a liturgical interjection put in the mouth of the psalter or the community, as is the case in Pss. 3:8; 7:7; 9:20; 10:12: 17:13; 44:27; 74:22; 132:8. R. Frankel, concluding this is El’s commission to Yhwh, argues that such an interjection characterizes the Song of Complaint genre, and that Psalm 82 does not qualify. He argues that the Song of Complaint depicts “distress and anguish. In that context, a desperate supplication for aid is voiced. Psalm 82 is hardly a Song of Complaint.” Against the notion that the psalter or community is crying out for relief from the hardships of the exile, R. Frankel argues that (1) the psalm condemns the gods for neglect in their own stewardships (not with Israel), and (2) the psalm does not reference deportation, but care for the poor, needy, and fatherless.  R. Frankel next argues that the petition “Rise up, O God and judge the earth, for you will inherit all nations” is not logical coming from the psalter or his community because the petitioner’s in Songs of Complaint are in no position to pronounce divine commissions.

I would argue that the majority view is the stronger position. The psalm’s accusation that the gods are negligent vis-à-vis care of the needy, poor, and fatherless appeals to a stock literary convention about social order. There are no specific events in mind. Rather the motif refers generally to the proper maintenance of cosmic order. See the Epilogue to the Laws of Hammurabi, for instance:

The great gods have called me, I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city; on my breast I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad; in my shelter I have let them repose in peace; in my deep wisdom have I enclosed them. That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, I have in Babylon the city where Anu and Bel raise high their head, in Esagil, the Temple, whose foundations stand firm as heaven and earth, in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words, written upon my memorial stone, before the image of me, as king of righteousness.

Hammurabi’s law does not specify how the orphans and widows are to be protected, though. The word “orphan” appears only in the epilogue, and the word “widow” appears in only one other section (177), where she is given guidelines should she wish to remarry. He is simply stating that he is satisfying the demands of justice, exemplified in the orphan/needy/widow/etc. vernacular. Several biblical texts make use of this stock vernacular to some degree or another to refer to the general maintenance of justice and order. See the following:

Isa 1:17:

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Isa 10:1–2:

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!

Jer 5:28:

They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.

Ps 10:18:

To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress.

Ps 72:4:

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!

Ps 82:2–4 is appealing to the general failure of the gods to maintain the cosmic order, thus the foundations of the earth are rocked.  Such an accusation makes more sense in the context, as the psalm would not be much help if it only condemned Babylon simply for deporting Israelites. Yhwh can only then be “universalized” over one nation. The exile is represented by a more widespread and general negligence on the part of the gods in order to facilitate a complete universalization.

An exilic date for Psalm 82 is also best considering the wider literary context. It comes at the climax of the Psalms of Asaph, which lament Israel’s wickedness and subsequent exile. Psalm 79 explicitly references the destruction of the temple and the invasion of outsiders. There the offending nation is also pluralized and generalized. It’s not just Babylon, it’s “the heathen that have not known thee, and . . . the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name.” Yhwh’s universalization is also not yet accomplished in Psalm 79. The heathen who have not known Yhwh have invaded his inheritance, alluding to Deut 32:8–9 and the fact that Yhwh was only a national deity prior to the exile. Psalm 82 culminates Asaph’s corpus in that it elevates Yhwh over the nations. The end of his psalms, Ps 83:16–18 reemphasizes the author’s thesis:

Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek thy name, O Yhwh. Let them be put to shame and dismayed for ever; let them perish in disgrace. Let them know that thou alone, whose name is the LORD, art the Most High over all the earth.

This is widely recognized as an innovation of the exilic period, and Psalm 82 fits neatly into the progression of Asaph’s narrative. For these reasons, I think the psalm makes the most sense as a reference to Israel’s suffering during the exile. In light of this, reading Ps 82:8 as a petition for deliverance from duress is perfectly consistent. Yhwh has taken over rule of the universe, and the psalter and/or his community petition him to use his new-found power to free them from bondage.

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