18. Psalm 82

Consider Psalm 82. Discuss its meaning and how it is put together as a piece of literature. What is its place and significance for the history of Israelite religion?

Summary: Psalm 82 belongs to the Elohist Psalter (collection of Psalms that replace YHWH with Elohim). According to scholars, Psalm 82 is central to the development of Israelite religion because it is a snapshot of the transition of Israelite religion from polytheism to henotheism. It records a divine council, which resembles the polytheistic divine councils of Canaan and the ANE. From this divine council, Elohim (i.e., YHWH) emerges as the supreme god who takes control over judgement of the nations. Scholars hold this Psalm is to be important because it suggests that Israelite religion had a development within itself as Wellhausen, Kuenen, and Smith suggest, contra Kaufmann and Albright. NOTE: much of this essay is recycled from my essay on Monotheism.

I. The Psalm

l‰wDo_…wfVÚpVvI;t yAtDm_dAo 2 :fOÚpVvˆy MyIhølTa b®r®qV;b lEa_tådSoA;b bD…xˆn MyIhøl∫a PDsDaVl rwøm◊zIm 1

dA¥yIm NwøyVbRa◊w låd_…wfV;lAÚp 4 :…wqyî;dVxAh v∂rÎw yInDo MwøtÎy◊w låd_…wfVpIv 3 :hDlRs_…waVcI;t MyIoDv√r yEnVp…w

6 :X®rDa yédVswøm_lD;k …wfwø;mˆy …wkD;lAhVtˆy hDkEvSjA;b …wnyIbÎy aøl◊w …wo√dDy aøl 5 :…wlyI…xAh MyIoDv√r

MyîrDÚcAh dAjAaVk…w N…wt…wmV;t M∂dDaV;k NEkDa 7 :MRkV;lU;k NwøyVlRo yEnVb…w MR;tAa MyIhølTa yI;t√rAmDa_yˆn≈a

:MIywø…gAh_lDkV;b lAj◊nIt hD;tAa_yI;k X®rDaDh hDfVpDv MyIhølTa hDm…wq 8 :…wlOÚpI;t

A psalm of Asaph (translation JNJ)

1 God (Elohim=YHWH) stands in the divine council (OR council of ’El) in the midst of the gods (elohim=gods) he judges

2 How long will you judge/rule unjustly and lift the faces of the wicked?

3 Give justice for the poor and the widow, maintain the right of the oppressed and the poor

4 Rescue the poor and the destitute and deliver from the hand of the wicked

5 They do not know or have insight in the darkness they walk around, all of the foundations of the earth shake

6 As for me, I say, “You are gods (elohim=gods) and the sons of the Most high all of you.

7 Nevertheless you will die like a mortal and like one of the princes you will fall. 

8 Rise O God (Elohim=YHWH) and judge/rule the earth all nations belong to you as an inheritance

II. Literary History, Structure, and Meaning

*This psalm belongs to the Elohistic Psalter (Pss 42-83), a collection of Pss that generally replace the divine name YHWH with Elohim. Some Pss are identical or nearly so, Ps 53 for Ps 14. As is clear, Psalm 82 has no explicit mention of YHWH. However, the scholarly assumption is that since Psalm 82 is in the so-called "Elohistic Psalter," this suggests this Psalm did exist in an earlier version which DID have a reference to YHWH, which was later replaced by Elohim. Possibly the repetition of MyIhøl∫a and lEa in the first verse leads one to believe that YHWH used to stand in this same verse. Furthermore, it's important to note that the replacement of the word Elohim for the word YHWH is a liturgical issue, not an issue of the development of the Israelite religion (i.e. scholars assume that the god El is replaced by the god Yahweh within Israelite religion); thus, in later year, the liturgical recitation of Psalm 82 presumably replaced the word YHWH with the word Elohim, but this replacement has nothing to do with the actual development of Israelite religion. Psalm 82 is central to understanding the development of Israelite religion, but the replacement of the word YHWH for the word Elohim has nothing to do with the development of Israelite religion.

Psalm 82 is also considered part of the Pss of the collection of Asaph, perhaps the collection to which it belong before its inclusion in the Elohistic Psalter. 

*The 8 verses of Psalm 82 are nicely arranged into a structured Psalm. The psalm can be arranged in the following manner:

Verse 1= Elohim (i.e. YHWH) enters the divine council to judge.

Verses 2-4 = Castigation of gods for not acting rightly. 

Verses 5-7 = Judgement against gods for not acting rightly.

Verse 8 = Elohim (i.e. YHWH) is invoked to rise and judge the nations.

More specifically, verses 1 and 8 form an inclusio. Verse 1 begins with Elohim (i.e. YHWH) and Verse 8 concludes with Elohim (i.e. YHWH). In Verse 1, Elohim (i.e. YHWH) enters to judge the gods. Verses 2-4 contain a castigation pronounced by Elohim (i.e. YHWH) against the other gods (elohim) for not acting rightly, for not defending the poor, the widow, the oppressed and the poor, and the destitute. In Verses 5-7 it is confirmed that the gods (elohim) did not do their job of defending the poor, and in result, Elohim (i.e. YHWH) punishes the gods (elohim) by making them mortal like humans. Finally, in Verse 8, after castigating (verses 2-4) and punishing the gods with mortality (verses 5-7), Elohim (i.e. YHWH) is invoked to take over as ruler of the nations. Thus, the thematic structure of this Psalm is quite balanced.

While Psalm 82 has a nice inclusion (verses 1, 8) and nice parallel sets of verses (verses 2-4, 5-7), there is also poetic structure within the verses themselves. Almost every verses has chiastic parallelism. Excluding the title (mizmôr lĕˀāsāp), every clause couplet in verses 1-4 has a chiastic structure, so that the first word of the first clause of the couplet corresponds with the last word or the second clause of the couplet. Furthermore, even verses 5-8 have either chiastic parallelism or simple exact parallelism. Chiastic structure occurs in some form in verses 5 (last two clauses), 6 and 7. Exact parallelism exists in verses 5 (initial two clauses) and verse 8. Thus, it is clear that while there is a overall thematic structure of the Psalm as discussed in previous paragraph, the individual verses in this Psalm also espouse a nice parallelism, whether chiastic or exact.

III. Place and Significance for Israelite Religion

*Machinist analyzes Psalm 82 in his article, "How Gods Die, Biblically and Otherwise. A Problem of Cosmic Restructuring." He concludes that it is a Psalm about Elohim (=YHWH) taking over the other elohim in the council who were not able to take care of justice and equity, so YHWH took over. Elohim (=YHWH) absorbs the responsibilities of the other elohim. This is similar to Marduk taking over the Mesopotamian pantheon in Enuma Elish. In essence, Psalm 82 is a type of etiology which explains how the word elohim can serve as both a singular (Elohim=YHWH) and a plural (referring to other gods in the divine council). Ultimately, this Psalm is about the development of monotheism; but in this Psalm, we have not yet arrived at monotheism, but we are on the road there. In this Psalm, we are in a henotheism stage, during which one god becomes the supreme god.

*The Psalm resembles Canaanite and Mesopotamian mythic literature. Baltzer in his Hermeneia commentary notes that “The psalm retrieves mythical ideas in Israel’s environment and uses them to shape an original Israelite poesy. Therefore the thesis proposed in a variety of forms that the psalm is based on one ancient Canaanite myth (subject to reconstruction), which has merely experienced an Israelite glossing”.

•Three mythical ideas

1) Divine Councils: The Canaanite and ANE pattern of hierarchical assembly of gods or heavenly council with “god-president” at their head. In Canaanite religion, El retained role as “president” of the assembly.

2) Allotment of Territories to Deities: The assignment of particular territories w/in the world to individual deities by the god-king with the charge that they care for those territories they rule.

3) Henotheism: The schema, attested frequently in the ANE religious world of the rise of a particular god to summit of pantheon (i.e., Henotheism). In the late 2nd millennium Enuma Elish, Marduk is exalted to the point where some have seen this text as a kind of precursor to monotheism; the attribution of 50 names to Marduk in tablets VI-VII shows a kind of coalescence of various divinities and divine features under one deity. 

•These themes, of course, are subordinated to divine court of justice. God in his judgment assumes rulership of all territories upon the death of all other gods. Thus, Psalm 82 is international and eschatological in scope, according to Broyles. 

•We should also note that in ANE mythologies, gods can die.

*How does Psalm 82 fit in with the the HB?

1) Divine Councils in the HB

*HB refers to God’s as “assembly” or “council” and "sons of god" in heaven: Ps 89:5-8; 1 Kgs 22:19-23; cf. Isa 6:1-8; Jer 23:18; Job 15:8). Psa 89:6 refers to its members as “sons of god(s)”. Job 1:6; 2:1 sons of God” (NIV “angels”) present themselves as servants of the before YHWH, comparable to “gods” (Exod 15:11; Pss 86:8; 95:3; 96:4; 97:9; 135:5). Psa 29:1 phrase where they ascribe “glory to YHWH”.

2) Allotment of Territories to Deities

*Deut 32:8 (DSS, LXX, NIV margin) tells us “When Most High gave nations their inheritance, he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of God”

•Each nation was assigned a patron deity

•Similarly Psa 82, Elohim were supposed to be committed to justice (vv. 2-4) w/respect to nations (v. 8)

•Daniel 10:13, 20-21 refers to “prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” both of whom are angelic figures presiding over nations.

3) Henotheism

A text like Gen. 35:1-4 would seem to indicate a kind of “henotheism,” wherein many deities are acknowledged and even worshipped, but one deity comes to the forefront at certain times:

God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes; then come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem.

*Psalm 82, as Machinist argues, seems to record "religion in the making". It shows Israelite religion developing from polytheism with divine councils to henotheism where one god becomes supreme. Later in Israelite history, henotheism develops into monolatry (worship of only on god among many gods), and later to ethical monotheism (only one god exists). In Psalm 82, we are still in the henotheism stage and perhaps bordering the monolatry stage, but definitely not at the monotheism stage. 

Psalm 82 shows that the development of Israelite religion was indeed a development! Kuenen and Wellhausen suggested the evolutionary model for the development of Israelite religion where polytheism developed into monotheism. On the other hand, Kaufmann and Albright reject the evolutionary schema and suggest the revolutionary model. For Kaufmann and Albright, Israelite religion was monotheistic from the beginning. 

Mark Smith views emergence of Yahwism (and monotheism) as a process of convergence and differentiation. YHWH was adopted from the south (Median?). Through convergence, YHWH acquired the traits of El and Baal. Then, Israel rejected the Canaanite roots of these traits and polemicized against the Canaanite gods (El, Baal). Thus, YHWH is very similar to the Canaanite gods while there is simultaneously a polemic against the Canaanite gods. 

Psalm 82 seems to support a model that incorporates some type of development within Israelite religion.

IV. **Additional: Monolatry and the Emergence of Monotheism**


Note that three texts in Exod., perhaps all dating from different time periods but all possibly expressing the same idea (monolatry), demonstrate how what can look like pure “monotheism” to some readers can actually be viewed as something different than monotheism as defined above:

Ex. 15:11 Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? 

Ex. 18:11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.” (Note that this is Jethro, Moses’s Midianite father-in-law talking...and one could see this as either a confirmation of the basic ANE understanding of many deities, or as a kind of hint toward monotheism.)

Ex. 20:2-3 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of

the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me (ÅyDnDÚp_lAo). Note also a text like 

Deut. 10:17:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and

awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe... And also 

Mic. 4:5:

For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.


“Monotheism,” on the other hand, is indeed an idea that is expressed in several forms in the Hebrew Bible; in his Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) Mark. S. Smith (pp. 151-3) uses several Hebrew words as cues to let us know the author is talking about the existence of only one God:

Deut. 4:35 To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him (wø;dAbVlIm).

2Kings 19:15 And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said: “O LORD the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone (ÔK√;dAbVl), of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.

Neh. 9:6 And Ezra said: “You are the LORD, you alone (ÔK®;dAbVl); you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you.

Psa. 86:10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone (ÔK®;dAbVl) are God.

Deut. 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (dDjRa hDwh◊y).

Isa. chs. 40-55 are filled with quintessential, soaring monotheistic rhetoric; YHWH is the only God, and he is God everywhere.

(Monotheism): 40:25; 43:10-12; 44:8; 45:5, 14, 21-22; 46:9

Is. 43:10 You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.

Is. 45:5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me.

Is. 46:9 ...remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me.

(Universalism): 40:5; 49:6, 23; 52:10 

Is. 40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Is. 45:22 Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.

Is. 49:6 ...he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”