Rereading Psalm 8:5: In Search of a Better Translation

Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise in which the psalmist celebrates in worship, God’s majesty in creation and the dignity of every human being. In awe and amazement, the psalmist proclaims the majesty of God as the creator of the universe.

Impressed by the transcendence of the Creator, the psalmist becomes aware of the smallness and insignificance of every human being. The psalmist also recognizes that human beings have been favored by God.

Aware of the honor God has placed on human beings, in awe, the psalmist asks: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:4-5 KJV).

The words of the psalmist address the place of human beings in God’s creation. The crowning of human beings with honor reflects the idea of dominion over God’s creation, which is clearly present in Genesis 1:26-28, a text in which God places human beings over all created things.

The words of verse 5 have been translated in several different ways, causing some confusion in the minds of lay people who read Psalm 8 in different translations. The purpose of this essay is to look at the meaning of verse 5 and suggest which translation is a better reading of the Hebrew text.

The King James Version translates the Hebrew word elohim as “angels.” The following English translations also translate elohim as “angel”: the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), the Darby Bible (DBY); the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRA), the Jewish Publication Society (JPS 1917), the New King James Version (NKJ), and the Revised Webster Bible (RWB).

The Bible in Basic English (BBE) translates as follows: “a little lower than the gods.”

The English Standard Version, the NET Bible (NET), the New International Version (NIV), and the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) translate as follows: “a little lower than the heavenly beings.”

The New American Bible (NAB) translates as follows: “a little lower than a god.”

The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) translates as follows: “a little less than a god.”

The Jewish Publication Society (TANAK 1985) translates as follows: “A little less than divine.”

The Young Literal Translation (YLT) translates as follows: “[Thou] causest him to lack a little of Godhead.”

The American Standard Version (ASV), the English Revised Version (ERV), the Geneva Bible (GNV), the New American Standard Bible (NAS), the New Living Translation (NLT), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translate as follow: “A little lower than God.”
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translate as follow: “a little less than God.”

God’s Word Translation (GW) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) translate: “a little lower than yourself.”

These different translations reflect the problem translators have in understanding what the psalmist is trying to convey to the readers. This problem was already present in the early versions.

For instance, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Peshitta (the Aramaic Version of the Old Testament), and the Vulgate (the Latin Version of the Bible) understood the word elohim to mean “angels” and through the Septuagint, this translation has entered many English versions.

Even in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews 2:7, when talking about the nature of Christ, did not quote from the Hebrew text of Psalm 8:5, but quoted from the Septuagint to describe the humiliation of Christ.

In order to ascertain which translation, reflects a better understanding of the Hebrew text, it becomes important to understand the words of the psalmist. In Psalm 8, the psalmist is writing about the role human beings play in God’s creation. The psalmist believes that human beings share in the nature of God. Men and women were created in the image and likeness of God, therefore, they are like God himself.

Thus, the psalmist used the word elohim to describe one aspect of human nature. The word elohim never appears in the Old Testament with the meaning of “angel.” The Septuagint translates elohim as “angels” in Psalm 97:7; 138:1. However, most English translations do not follow the Septuagint here.

The word elohim means “God” or “gods.” Thus, the psalmist is emphasizing that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God and by nature, they are a little less than God himself.

Peter C. Craigie, in his commentary Psalms 1-50 (Rev. Ed.; Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 2004), p. 108, wrote: “The translation angel may have been prompted by modesty, for it may have seemed rather extravagant to claim that mankind was only a little less than God. Nevertheless, the translation God is almost certainly correct, and the words probably contain an allusion to the image of God in mankind and the God-given role of dominion to be exercised by mankind within the created order.”

Thus, there is no doubt that the better translation should avoid the words “angels” or “divine beings.” Human beings were created “a little lower than God.” The psalmist is aware that human beings have a special relationship with God, because, in addition to being created in the image and likeness of God, human beings play a special role in God’s creation.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:3-5).

Thus, I believe that the better translation should affirm that human beings were created “a little lower than God.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

NOTE: Did you like this post? Do you think other people would like to read this post? Be sure to share this post on Facebook and share a link on Twitter so that others may enjoy reading it too!

I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.

This entry was posted in Book of Psalms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rereading Psalm 8:5: In Search of a Better Translation

  1. >Dr. MariottiniI have enjoyed reading your posts. I have a couple of thoughts on your post if you could comment. First, I agree with your translation of elohim as “God”. In my opinion it appears that the psalmist is trying to convey a “ranking”, so to speak, rather than the nature of humankind, by placing humankind below God but above the angels. Should’nt the words “a little lower” speak more of position rather than nature and thus the translation made simpler? Second, I did not realize that the author of Hebrews quoted the Septuagint. I have always thought of the Septuagint as merely another translation from the original text but, would the fact that a NT author quoted it give the translation more credibility? I realize that translation is what the authors read and learned but would the fact that they were inspired by God to write scripture mean in any way that the translation should carry more weight? Also, how often is the Septuagint quoted in the NT.Thanks so much for your work.

    Like

  2. >Thank you for your thoughts on this translation of elohim. I would appreciate any comments you might have on 1 Samuel 28:13:The king said to her, “Have no fear; what do you see?” The woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being [elohim] coming up out of the ground.” (NRSV)For elohim:NIV “a spirit”KJV “gods”LXX theos (?)NASB “a divine being”Vulgate deos (?)I don’t know Latin or biblical Greek that well, so perhaps I am misreading the text in those cases. This story about the “bringing up” of Samuel is troubling, and I think the translation of elohim in this verse is extremely problematic. Please offer your thoughts on this one.Thanks again…

    Like

  3. >Dear Toni,Thank you for your questions. I agree with you that the idea of rank in included in the mind of the Psalmist. Human beings were created a little lower than God. However, the idea that human beings share in the nature of God is also affirmed by Genesis 1:26-27.As for the Septuagint, it was only a Greek translation from the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts. The Septuagint was the Bible used by the early church because most of the early Christians read and spoke Greek. Thus, the Septuagint was quoted by the NT writers often because they were writing their gospels and letters in Greek. There are some problems with the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew text, however, the Septuagint serves as a witness to an older text behind the text of the Old Testament.I hope this explanation will answer your questions. If you have additional questions, feel free to write again.Claude Mariottini

    Like

  4. >Dear Cur Deus Homo,This passage is very difficult to interpret and understand. I believe the NRSV comes closer to the intent of the text. Maybe in the near future I will write a post on this passage and give a detail presentation of my views.Thank you for your response to my post.Claude Mariottini

    Like

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Dr. Mariottini,Thanks for your excellent article. I have a question about verse 7. The Tanakh Translation renders the second part of the verse as “laying the world at his feet”. All the Christian translations that I can find use some variant of “under his feet”. The difference between seeing the world as a gift from God rather than something to dominate seems important.Thanks again,Joel Copeland

    Like

  6. Louis says:

    >Dr. Mariottini I have really enjoy how you exegesis Psalm 8:5 however, i think that it is in insult when we tried to compare God with Human being. God is in a class all by himself. What makes God a God is the attributes that he posses which is omnipotent,omniscience, omnipresence, including how infinite and unlimited he is. a little lower then Elohim, that is a Big difference. Elohim is a plural word and I think its meaning is broad. Elohim do means God, god, Angels, Spirit. that’s why I believe that the psalmist was comparing mankind with the angels instead the Almighty God.but I do believe that we share his nature. Please email back thanks

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.