The Just God: The Nature of Deity in Psalm 82

In the third chapter of his book The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture, R. W. L. Moberly deals with “The Just God: The Nature of Deity in Psalm 82.”

For the complete review of the book, visit my previous post, Book Review: “The God of the Old Testament.”

In Chapter 3, Moberly presents a detailed study of Psalm 82, a psalm that J. Clinton McCann Jr. called “The Single Most Important Text in the Entire Bible.”[1] Moberly says that Psalm 82 is “a core expression of the Old Testament understanding of God” because it “deals with the moral nature of God and the issue of justice.”

Psalm 82 is an amazing psalm because of what it says about the God of the Old Testament. Psalm 82 is a psalm of Asaph; the psalms of Asaph are comprised of eleven psalms, Psalms 73-83. Moberly notes that the date of Psalm 82 is almost impossible to determine. The psalm does not provide a clue to when the psalm was written. In addition, it is also difficult to determine the genre of the psalm.

The form of Psalm 82 does not fit the style of other psalms in the Bible. Moberly says that with the exception of the title and the final prayer, the content of the psalm is unique in the Old Testament. Although the classification is difficult, the content of the psalm is clear; the psalm deals with Yahweh and the other gods in the divine council. Moberly suggests that Psalm 82 is theological poetry.

Traditional Interpretation

Psalm 82 has been interpreted in different ways in the life of the church. Moberly says that the traditional reading of the psalm, both in Jewish and Christian traditions is that the psalm is not about the divine council, rather, the psalm is talking about an assembly of human judges. The classical reading of Psalm 82 says that the psalm “is a reminder to all human judges of their responsibilities, an admonition to them genuinely to practice justice, and a warning of their accountability to God for faithless failure” (p. 97).

Moberly says that the traditional interpretation of this psalm, both among Christians and Jews, that the psalm refers to human judges, reflects premodern interpretation. This view is based on the views of early Jewish interpreters who believed that the Hebrew word elohim (Psalm 82:1) could refer to certain individuals, such as kings and judges (p. 99). The interpretation of the word elohim as judges is based on Exodus 21:6 and 22:8. In these two verses, the word elohim was believed to refer to a legal case which was brought before the judge. In Exodus 22:8 the word elohim is translated as “God” in the NRSV and the ESV and as “judge” in the KJV and the NIV.

The Divine Council

In recent scholarship, Psalm 82 has been studied in light of the Ancient Near East literature and in light of the concept of the divine council. Scholars have taken the reference of the divine council in Psalm 82 literally. Jeremiah speaks of the “council of Yahweh” (Jeremiah 23:18 NJB). Moberly believes that Psalm 82 “is about an assembly of deities, in which all but one of its members are condemned to die” (p. 99).

Moberly says that at face value, “the scenario of numerous gods gathered in a council in Psalm 82 can thus be seen as comparable to the divine assemblies depicted in material from Mesopotamia and Ugarit, Israel’s neighbours” (p. 100-101). Moberly, however, is quick to acknowledge that the matter is not settle because there are two passages in the Old Testament where the word elohim clearly refers to a human being. One of these passages is Psalm 45:6 where the king on his wedding day is called “god” (elohim). [On the view that the king is called “God” on his wedding day, read my post on Jezebel’s wedding here].[2] The second text is Isaiah 9:6 which mentions a king from the line of David. According to Isaiah, this royal figure who will sit on the throne of David is called “God.”

Moberly says that one of the problems for the proper interpretation of Psalm 82 is the problem of identifying the deities mentioned in the psalm. Moberly asks, “if the deities in Psalm 82 are deities, how should Psalm 82 be understood?” Psalm 82 mentions three names for God, elohim (Psalm 82:1) “God”; El (Psalm 82:1) “God”; and Elyon (Psalm 82:6) “Most High.”

The problem is complicated because of the reference to Elyon and Yahweh in Deuteronomy 32:8–9:

“When the Most High (Elyon) gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the LORD’s (Yahweh’s) portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 NIV).

The text of Deuteronomy raises several difficult problems which have divided scholars. First, is Elyon a different God than Yahweh? Psalm 82 seems to say that Yahweh is a distinctive deity in the council of El. Second, the text says that Elyon divided the nations among the gods and Yahweh’s portion was Israel. Moberly suggests that Psalm 82 should be understood in light of what Psalm 83 says about the God of Israel (p. 103). In Psalm 83 elohim (83:1) is Yahweh, El (83:1) is Yahweh, Elyon (83:18) is Yahweh, and the God to whom the psalmist is praying is Yahweh (83:16).

Interpreting Psalm 82

Psalm 82 depicts a divine council, a council of deities in which the judges are divine and not humans. If the deities mentioned in Psalm 82 are not human judges but Ancient Near East deities, how relevant is Psalm 82 to twenty-first century Christians? Moberly says that Christians can read Psalm 82 in light of the fact that the psalm is not talking about human judges.

How can a Christian pastor preach from Psalm 82? Moberly does not discuss Psalm 82 as quoted in John 10:33-36. His concern is to understand Psalm 82 from an Old Testament perspective. In preaching from this psalm, a pastor can preach about the assemblies of the gods, but this has no meaning for Christians living in the twenty-first century (p. 105).

When preaching from Psalm 82, one can emphasize divine justice or one can emphasize that El and Elyon became Yahweh or that Yahweh acquired their power. It is possible that Psalm 82 marks a transition from polytheism to monotheism. Yahweh assumes the position that belonged to El and to Elyon.

Moberly attempts a fresh reading of Psalm 82 by noticing two important things that are missing from this psalm. One thing that is missing is what the psalm is not saying about God: it does not say “one God,” “many gods, not even “other gods.” Second, in a psalm that goes from polytheism to monotheism, the name of Yahweh is not mentioned in the psalm. If Psalm 82 says that Yahweh became the sole deity, how come his name is not mentioned?

Moberly says that the omission of the name Yahweh was deliberate. He proposes that the name Yahweh has been changed to elohim by the editor of the psalm. Moberly bases his view that Psalm 82 is included in the collection called the “Elohistic Psalms.” Psalms 42-83 are called the Elohistic Psalms because the author prefers to use the name elohim for the deity. One example is found in the identical psalms 14 and 52. Psalm 14 uses Yahweh in 14:2, 4, 6, 7. Psalm 53 has elohim in 53:2, 4, 5, 6.

Moberly believes that the elohim of Psalm 82 is to be identified with Yahweh because the author of Psalm 82 uses the psalm to define the meaning of elohim, that is, the psalmist is defining what is an elohim. The God who takes a stand is singular and the gods being judged are plural.

Moberly divides Psalm 82 into four parts:

Verse 1: The text identifies the God who stands.

Verses 2-4: These verses present the clearest perspective on the Old Testament concept of justice. The text does not say who is speaking, probably the God who is standing.

Verse 5: The identity of the speaker is unclear. Who is speaking? It is possible that the speaker is God. Moberly proposes that the speaker is the psalmist and that his comment reflects what he heard and saw. “If the poet is able to depict what happens in this divine assembly, then he himself is implicitly in some way present and thus able to describe what he sees and hears” (p. 111).

The “they,” the people who walk in darkness is also unclear. The “they” could be the poor and the victims of these judges (“weak and the needy,” 82:4). They can also be the wicked mentioned in verse 4.

Verses 6-7: In these verses God passes judgments on the gods. They are denied divinity and shall die as humans.

Moberly points out that the translations err in translating Psalm 82:6. The NRSV translates v. 6 as follows: “I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you’” The TNK translates as follows: “I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you.” Moberly follows the TNK. He says that the verb has the idea of “I thought that” instead of “I say.” He writes, “The sense of the idiom is not a judicial verdict but the correction of a mistaken supposition about something initially plausible” (p. 115). Moberly’s conclusion is that God is saying that these gods are not better than humans and they shall die as humans. The fact that they will die, either sooner or later, shows that they are not elohim.

Verse 8: The prayer of the psalmist. The prayer of the psalmist is a call for God to implement justice in the world. The psalmist invites God to judge the earth because all nations belong to him. To the psalmist, the God of Israel is a God who loves justice.

Conclusion

According to Moberly, Psalm 82 is teaching that in the Ancient Near East and in the world of Israel there were many gods worshiped by the people, but they were not gods; they were the creation of humans who created their gods in their human image. Thus, these who were supposed to be gods were not gods. One reason why they are not gods is their lack of moral integrity and this is shown by their lack of concern for justice and the fair treatment of the weak in society (p. 118). He writes, “I argue that Psalm 82 offers a conceptual analysis of deity in terms of the practice of justice. If the LORD is God, then justice is intrinsic to His nature” (p. 121).

The God who passes judgment on these no-gods is a God of justice and integrity and these two characteristics are essential to his nature as the true God. Psalm 82 is a declaration of what kind of God the God of Israel is. “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, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

NOTES

[1] J. Clinton McCann Jr. “The Single Most Important Text in the Entire Bible: Toward a Theology of the Psalms,” in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 63-75.

[2] Jezebel’s Wedding Song

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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