Ps. 82: Entering the Text

One of the most interesting aspects of Psalm 82 is the window it offers into the development of biblical monotheism. Nowadays, we take for granted that monotheism means belief in the existence of only one deity, but in ancient Israel, especially in its early history, YHWH was considered one among numerous other deities. One of the clearest expressions of this belief is Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which recounts when the Most High divided the various nations and assigned a people and deity to each. YHWH’s allotment was the people of Israel, and other deities received other peoples. 

In this worldview it didn’t matter that other deities existed, only that YHWH was Israel’s God and was preeminent among the other deities. This belief underlies the famous question, “Who is like you among the gods, O YHWH” (Exodus 15:11), and the command to have no other gods before YHWH (Exodus 20:3). Over time this acknowledgement of other deities gave way to a belief in YHWH as the only deity. Thus, in the exilic section of the book of Isaiah the prophet proclaims repeatedly: “I am YHWH and there is no other” (Isaiah 44:6; 45:5-6, 14, 18, 21-22; 46:9; 47:8, 10).

This development is the background of Psalm 82. The psalm opens with YHWH standing in the assembly of gods and indicting them (verse 1). The human speaker then joins in, chastising the other deities for the favor they give the wicked and calling on them to uphold justice for the poor and needy (verses 2-3). Then the speaker realizes that it is futile to expect this justice from any deity but YHWH (verses 4-5). Only YHWH can be trusted to judge justly, and in the end the failure of other deities will be their demise. At that time YHWH’s justice will prevail over all nations (verse 6). In this way, Psalm 82 encapsulates the emerging recognition that YHWH is the only God, the one whose justice extends from Israel to the ends of the earth.   

This psalm also highlights an important difference between ancient and modern views of God.  Nowadays we tend to think of God in terms of being, but people in antiquity thought of gods in terms of doing. That other deities existed was not a big deal for Israelites because they knew there was only one God who had the power to establish justice. Psalm 82 captures this viewpoint perfectly. In this sense Psalm 82 and other biblical texts that acknowledge other deities are nonetheless monotheistic, because for the biblical writers the existence of other gods was nothing compared to the unique power of their deity, YHWH.

 Key Term:

  • The verb špṭ (“to judge”) occurs four times in Psalm 82 and offers insight into the biblical concept of justice (Heb. mišpāṭ), which comes from the same root. As the verb suggests, biblical justice is rooted in legal justice, but it extends beyond the legal sphere. It involves the obligation of each person to use whatever power he or she has to uphold what is good and right. Each of us in our day to day lives have some measure of authority in our relationships; maybe you are responsible for a congregation, a classroom, a team at work, a family, etc. Whatever authority you have should be used to further righteousness, especially for those who have less power. That is why the Hebrew Bible is so concerned with the welfare of the poor, orphans, widows, and aliens (see verses 3-4).  Their lack of authority makes them vulnerable and dependent on the justice of others.

 

The ultimate source of mišpāṭ is YHWH, who is responsible for justice throughout the world, and in ancient Israel the king was expected to ensure justice throughout the kingdom. But justice is not just the responsibility of vaunted leaders. As the biblical prophets insist again and again, all of us are obliged to act justly. We are called to use our power for good and to take special care of those who lack power.

 

Questions for Reflection:

  • What words or images are most striking to you in this psalm?
  • Where in your life do you have power? How do feel you are using this power?
  • Do you think of God in terms of being or doing? What difference does it make to you?
  • As we move through the pandemic and more recent social uprising, what is one action you can take to contribute to creating a more just society?

 

Psalm 82 Text and Translations

 

מִזְמ֗וֹר לְאָ֫סָ֥ף אֱ‍ֽלֹהִ֗ים נִצָּ֥ב בַּעֲדַת־אֵ֑ל בְּקֶ֖רֶב אֱלֹהִ֣ים יִשְׁפֹּֽט׃

עַד־מָתַ֥י תִּשְׁפְּטוּ־עָ֑וֶל וּפְנֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים תִּשְׂאוּ־סֶֽלָה׃

שִׁפְטוּ־דַ֥ל וְיָת֑וֹם עָנִ֖י וָרָ֣שׁ הַצְדִּֽיקוּ׃

פַּלְּטוּ־דַ֥ל וְאֶבְי֑וֹן מִיַּ֖ד רְשָׁעִ֣ים הַצִּֽילוּ׃

לֹ֤א יָֽדְע֨וּ ׀ וְלֹ֥א יָבִ֗ינוּ בַּחֲשֵׁכָ֥ה יִתְהַלָּ֑כוּ יִ֝מּ֗וֹטוּ כָּל־מ֥וֹסְדֵי אָֽרֶץ׃

אֲ‍ֽנִי־אָ֭מַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִ֣ים אַתֶּ֑ם וּבְנֵ֖י עֶלְי֣וֹן כֻּלְּכֶֽם׃

אָ֭כֵן כְּאָדָ֣ם תְּמוּת֑וּן וּכְאַחַ֖ד הַשָּׂרִ֣ים תִּפֹּֽלוּ׃

קוּמָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים שָׁפְטָ֣ה הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־אַתָּ֥ה תִ֝נְחַ֗ל בְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃

 

 

 

NJPS (New Jewish Publication Society) Psalm 82

1 A psalm of Asaph. God stands in the divine assembly; among the divine beings He pronounces judgment.

2 How long will you judge perversely, showing favor to the wicked?Selah.

3 Judge the wretched and the orphan, vindicate the lowly and the poor,

4 rescue the wretched and the needy; save them from the hand of the wicked.

5 They neither know nor understand, they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth totter.

6 I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you;

7 but you shall die as men do, fall like any prince.

8 Arise, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are Your possession.

 

NIRV (New International Reader's Version) Psalm 82

A psalm of Asaph.

1 God takes his place at the head of a large gathering of leaders.

    He announces his decisions among them.

2 He says, “How long will you stand up for those who aren’t fair to others?

    How long will you show mercy to sinful people?

3 Stand up for the weak and for children whose fathers have died.

    Protect the rights of people who are poor or treated badly.

4 Save those who are weak and needy.

    Save them from the power of sinful people.

5 “You leaders don’t know anything.

    You don’t understand anything.

You are in the dark about what is right.

    Law and order have been destroyed all over the world.

6 “I said, ‘You leaders are like gods.

    You are all children of the Most High God.’

7 But you will die, like mere human beings.

    You will die like every other leader.”

8 God, rise up. Judge the earth.

    All the nations belong to you.

 

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