Psalm 82 – Judges Judged
There are two radically different ways to understand Psalm 82, two different views of the bold steps taken by the poet. I translate and comment first according to the interpretation that I think is the most probable: the confrontation of God with a group of lesser divine figures charged with guiding other nations. Thereafter, I note the other possible interpretation, and its basis.
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. A psalm. Of Asaph.
God stands in the divine assembly; among the gods He issues judgment.
2. “How long will you judge perversely, and to the evildoers show favor? Selah.
3. Judge the weak and the orphan; the lowly and the poor, vindicate.
4. Deliver the weak and the needy; from the hand of the evildoers, save them.
5. They know not and grasp not; in darkness they go about; they totter, all the foundations of the earth.
6. I had set you as gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
7. but you shall die as a human does, like one of the princes, you shall fall.”
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth, for You have Your heritage1 among all the nations.
1. Phrase implies taking proper possession.
Psalm 82 soars with a sense of moral indignation and universal vision. The poet unfolds the tradition of a heavenly assemblage charged with carrying out God’s will, a group that has failed in its task. The immediate fervor of God’s intervention is, in the end, transformed to a prayer for his direct leadership of all nations.
I first comment on the heavenly court and the international scope, and on morality as the foundation of society. Only after dwelling on particular words and phrases do I comment on an alternative interpretation: God’s confrontation with human judges, and I briefly survey the rationale of each interpretation.
The Heavenly Court
For over a millennium, until the advent of Christianity, the Israelite faith alone carried the banner of monotheism. As such, it had to confront, uniquely, for itself and for its adherents, apparent evidence of conflicting wills functioning in the universe.
A partial response is reflected in the assumed existence of semi-divine beings, somewhere between God and humanity, who sometimes function as a heavenly court, as it were. (Unlike polytheistic deities, these powers are never deemed to be independent, and they cannot challenge God.) God’s superiority to all other “gods” is seen in such verses as Exodus 15:11 and Psalms 95:3, 96:4, 97:7, and 148:3. Various versions of the heavenly court appear, for example, in I Kings 22:19–23, Job 1:6, Isaiah 6:1–8, and Psalms 29:1 and 89:7. Later rabbinic literature refers to a similar group, the “heavenly entourage.”
Psalm 82 reflects God’s revulsion and anger. He appears in the heavenly assembly, where He presumably would otherwise not be, exasperated at these beings’ corrupt mishandling of judgment. Judges would ordinarily sit in judgment, so one understands God’s appearance (where He stands) to be the pronouncement of a sentence, not the proceedings of a court case. “How long” expresses not a question, but frustration. The scene reaches its daring apex in God’s rescinding the immortality of all those involved. Were this psalm a stage in the development of the Jewish religion, one presumes that one would no longer hear of such immortal creatures. That did not happen, and so it remains an historical moment of bold vision.
The Moral Foundation of the Universe
For the Bible, the world order rests on social ethics. Lack of justice accounts for the loss of territory and for the fall of monarchs. For Psalm 82, that absence engenders not only a human, but also a divine crisis, as demigods lose their immortal status. As there is no justice on earth, even the physical bases of the world are threatened. In fact, by citing both darkness and the undermining of the foundations of the earth, verse 5 essentially says that the world is threatened with a return to the primordial abyss.
To compare to a modern common metaphor, Psalm 82 does not call on human beings to be on the side of the angels, but on angels be on the side of God. God’s “side” is justice for the powerless. To emphasize the message, two terms are repeated four times each: “God” (or “gods”) and “judge.” (Further, to emphasize the choice that the judges are given, the only other repetitions in the psalm, twice each, are the “weak” and the “evildoers.”)
For All Mankind
There is no hint of a local Israelite emphasis in Psalm 82. On the contrary, the scope is clearly international. The perspective of the psalm is that God did assign lesser beings responsibility for justice outside
, but is now canceling their jurisdiction. The divine appellation used here is not the specific Israelite term, the LORD, but the general term “God.” Social justice is to be the world order. Israel
The force of the last verse is, then, that the psalmist asks God to assert Himself as the direct ruler of all the nations.
Terms of Note
As Ibn Ezra points out, the text, in stating that these divine beings walk in darkness, is reflecting Exodus 23:8, “bribes blind the clear-sighted” (cf. Deut. 16:19, “bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just”).
The order of the verbs in verse 5 leads one first to assume that it is these divine beings who “totter,” although the psalmist quickly clarifies that the references are to the foundations of the earth. This in turn can imply either that lack of social justice undermines all existence or, literally, that the earth is responding to God’s anger. All implications linger.
“God” and “judge,” the most often repeated terms, also form the enclosure of the psalm.
As so often in Psalms, the final verse includes a new and basic development. On the most obvious level, this is now a request to God. Less obviously, one notes that all that came before was a reported scene, but verse 8 converts it into a hope and a prayer. “Arise” is a verb used frequently in Psalms for a demand that God finally act.
Many traditional commentaries (though not all) and some modern interpreters argue that Psalm 82 refers not to a divine court, but to an assembly of human judges, who are termed, “gods.” They cite other biblical (and Hacham mentions other international, pre-biblical) complaints about judges who do not care for the poor, such as Psalm 58 and Isaiah –15, as well as the many commandments that judges dispense fair justice (for example, Deut. ).
Indeed, the interpretation that this is a divine assembly does involve an unparalleled biblical contention, namely that God makes such semi-gods into mortals, and that the author knew enough to comment on international justice and cared enough to write about it. As daring as that interpretation is, however, referring to judges as “gods” is also difficult, though those who so hold feel that the term "gods" sometimes implies "judges," most clearly in Exodus 21:6, 22:7-8, 27. In the end, an interpreter must choose a view that best accords with the biblical outlook as he or she understands it. I feel that the present text, with its international emphasis and the final mention of all nations, makes the understanding of the divine assembly much more likely.
If one understands the group addressed to be judges, then it is possible to consider that God’s words cease with the end of verse 4, and the beginning of verse 6 would read “I had thought of you as gods.” (There is of course the additional problem of why God would think this.)
In either case, the basic contention of this psalm, namely, that the world’s very existence depends on social justice, remains, as does most of the international emphasis.
* * * * *
The concept of demigods responsible for other nations befits the frequent critical reading of Deuteronomy 32:8, wherein God is said to have set the borders of nations according to the “numbers of divine beings” (the received Masoretic text reads according to the “numbers of Israel,” b'nei yisra'el, while the emendation often assumes two alternatives that were combined: b'nei el, sons of God, and sarei el, officers of God), assigning responsibility for each of the other nations, as it were, to a lesser “god.” (If the Deuteronomy text is not emended, it is best read as NJPS: "in relation to
's numbers.") Israel
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) מִזְמוֹר לְאָסָף אֶלֹהִים נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת אֵל בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט:
(ב) עַד מָתַי תִּשְׁפְּטוּ עָוֶל וּפְנֵי רְשָׁעִים תִּשְׂאוּ סֶלָה:
(ג) שִׁפְטוּ דַל וְיָתוֹם עָנִי וָרָשׁ הַצְדִּיקוּ:
(ד) פַּלְּטוּ דַל וְאֶבְיוֹן מִיַּד רְשָׁעִים הַצִּילוּ:
(ה) לֹא יָדְעוּ וְלֹא יָבִינוּ בַּחֲשֵׁכָה יִתְהַלָּכוּ יִמּוֹטוּ כָּל מוֹסְדֵי אָרֶץ:
(ו) אַנִי אָמַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם:
(ז) אָכֵן כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן וּכְאַחַד הַשָֹּרִים תִּפֹּלוּ:
(ח) קוּמָה אֱלֹהִים שָׁפְטָה הָאָרֶץ כִּי אַתָּה תִנְחַל בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם: