When you first look at this case, it looks run-of-the-mill, boilerplate, like so many other poems in the Book of Psalms. You see one, you’ve seen a hundred. Its theme is that Yahweh is just and he knows how to manage the world. Of course; classic. Its form is also classic, a series of lines that are similar in length, and each line has mainly two but sometimes three balanced parts (Bible sleuths call it parallelism).
Three things make this a unique case for me. I’ll tick them off. One, most poems in the Book of Psalms are either lyrical, in which someone expresses a sentiment in the present, or narrative, in which someone tells an event in the past. But this poem is dramatic; it portrays an event in the present. It’s set up like a journalist holding a video-camera: first they introduce what is happening, then they allow the camera to capture the scene directly, so the viewer hears and sees what is unfolding in real time. But the reader doesn’t watch a performed scene; they read the text and conjure its scene in their own mind.
Second unusual aspect: the poem presents the moment when Yahweh becomes the only god running the world. It does not say that people once thought there were many gods, then decided actually there is only one. It says that originally there were many gods, each running its own territory and people, but then Yahweh took over for all of them.
Three, the poem doesn’t even say that when it was all over, Yahweh was the only god left. The father and manager of the gods, El Elyon, is still around; he just becomes redundant. With no gang of gods to run anymore, he goes into retirement. Yahweh is the last god standing in effect.
If that was too much, here’s the quick version. Plenty of biblical writers talk about divine councils and gods running the world. Heck, one text has it all in plain sight: El Elyon divided up the world among the gods, but Yahweh selected for himself a landless people, “Jacob” (an alias for “Israel”), to help them thrive (Deuteronomy 32:8–14; if you don’t trust me, and you shouldn’t, go to the bottom of this case file). But only the writer of Psalm 82 gives an account of the change from many gods to Yahweh (and El Elyon).
P.S. Gods in those days used aliases and you have to keep track of who’s who. Stay with me here: The poem says “Elohim” instead of “Yahweh,” but they’re the same god. Also, “El” and “Elyon” are the same god, “El Elyon” actually, and El Elyon is a different god than Elohim (Yahweh).
P.P.S. I always say, if you care about a case, follow the quotes, who’s speaking and who’s quoting whom. In this case, first speaks the narrator, then Elohim (who at one point quotes El Elyon), then El Elyon (who at one point quotes himself). I added quotation marks to help you follow the trail.
1 A psalm, of Asaph.
Elohim stands in the assembly of El / Amidst the deities he indicts: //
2 “How long will you judge perversely / and to the wicked will you show favor!? // (Selah)
3 ‘Champion wretched and orphan! / Lowly and poor vindicate! //
4 Rescue wretched and needy! / From the hand of criminals extricate!’ //
5 They never knew and do not see / in darkness do they go about /
all the foundations of the earth are being shaken!” //
6 “I had declared: ‘You are divine beings!’ / and: ‘You all are sons of Elyon!’ //
7 But (now), like humanity shall you die / and like any of the rulers shall you fall. //
8 Arise, O Elohim! / Judge the earth! /
For you shall make your estate among all the nations.” //
א מִזְמוֹר לְאָסָף
אֱלֹהִים 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 ״אֲנִי־אָמַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם
ז אָכֵן כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ
ח קוּמָה אֱלֹהִים שָׁפְטָה הָאָרֶץ
כִּי־אַתָּה תִנְחַל בְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִם״
The heading of this poem isn’t too troublesome. Asaph is in the heading of a dozen poems, all of which have interesting content (Psalms 50, 73–83). But Asaph is a very elusive character. The first great Bible sleuths, from way back in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (“Second Temple” times) — whose notes and files are collected in Chronicles–Ezra-Nehemiah — worked up a whole bio on him: he’s a Levite whom King David charged with composing and performing temple music. But sleuths back then had different aims and methods; they took shreds of any threads and wove a major yarn. By today’s standards what they had on Asaph is wishful thinking. The guy is a ghost. But it doesn’t affect the poem.
Another unsolvable part of the poem that also does not affect it is the word “selah.” No sleuth I know of has cracked this nut, and I’ve got nothing on it. Sorry.
The hardest part of the poem is a bunch of expressions for “god,” “gods,” and the names of specific gods that all go two ways (el, elohim, and elyon). If — like most sleuths actually — your theory is that the poem represents a world in which one god exists, “God,” and all these expressions refer to him, then the poem is completely confusing about who is in the scene and what they are saying to whom about whom else. Bible sleuths have debunked the theory that people in ancient Israel and Judea believed in one god like modern-day monotheists, but even sleuths still find the poem baffling. So how to read it? If you ever had a case where you had to go through transcripts of phone conversations without names, you know what to do. I read the poem like the record of a conversation, following the threads of what is being said and to whom. This allowed me to figure out who must be doing the talking at each point, and the whole case became clear.
First, a voice, narrator (like a reporter), says that right now Elohim is standing in the council of El (a different god, who presides over the proceedings), and that Elohim is in the process there of making an accusation. The narrator ceases speaking and never returns. In the rest, we hear Elohim directly, then El Elyon directly.
Next, Elohim indicts the other members of El’s council, namely, all the other gods, for failing to administer justice in the world. He begins with the rhetorical question “How long!?” Then he quotes El’s original charge to the gods. To conclude, Elohim talks about some group not having knowledge and the sense of justice and stumbling about in darkness (the only metaphor in the poem!), and the world being on the brink of collapse. I have a few theories about this statement, but no way to decide which is right. Here are my theories: (1) Elohim is still talking to the gods, and he talks about humanity having no clear rules or experience of justice. (2) Elohim turns now to talk to El, and he talks about the gods having no knowledge, no understanding, no illumination. (3) Again, Elohim is talking to El now, and first he talks about the gods not having knowledge or understanding then he talks about humanity stumbling about in darkness.
What I do feel certain about is that the very final remark, that the world is on the brink of collapse, is not a metaphor but is meant literally. Some clever sleuthing has figured out that the ancient scientists saw the world almost like a snow globe: The sky is a solid dome that meets the water out in the distance, the earth is a single giant slab surrounded by water, and it is held up by an underwater mountain or set of columns. But they also thought that this system must be maintained by human behavior and it can be wrecked by human misbehavior. When humanity misbehaves, pollution is created or the forces of decomposition accelerate. It seeps into the earth, wrecking its fertility, and seeps further down to the columns that hold it up and rots them, so the earth could collapse. This is what Elohim means: the gods have allowed so much corruption that columns are rotting and tottering. If you’ve heard of the Flood story with Noah and you look at the language there (Genesis 6–9), you don’t have to be a trained sleuth to see the same idea there — and in many other texts in the Bible.
In the last section, El speaks. First, he talks to the gods and gives his verdict. In the past, he made them gods, his very own children; now he strips them of their jobs and of their immortality. Next, he talks to Elohim and charges him with replacing the gods and managing the entire earth himself.
In case you are really new to these kinds of cases, let me add that, formally, there is a bit of symmetry in this structure. Elohim speaks to the gods, along the way he quotes El’s original charge to them, and he concludes by speaking to El (in options 2 and 3) in a long, three-clause line. So too El speaks to the gods, along the way he quotes his original declaration to them, and he concludes by speaking to Yahweh in a long, three-clause line.
Some of you inquiring types might want to know a bit more about the elohim-Elohim-gods-God-Yahweh mess. Here is an extra set of notes for you.
One of the tripping points of this case is that the word elohim is used for both Elohim (“God”) and “gods.” And by the way, some careful searching shows that elohim can mean gods with a sex-drive (Gen 6:1–4), fate (Exod 21:12–14), and ghosts or spirits (1 Sam 28:13; Isaiah 8:19). Why didn’t the poet use the name “Yahweh” instead of “Elohim,” which would have cleared up the mess to begin with? Here’s the catch: the original poet most probably did and someone changed it. This is an instance where some really clever sleuthing has turned up some interesting tidbits. You never know when tidbits are going to come in handy, so you file them away under “S” for “Sherlock moment.” Here’s how my thinking goes, building on facts that other sleuths have uncovered and developed:
Fact 1: The Book of Psalms has 150 poems, and 42 of them have many more Elohims and much fewer Yahwehs than than all the others (Psalms 42–83); it looks like someone replaced the name Yahweh by Elohim. Psalm 82 is in this group. Fact 2: The Book of Psalms is a collection of existing collections, a combination of small scrolls onto a single big one. Fact 3: In Second Temple times, there were widely different versions of the Book of Psalms. Sleuth’s Theory: Whoever collected our version of Psalms included a scroll of 42 poems in which there was much more Elohim and less Yahweh than all the other scrolls collected. Speculation: That 42-poem scroll was a copy. The original had Yahweh, but when this copy was made, the copyist replaced it. Why? Scenarios: (1) The copyist was a junior copyist whose teacher feared too many mistakes and requested a non-sacred copy; (2) the copyist was preparing the scroll for a non-sacred setting. Yes, you sharpies are right, in both scenarios, Elohim is considered a non-sacred name, not like today. Now you’re knee-deep in my world.
For those of you who trust no one, which is how it ought to be, as I always say, I’ll show you some of my evidence. In Deuteronomy 31–32, Yahweh composes a poem and dictates it to Moses to teach the Israelites, and this poem says that it is traditional knowledge (32:7 “Just go ask your father and he’ll tell you, your elders and they’ll say it to you”) that Elyon divided the world among the gods, but Yahweh chose landless, fledging Israel for himself to help them thrive (verses 8–14). In the current Hebrew version, Yahweh says “When Elyon made the nations into estates, when he separated humanity, he set the territories of the peoples by the number of Israelites (בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל).” All sleuths see how strange this is. El Elyon has no special love for Israelites, they didn’t exist yet, and what number would that be anyway? It doesn’t take a super-sleuth to see that someone doctored the original version, which was “gods” (בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים). But you don’t have to believe me about that; see for yourself a fragment found in a cave by the Dead Sea: https://iaa-dss.appspot.com/explore-the-archive/image/B-359054. The Septuagint, an ancient Jewish translation into Greek, has here “angels of God,” which is another pious revision of “gods,” but makes no sense at all as a revision of “Israelites.”
One last thing you might not have noticed (don’t feel bad, experienced sleuths have missed this too): The opening scene in the Book of Job is really similar to the divine council in Psalm 82, but some of the roles have been switched up. There is a divine council, in which they talk about human behavior on earth, but Yahweh plays the role of El, and “the satan” (= “the accuser”) plays the role of Yahweh! But that’s another case, for another time.
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