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We read in Psalm 82:

I had taken you for divine beings,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
but you shall die as men do,
fall like any prince.—Psalm 82:6–7 (NJPS)

Some translations use the word "gods" in place of "divine beings". In the context of the Psalm, it would seem the referents are one of:

  1. Israel's judges
  2. Angels or (more generally) angelic beings
  3. Israel as a nation, when the law was received.

Which of these does the psalmist mean by the phrase, "I had taken you for divine beings"?

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Zechariah Sitchin and the History Channel propounds the belief they are aliens. Isaac Asimov suggested the use of the plural in various passages signify a transition/power struggle from/between paganistic pantheism to/with monotheistic Israel - as evidenced by the ideological struggle between northern and southern kingdoms that had lay nascent until the death of Solomon. – Blessed Geek Aug 19 '12 at 7:24

Jon's assesment is correct and in keeping with the opinion of D.A. Carson's opinion found in his work on the Gospel of John.

A few options that have been presented follow: 1) God is addressing Israel’s judges; 2) God is addressing angels; and 3) God is addressing Israel at the time of the giving of the Law. Jesus’ usage of the passage in John 10 should inform us, at the very least, of his intention for the passage, if not its meaning. Given the contrast that John places between God and mere man, the second option seems out of context. Given the judgments being rendered in John 9-10 and Psalm 82, one would naturally assume the first; but what are we to do with the phrase in both passages, “to whom the word of God came?” It has been argued, primarily from the Rabbinic tradition, that this applies to the giving of the Law; but did the Law only come to those whom it originally came, and did it not also then come to every generation? While it is impossible to state with absolute certainty the addressees of Psalm 82, we can say with certainty that they are humans, and they are Jews.

We understand from the Psalm that the nature of the address is one of rebuke, but what method of rebuke does God use? In Job God uses mockery by sarcasm (38-41); in Amos 4:1 He uses derogatory comments , Jesus uses irony in the seven woes and in John 9, as well as a well-developed allegory in Ezekiel 34. Out of the well-developed arsenal of rebukes at God’s disposal, what does God use here? To read most commentators, one would assume that He uses the most basic, the flat statement of sin and consequence. In fact, if we read nothing more than the flat reading of the text (whole Bible), then we would assume that God merely uses the word elohim to refer to judges, and that God is truly puzzled about whether man can go on a fishing trip for Leviathan, and also about the bovine nature of the women of a certain region. Of course we read these passages beyond their surface; so, with trepidation this post steps out of the well-worn tracks to explore a possible alternate theory (though certainly this is not the first attempt to do so).

To begin, a few presuppositions: 1) there is, in fact, one God; 2) the Hebrew language uses one word to sometimes refer to both God and men; 3) God takes counsel from no one; and 4) the pagan rulers of the Ancient Near East sometimes believed themselves to be gods (Daniel 6:7, Acts 12:22). If the presuppositions stand, then could these Israelites have thought too highly of themselves, perhaps falling into the common temptation to be like the other nations and to think of themselves as gods, (I Samuel 8:5) and ignoring God’s law (Psalm 82:2)? If so, then God’s usage of elohim here could be perceived as sarcasm and adds weight to His indictment against them. In other words, as God’s representatives of justice on the earth, they have failed in representing Him; and unlike some divine being or prince of other nations that may believe themselves to be eternal gods, they will die. However, the majority view remains and should be acknowledged, that this usage of elohim is employed within its un-nuanced normal range of meaning.

In short, I would argue that the "elohim" of Psalm 82 are the judges/rulers of Israel who are being rebuked, and with a fair amount of sarcasm.

Concerning semantic range:

1. pl. in number. †a. rulers, judges, either as divine representatives
at sacred places or as reflecting divine majesty and power
2. Pl. intensive. a. god or goddess
3. The (true) God
4. Yahweh is God in truth

Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Strong's, TWOT, and GK References Copyright 2000 by Logos Research Systems, Inc., electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), xiii.

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+1 thank you for this thoughtful and useful answer, and welcome to the site. I hope you enjoy contributing here and continue to do so! – Jack Douglas Aug 17 '12 at 17:06

I do not know if there are archaelogical evidence but could it be true that not all of Israel followed Jacob into Egypt. So, when Israel returned from economic self-exile in Egypt back to the promised land, they must have met with a remnant of Jacob's descendants who were entrenched in paganism?

The term could refer to the paganistic subculture that still existed during the time of David. Referring to village/jurisdiction elders who still needed to be bribed as gods, to be offered indulgences, or even to the extent of infant sacrifices.

I believe they also refer to the foreign kings and nobilities whose culture was making undesirable incursions and interfering with Israel's moving in the direction towards eradicating the stubbornly remnant paganism.

Both the foreign nobility as well as the local jurisdiction leaders would see themselves as gods that need to be appeased thro material means, indenture, underaged victims-of-desire or else face the threat of infant sacrifice.

And this is what the psalmist was probably angry about. I am speculating that he would have lived in northern Israel where corrupt practices would have been more rampant and he had been extremely frustrated by the lack of attn/action/ability to act from the central government, whose seat of govt was in the south.

So, to avoid political persecution, he instead invokes the unjustness of the Divine Protector in tolerating the situation rather than accusing/offending central govt figures, who had continued to ignore problems in the north.

My impression is that the vav is a very peculiar conjunction.

Does the verse actually meant,

I said ye gods are but children of the most high.

Don't think you are so mighty while continuing with your oppressive and corrupt practices because you are simply humans too.

Note that the following Psalm by the same psalmist is complaining about the conspiracy of the surrounding nations to wipe Israel off.

83:3 - On your people they have conducted ideological warfare and collaborated with hidden agents.

Hidden agents whose paganistic and narcissitic ideologies matches those of their foreign friends.

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Elohim as “Gods” in the Old Testament The Hebrew word elohim lies behind the word “God” in the OT. Several instances of this word are plural, which may seem to indicate polytheism. For this reason, modern English translations often obscure the Hebrew text’s references to plural elohim. For example, the NASB renders the second elohim in Psa 82:1 as “rulers.” Other translations—more faithful to the original Hebrew—opt for “gods” or “divine beings.” However, this usage does not imply polytheism. Several different entities are referred to as elohim in the OT. Considering this variety provides insight as to how the term should be understood. The Hebrew text of the OT refers to the following as elohim: Yahweh, the God of Israel (over 1000 times); the members of Yahweh’s heavenly council (Psa 82); the gods of foreign nations (1 Kgs 11:33); demons (see note on Deut 32:17); spirits of the human dead (1 Sam 28:13); and angels (see note on Gen 35:7). This variety demonstrates that the word should not be identified with one particular set of attributes: elohim is not a synonym for God. We reserve the English “g-o-d” for the God of Israel and His attributes. Despite their usage of elohim, the biblical writers do not qualitatively equate Yahweh with demons, angels, the human disembodied dead, the gods of the nations, or Yahweh’s own council members. Yahweh is unique and above these entities—yet the same term can be used to refer to all of them. All beings called elohim in the Hebrew Bible share a certain characteristic: they all inhabit the nonhuman realm. By nature, elohim are not part of the world of humankind, the world of ordinary embodiment. Elohim—as a term—indicates residence, not a set of attributes; it identifies the proper domain of the entity it describes. Yahweh, the lesser gods of His council, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead all inhabit the spiritual world. They may cross over into the human world—as the Bible informs us—and certain humans may be transported to the non-human realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch). But the proper domains of each are two separate and distinct places. Within the spiritual world, as in the human world, entities are differentiated by rank and power. Yahweh is an elohim, but no other elohim is Yahweh. This is what an orthodox Israelite believed about Yahweh. He was not one among equals; He was unique. The belief that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—that there is none like Him—is not contradicted by plural elohim in the OT. MICHAEL S. HEISER

Michael S. Heiser, “Elohim as ‘Gods’ in the Old Testament,” Faithlife Study Bible, John D. Barry, Michael R. Grigoni, et al. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012). Page 1. Exported from Logos Bible Software, 10:41 PM December 11, 2013.

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Putting the Gods in Their Place

Article by John Piper Scripture: Psalm 82 Topic: Spiritual Warfare Series: Taste & See Articles

History is being played out on two levels. One is seen, the other is unseen. One has humans as the main actors; the other has “gods” as the main actors. The two scripts are interwoven but not identical. What happens among the “gods” affects what happens among us. And what happens among us affects what happens among them. The pattern of evil in the visible human fabric is a pattern woven by the invisible “gods.” Nevertheless the pattern comes from the “inventions” of human hearts and we are responsible moral agents not mere pawns of the “principalities and powers.”

Psalm 82 is an amazing exposè of the “gods”—what the New Testament calls “principalities and powers and world rulers of this present darkness.” God comes to the assembly of the “gods” and rebukes them for the pattern of evil in the world. Verse 1: “God takes His stand in the assembly of God; He judges in the midst of the gods.” This is what he says. (Remember he is talking to the “gods,” not to mere humans):

2 How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Selah. 3 Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked. 5 They do not know nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Verse five refers to the victims of the darkness caused by the “world rulers of this present darkness.” They are the people whom Hosea says are “destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Paul says that the “god of this world” darkens the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4). God is calling to account the “powers of darkness” for this destructive darkening. It even shakes the foundations of the earth, because the foundations are light and truth. If darkness prevails, the foundations are shaken.

Then God warns the “gods.” He tells them that, although they are “sons of the Most High” (that is, angels, cf. Job 1:6; 38:7), nevertheless they will “die like men.” They are not men but they will die like men.

6 I said, “You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. 7 Nevertheless you will die like men, and fall like any one of the princes.”

This is what Jesus was referring to when he said that “the eternal fire [was] prepared for the devil and his angels”—that is for the “gods”. In other words, their end will be as ignominious and horrible as the ordinary sinners they have used to weave their fabric of evil.

God asserts the truth we must hold to through all the cosmic conflict of this age: All the nations belong to God. Satan is a liar (using a half-truth to lie) when he says to Jesus in Luke 4:6 that the earth is his and he gives it to whomever he wills. No. The truth is:

8 Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is thou who dost possess all the nations.

Our God owns the nations. The “gods” are permitted for a season to wreak havoc. We are called to see beyond their suicidal schemes of sin. We are called to stand with God and bear witness to his truth against the darkness. In due time he will defeat all his enemies and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Exposing and resisting with you,

Pastor John

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The Plural Elohim of Psalm 82 (academic paper) can be found here. Jesus’ Use of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34 (academic paper)

"Conclusion (summarize orally) The point has been twofold:
(1) Jesus uses Psalm 82 to identify himself as belonging to the divine realm. (2) Jesus also identifies himself with the Father, who belongs to the divine realm. The quotation now reinforces John’s exalted Christology, rather than being made to mean that Jesus is identifying with other Jews who are mere mortals. 14
Briefly, I view John’s use of Psa. 82:6 in John 10:34 as making the point (from Jesus himself) that there are other non - human sons of God. By referencing Psalm 82, which is not about “human elohim,” Jesus is in effect tweaking his opponents by claiming to be more than human. Had Jesus/John instead quoted something like Psa. 2:7, where the Israelite king was referred to as God’s son, the point would have been a claim to be the Davidic king (which, of course, his Jewish opponents could not have claimed). But instead we get Psa. 82:6 to distinguish Jesus. Situated as it is between clear claims to be one with the Father, and that the Father is in Jesus (cp. Exod. 23:20-23, where the Name—the presence/essence of Yahweh (cp. Deut. 4:37)—is in the angel, who is therefore Yahweh in human form), John is both asserting Jesus is divine and distinct from other divine sons of God. In effect, Jesus is lord of the council. This interpretation is consistent with: (1) Psalm 82 understood in its original ancient Near Eastern context; (2) other instances of “sons of God” being divine in the Hebrew Bible; and (3) John’s portrayal of Jesus as God in his gospel. No other view meets these criteria".

Dr. Michael S. Heiser January, 2016
Ph.D. (2004), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI; Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies; minor in Classical Studies. My dissertation was entitled, “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature.” The dissertation involved exegesis primarily in the Pentateuch, Wisdom Literature, and Isaiah, but also dealt at length with Israelite Religion (all stages) and Second Temple texts. Supervisor: Michael V. Fox
M.A. (1998), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI; Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies
M.A. (1992), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA; Department of Ancient History; Major Areas: Ancient Egypt and Syria-Palestine (Israel)
Current Position
Scholar-in-Residence, Logos Bible Software, Bellingham, WA. Logos is the leading creator of software for research in the original languages of the Bible and digital library collections for biblical studies. I am currently responsible for reviewing academic content and creating digital tools for classroom use or independent learners.
Academic Honors
2007 - Society of Biblical Literature Regional Scholar Award, 2007 (Pacific Northwest Region) 1998-2003 – Teaching Assistantship, Department of Communication Arts, University of WisconsinMadison 1997 - Scholarship, Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1995 - James L. Weinstein Fellowship in Hebrew Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1990 - Ancient History Department scholarship, University of Pennsylvania

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