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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

2 Answers 2

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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