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Exodus 22:8 (NASB)

If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property.

The word in the original Hebrew that is translated to “judges” is הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים, which literally means “God” or “gods” and is usually translated as such. Is there a reason for the use of “judges” here (and in verse 9), other than contextual interpretation that God could not possibly refer to other gods in His commandments to the Israelites?

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Psalm 82 helpfully says a lot more about this. It begins:

"God presides in the great assembly; he give judgment among the 'gods'... I said, 'You are 'gods'; you are all sons of the Most High. But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler".

There is the meaning. Rulers (other than the Almighty who is Sovereign over all) are viewed as if they were representing God in their rulership. Verses 2-4 state their tasks - to defend the weak and fatherless; to maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed; to rescue the weak and needy and to deliver them from the hand of the wicked. But verse 2 accuses those rulers of perverting the course of justice by supporting the unjust and being partial towards the wicked. Therefore, verse 7 has God warning such rulers that they will die as mere men, and fall like every other ruler.

Judges had exactly the same responsibilities in Israel. The king was ultimately responsible, but the many judges in Israel were accorded great respect as though judging on behalf of God. They represented God's justice. That is why Exodus 22:8 is actually addressing men who were judges; the text shows their divine responsibility.

The NIV Study Bible notes on Psalm 82 explain:

"As if in a vision, the psalmist sees the rulers and judges gathered before the Great King to give account of their administration of justice. In the language of the OT... rulers and judges, as deputies of the heavenly King, could be given the honorific title 'god' or be called 'son of God'...

Verse 6 Those who rule or judge do so by God's appointment and thus they are his representatives - whether they acknowledge him or not." (p 1584)

That is why Jesus quoted Psalm 82:6 to the leaders in Israel who wanted to stone him to death. They accused Jesus of blasphemy for claiming to be God (John 10:33-39). So he reminded them that men who were leaders in Israel were called 'gods' by God in the Law, and such men were due respect. Yet they would not respect him when he stated (truthfully), "I am God's Son". His wise use of scripture enabled him to avoid being stoned to death.

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English Standard Version Exodus 22:8

If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property.

ESV uses a more literal translation.

LXX also:

8ἐὰν δὲ μὴ εὑρεθῇ ὁ κλέψας, προσελεύσεται ὁ κύριος τῆς οἰκίας ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ὀμεῖται, ἦ μὴν μὴ αὐτὸν πεπονηρεῦσθαι ἐφ᾽ ὅλης τῆς παρακαταθήκης τοῦ πλησίον.

At https://biblehub.com/exodus/22-8.htm, only one version translates it as "gods", Douay-Rheims Bible:

If the thief be not known, the master of the house shall be brought to the gods, and shall swear that he did not lay his hand upon his neighbour's goods,

13 out of 27 versions use "judges" and 12 use "God".

Why do translations use “judges” in Exodus 22:8 instead of “gods”?

Only one version translates it as "gods".

Why do translations use “judges” in Exodus 22:8 instead of “God”?

It is due to their translation philosophy. Versions lean toward formal (literal) equivalence tend to translate it as "God". Versions lean toward dynamic equivalence tend to translate it as "judges".

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    The A.V. gives formal, literal translation but says 'judges' in Ex 22:8. Young's Literal Translation also sticks to formal, literal translation and says 'God'. However, the Good News Bible (dynamic equivalence) says "the man is to be brought to the place of worship"! Then, in verse 9 it says 'God' and not 'judges', because the location is implied to have been the place where God would be viewed as residing (the Temple). There's no real consistency here, showing the real difficulty translators have.
    – Anne
    Sep 22 at 16:37
  • Good points. I modified and upvoted your answer :)
    – Tony Chan
    Sep 22 at 16:47
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The reason some translation use ‘judges’ is simple. The Hebrew word behind the word ‘judges’ is ‘ĕlōhîm’.

And Elohim has *traditionally’ been ‘seen’ as a ‘word’ representing, or standing for ‘God’. However there has been and increased awareness recently that this doesn’t ‘fit’, as this word is used in other contexts, for example in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 it clearly refers to a demonic entity.

But, back to your Exodus passage. This passage, along side some other passages has been a source of some debate - namely over whether there are ‘multiple gods’. This ‘thinking’ or interpretation is challenging certain traditional doctrine, which causes passages such as this in Exodus to need to be interpreted as an ‘entity’ that is ‘human’. This is the ‘source’ of the issue over whether to translate ‘Elohim’ as ‘gods’or ‘judges’.

In this particular passage in Exodus, the issue is caused by failing to take into account the context of what exactly is happening here. But, in fairness this takes, or requires additional knowledge, ‘knowledge’ that is not clear from the passage. Let’s briefly outline this …

EXODUS 22:8 If the thief is not found, then the master of the house shall be brought to the judges to see whether he has put his hand into his neighbor’s goods.

The ‘traditional’ view is that this relates to the Judges Moses appointed in Exodus18:13-24. However nowhere in that passage does it use ‘Elohim’ for ‘judges’. The word used is a Hebrew word that means ‘human judges’ - not Elohim. So we can’t justify a ‘human’ interpretation of the elohim in Exodus 22 on the basis of Exodus 18.

This ‘brought to the judges’ needs to be critically scrutinised. If we look back one chapter to Exodus 21:2-6, we can get some clarification..

EXODUS 21:6 then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.

Note - again ‘judges’ here comes from the Hebrew Elohim. Essentially this meant that the matter in hand was brought to the ‘mantle place’, or central icon of the house - the doorpost - which represented bringing the matter before the/your ancestors. So another words, you want your ancestors to ‘approve’. And in this context, Elohim can be translated correctly, or rather, be ‘seen’ correctly, that is, as a spiritual entity - so ‘gods’ would be a legitimate translation.

This is an understanding that really requires more than the brief outline here, and if interested, for a *detailed’ (scholarly) outline, see here

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