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Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


presentations
Is Psalm 82 metaphorical?

TL;DR: no.

In the comments of Is the divine council henotheistic? Blake Reas made some interesting points about how we should interpret Psalm 82:

I do have to wonder if we should take psalm 82 literally. I broadly agree with you, but Psalm 82 seems to be a polemic. YHWH sentences the Elohim to die. Seems we have two options: 1) these beings are not Angels, they are some other sort of being that is different from us, but can die. 2) this is pure polemic. Imagine hearing that YHWH executes the other so-called deities while you are worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple as a devout Israelite, especially if you had the image of Dagon having his hands and head cut off!!!

When I read psalm 82 my mind goes directly to 1 Samuel 5. I am not sure psalm 82 depicts a real event but is using a word picture to tell a truth about YHWH’s power over other supernatural beings.

By way of response: there seem to be problems with this suggested reading…

(1)

Putting myself in the place of an Israelite, it’s hard to make sense of the psalm if it is referring only to “so-called deities” rather than real beings. The polemic trades off the fact that these gods do not rule justly—but mere figments do not rule at all. They don’t exist. By the same token, if these are figments, then sentencing them to death is toothless, since something cannot die that does not first live.

(2)

It’s also hard to understand what God standing in the midst of the divine council means here, if he is standing among figments. If the point of the psalm is actually to condemn human rulers, why confuse the issue by taking it out on their invented deities? Why not use a clearer and more direct metaphor?

(3)

Apropos (2), this doesn’t mesh well with other passages which explicitly show something like a divine courtroom (eg 2 Chronicles 18:18-22). It doesn’t make sense to make such an obvious allusion, but then to say that the beings among which God is standing don’t actually exist. That would be equivalent to saying that the heavenly host, or a subset thereof, doesn’t exist. Surely we need to connect the dots in the other direction—the heavenly host certainly does exist (one of God’s repeated monikers is Yahweh Ts’vaot!) and Psalm 82 gives us a glimpse into how they function with respect to human kingdoms.

(4)

A metaphorical/polemical reading doesn’t make sense of John 10:34-39. Jesus’ argument there is an a fortiori one. Roughly:

  1. God himself calls lesser divine beings gods and makes them adoptive sons of the Most High (Psalm 82:6)
  2. Jesus is not merely an adopted son; he is in the Father, and the Father is in him (John 10:38)
  3. Therefore, how much more a son and how much more equal with God is he

Now, that argument completely falls apart if the other gods don’t actually exist. If Psalm 82:6 is just a metaphorical polemic strategy, then the word of God didn’t come to anyone who actually exists (John 10:35); thus no one was actually called a god or a son of the Most High. But if no one was actually called a god, Jesus can’t very well mount an a fortiori argument that he is greater than those beings. Anyone is greater than no one.

On the other hand, if you take the word of God to have come to human beings, then Jesus’ argument runs aground:

  1. God himself calls human rulers gods and makes them adoptive sons of the Most High (Psalm 82:6)
  2. Jesus is not merely an adopted son; he is in the Father, and the Father is in him (John 10:38)
  3. Therefore, how much more a son and how much more equal with God is he

The problem here is that the inference from (iv) to (v) is fatally equivocal. Under this theory, the term “gods” is honorific; it doesn’t denote a divine role, or a divine (ie non-human) ontology. But the Jews’ outrage is prompted precisely because the claims Jesus is making are about role and ontology. So this argument has him trying to justify his claim to divinity on the basis of an honorific title that can be applied to any human being—which is an obvious non sequitur. The Jews would be right in trying to stone him if that was his best defense; but that’s not quite the gloss John puts on the passage.

(5)

It’s very unclear how Psalm 82:6 can mesh with a metaphorical polemic. Why would God make false, non-existent deities his sons? How does this fit into the broader rhetorical strategy? I agree that Psalm 82 has polemical overtones, but I think those trade on the fact that it is not metaphorical.

(6)

The puzzle over divine beings “dying like men” in Psalm 82:7 is well taken. But I think the parallelism in that verse gives us a clue that biological death is not primarily in view. Rather, the point is to emphasize the contrast between these gods’ status (v 6) and their punishment (v 7). It is an ironic reversal—indeed, an allusion to the original ironic reversal in Genesis 3:14-15. By failing to fulfill the role of divinity, these beings are made lower than the men they were supposed to rule. So just as Satan does not eat literal dust in Genesis 3:14, and just as he is not brought down into a literal pit in Isaiah 14:15, so these gods are not literally killed in Psalm 82:6-7. The point is much like that in Isaiah 14—indeed, the language of “falling” is even the same:

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!

You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of Tsaphon; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”

But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

To be brought down to Sheol, of course, is to be brought down to the grave. It is a metaphor for death when applied to human beings. Yet we do not think Satan dies in the sense of biological death. For the same reason, I think it strains Psalm 82:7 to take the judgment of death too literally. It is referring, rather, to faring no better than a human ruler who is weak and mortal, who cannot rule forever.

(7)

We can augment (6) with a more robust theology of death. While we tend to think of death in biological terms, that isn’t Scripture’s primary category for it. You see in Genesis 2:16-17 that God promises immediate death to Adam and Eve when they eat from the tree in the midst of the garden. I believe God neither lied nor changed his mind—Adam and Eve did die on the day they ate. And I believe that largely because of the symmetry we see when we go to Revelation—the Bible is bookended by death. The first death is in Eden; the second death is in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). Neither of these deaths are biological in nature. Indeed, the second death is precisely what God saved Adam and Eve from by driving them out of the garden: he prevented them eating of the tree of life and living (biologically) forever in alienation from him. The second death presupposes eternal biological life.

So not only do we have the poetic irony in (5) offsetting the prima facie interpretation of Psalm 82:7, but we also have the complexity of the biblical doctrine of death. It’s simplistic to assume that biological death must be in view. These gods will in fact die in the lake of fire.

2 comments

  1. Blake Reas

    Bnonn,

    Thanks for the reply. My comments were specifically spurred on by the “die like men comment”, but you answered that adequately. I have some more comments for later, but it has to do with Oswalt’s book on the ANE. I will post more fully later, but in the book Oswalt argues that polytheism in the ancient world was more like a pantheism with the gods being expressions of “divinity” (something like that), how do you think this conception of polytheism should influence our reading? It even seems to me that Greek polytheism of the Illiad, for instance, is a little more complex than we assume. Just some thoughts, I’ll try and develop this in a better way later.

    Blake

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Another good question worthy of a separate post. I’m not highly qualified to answer, but I’ve given it my best shot:

    http://bnonn.com/why-polytheism-pantheism-monism/

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