I started working on Psalm 82 more than a decade ago to unpack the relationship between the Divine Council and Earthly justice-seeking councils, like the Council of Elders in the Bible. I quickly discovered that Psalm 82 was a difficult text to unpack, and many scholars disagreed about its origin, its place in the Psalter, its purpose, and its genre. Furthermore, interpreters had difficulties working out what certain words and phrases meant. For this reason, many have considered Psalm 82 problematic. As a result, most Psalms commentaries deal very little with the psalm, avoiding its tension, preferring a glossed and simplistic reading. Maybe for this reason, the Institute of Biblical Research (IBR) is devoting an entire conference session this year to scholarly conversation about Psalm 82 as a problematic text. My forthcoming book, Divine Council, Ethics, and Resistance in Psalm 82, unravels past scholarship on the psalm and explains a way through the text by reading Psalm 82 as Ethical and as Resistance Literature.
A Quick Tour of Past Scholarship
Two notable dissertations have been written on Psalm 82 in the Twentieth Century. One in 1939 (by Morgenstern) and one in 1966 (by Ackerman). Both attempted to clarify how Psalm 82 could be a biblical text that read as an ancient Near Eastern mythological poem. Unfortunately, this brought more questions than answers, which kicked off a stream of scholarly articles to debate how we should translate and interpret a psalm that talks about multiple gods and describes their injustice against humanity and the earth.
Interpretation of Psalm 82 seemed to go one of two directions which Morgenstern established: that the elohim referenced four times in the short psalm are either divine entities or human. If divine, there is a problem of if references to elohim mean God (as in YHWH, the God of the Israelites); if elohim means gods (as in other deities); and if human, there is a problem of fitting other language in the psalm which has to do with losing one’s divinity and becoming mortal.
Many discussions about Psalm 82 get caught up in all the other interesting features of the psalms, like its historical and cultural provenance (is it a late text or an early text?), its genre (is it mythological and representative or literal and grounded?), its liturgical focus (is it a prayer, lament, or explication?), and finally, why and how the language of Psalm 82 connects with ancient Near Eastern mythological traditions. Reading these articles feels like watching a tennis match where the ball is occasionally dropped so that no one gets the point, and then it starts again.
Where did Psalm 82 Come From?
While scholars have no clear consensus about the provenance of Psalm 82, we know a few things from the text itself. First, it is in the Psalter, so it is liturgical and has been used as part of cultic worship practices for centuries. It is still included today in many Christian liturgies, and as liturgical, the psalm is read aloud, taught, and heard. This makes it useful as an ethical or instructive text. Secondly, Psalm 82 is said to be a psalm of Asaph. There are twelve psalms of Asaph in the Psalter. The Asaph psalms are generally thought to have come either from an early Northern Israelite context or late in the Second Temple Period. The provenance of Psalm 82 greatly influences its interpretation. Language evolves over time, and slight changes in nuance or symbolic language can alter the trajectories of meaning. There are good reasons for both theories, but I hold with the former for many reasons I discuss in my book. However, it is unavoidable that even as late as the Second Temple Period, a decision was made to preserve Psalm 82 in its obscure form as part of the complete work of the Psalter. Psalm 82 was important to the compilers of the Hebrew Bible, even though its message contained mythological concepts and resistant ideas about inclusion that may not have fit very well with the form of religion evolving at that time. I discuss how Psalm 82 may be read as a form of resistance literature in my book.
Interpreting Psalms as Poetry
The best way to read Psalm 82 is first as poetry. Poetry is a genre that invites emotion, metaphor, and allegory. Poetry communicates just as much by structure as by words. Psalm 82 contains allusions to other ancient texts and ideas about keeping justice for the poor. It also contains references to divine injustice, which is very complicated since many consider the Bible to have a monotheistic thrust. The psalm moves between divine and earthly realms and includes uncommon phrases that don’t fit well with other biblical texts. Furthermore, there is no real conclusion to the psalm. Psalm 82 begins with a divine reprimand and ends with a plea for the elohim to do better. The message of Psalm 82 reads like prophecy in the way it addresses divine and human concerns in the same breath. This complicates how the psalm is received. However, prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible are often poetic, and some prophetic passages are also considered psalms. For example, Exodus 15:1-21, a psalm of praise and victory by Miriam; Deut 32:1-43, a psalm about God’s place in the world and the place of God’s people; Jdg 5, a psalm about God’s victory and the victory of God’s people by Deborah; 1 Sam 2:1-10, a psalm of praise and prophecy by Hannah; 2 Samuel 22, a psalm of thanksgiving; Isa 38:9-20, a psalm about God’s sovereignty; Jonah 2:3-10, a psalm of repentance and praise; and Habakkuk 3, a psalm about God’s magnificence.
Mythology and the Bible
The most fascinating aspect of Psalm 82 is its mythological provenance. It is the primary subject of both Morgenstern’s and Ackerman’s twentieth-century dissertations. It is not only the Divine Council language in Psalm 82 that is considered mythological but also an obscure reference to Sons of Elyon, a Hebrew phrase that occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible (hapax legomena). It is not that there is no way through, but that these affiliations with non-biblical and extra-biblical material seem to be a stumbling block for religious readers. There are a few intertextual comparisons that interpreters look to for comparison, like other texts that mention or describe a Divine council, like Genesis 6, Deuteronomy 32.8-9, and Job 1. However, these texts seem to be doing something different. There are some connections to be made, but it takes some interpretive gymnastics to draw parallels. Some scholars have suggested better connections between Psalm 82 and Ugaritic myths like the Epic of Kirta and the Epic of Aqhat. In my book, I make the case for a connection between Psalm 82 and the Epic of Aqhat based on both dealing with ethical conduct between the divine and human realms.
Psalm 82 is a very short psalm (only eight verses!) that has generated complex questions about mythology and the Bible, about how we date biblical literature, and what genre has to do with interpretation. There are several other texts in the Bible that contain obscure references to Divine Council, but they are often ignored and easy to skip. But Psalm 82 is a passage filled with polyvalent, ambiguous, ethical, and mythological devices. This is what a difficult text looks like.
Read more about psalms, or check out my book Divine Council, Ethics, and Resistance in Psalm 82.