A dear friend of mine suggested that I might be interested in the Biblical exegesis of Mike Heiser (of whom I had never heard), so I looked up some of his works available on Amazon. Amazon allows one to peruse the initial chapters of the books they offer for sale, so I was able to look at the first chapters of Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. There I learned that “a watershed moment” in his life came when a friend challenged him to read Psalm 82. He did and it sent his mind “reeling”, with the eventual result that he wrote The Unseen Realm as part of his entirely new understanding of the over-arching Scriptural narrative. This naturally sent me back to read Psalm 82 for myself to see what all the fuss was about. It was, naturally, a wonderful psalm, and is chanted in our Holy Saturday Liturgy. But I had no watershed moment as did Mr. Heiser. I suppose my mind does not reel all that easily.
The psalm does, admittedly, provoke some mild exegetical controversy. For those unfamiliar with it, the psalm reads as follows.
God [Hebrew Elohim] takes His stand in the assembly of God [Hebrew El];
He judges in the midst of the gods [Hebrew elohim]:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Vindicate the weak and fatherless;
do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them out of the hand of the wicked!”
They do not know nor do they understand;
they walk about in darkness;
All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, “You are gods [Hebrew elohim],
and all of you are sons of the Most High [Hebrew bene elyon].
Nevertheless you will die like men [Hebrew adam]
and fall like one of the princes.”
Arise, O God [Hebrew elohim], judge the earth!
For it is You who possess all the nations!”
The psalm cannot be understood apart from some knowledge of the thought world of the ancient Near East. In that world a deity was considered as part of a heavenly pantheon, and the god (or goddess) functioned as part of that pantheon. In monotheistic Israel, of course, Yahweh was the only God, and so there could be no question of Him functioning as part of a pantheon of other gods. But He still functioned as part of a heavenly council. The council, of course, consisted of angels, termed “sons of God” (Hebrew bene Elohim) in Job 1:6 and 38:7, and He often conferred with them. We see this council in the background in Genesis 1:26 and Isaiah 6:8, and more clearly still in the foreground in 1 Kings 22. For the Hebrews, it was inconceivable that a king would be without a court, and that Yahweh would be without His council. This is the background to Psalm 82: the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, arises in His heavenly council and addressing the angelic sons of God, the bene Elohim.
The poetry of the psalm and its genius consist of transposing this heavenly setting to earth, so that Elohim does not stand to rebuke the angelic members of His heavenly council, but the very human members ruling Israel. God addresses the earthly rulers and powers in the land as if they were gods, elohim, angelic sons of the Most High. The address is full of irony: it is as if God says, “You exercise such power on earth it is as if you are gods yourselves! You imagine that you are above the common judgment of man, and are members of My heavenly council!”
For it is clear that those addressed by God in this psalm are not members of His heavenly council, but earthly rulers in Israel. And this for several reasons.
First of all, angels in heaven were not the ones responsible for taking care of the weak and fatherless in Israel on earth—the rulers in Israel were. These rulers are often denounced in the psalms for their injustice (e.g. Psalm 10:18) and were sometimes called “gods” [Hebrew elim; Psalm 58:10]. It makes no sense for God to denounce the angels in heaven for the faults of earthly rulers. It was not the job of the angels to vindicate the fatherless and the oppressed in Israel, but the job of the Israelite judges.
Psalm 82 is clearly denouncing Israelite injustice, and it is this denunciation of earthly injustice that gives the psalm any relevance for those reading it. Psalm 82 is like other psalms which insist upon social justice in the land—the denunciation of oppression by the godless rulers so that they could repent was its entire point.
Secondly, the psalm assures these exalted rulers that for all their uncommon pretensions to invincible power, they will still like the common death of men (v. 7). Angels do not die, and they certainly do not die like men. Therefore the objects of the denunciation were men, not angels.
Thirdly, the Lord Himself when quoting this psalm in John 10:34 said that the words, “You are gods” referred to those “to whom the Word of God came”—i.e. to men. This in itself should settle the question about whether God was addressing angels or men in this psalm.
We note that in the past other exegetes came to this same conclusion. The translators of the King James Version rendered the first verse of this Psalm “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty”, which argues that they understood a human setting for psalm. (Indeed, the word El can also be used not to mean “God”, but also as a simple superlative. Thus the RSV renders “the cedars of El” in Psalm 80:10 as “mighty cedars”.) Also the Jewish targum (or paraphrase from Hebrew into Aramaic) says that God stands “in the assembly of the faithful”, and the Jewish Greek Aquila version says that God stands “in the assembly of the powerful”. These all argue for an earthly setting for the denunciation, and for human judges.
Finally, we note that this seems to be the understanding of those who chose this psalm for use in the Holy Saturday Liturgy. In this service, after the Epistle is read, immediately prior to the reading of the Gospel, Psalm 82 is chanted with the repeated refrain, Arise, O God, judge the earth! Obviously this refrain refers to Christ arising from the dead to judge the earth as the Lord of all. But the entire psalm fits this narrative context, not just this one verse. The psalm denounces the rulers of Israel for their injustice, and threatens them with wrath for their crimes. If the one arising is Christ, then the ones being denounced were the Israelite judges who sentenced Him to an unjust death. These had “neither knowledge nor understanding; they walked about in darkness”—which is exactly how the Lord described those who did not believe in Him (see John 8:12, 12:35).
This psalm therefore does not simply denounce the earthly rulers in Israel who refused to vindicate the weak and the fatherless or give justice to the needy and destitute in the days of Asaph, the author of the psalm. It denounces all who in every age arrogate to themselves divine authority without divine compassion and justice. And it looked forward to the coming of true justice for the oppressed, for it looked forward to the resurrection of Christ, when He arose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, from whence He will come again to judge the earth. Maybe this psalm should cause the mind to reel after all.
You’re aware, I’m sure, that many modern scholars use this Psalm to illustrate that Elohim progressed in the Hebrews’ consciousness from a minor deity to reigning in the council, displacing El. Or something like that? (I think you’re familiar with the idea.)
Your thoughts on that exegesis?
I am suspicious of attempts to go behind the text and discover (or usually concoct) scenarios of what might have been. I believe that exegetes must confine themselves to what the text actually says, and not indulge in guesswork about the pre-history of a text.
I’m not sure if I’m the one who suggested Heiser to you. But I don’t think you’ve delved into the topic far enough. Deuteronomy 32, Babel, Genesis 6 plays into this overall view as well, and the book of Enoch which was quoted as Scripture in the early Church by influential Fathers/apologists. But Heiser also give the OT background for theosis. Theosis is tied to Council.
The reason this view, of a Divine Council. is crucial to Orthodoxy is because it is the backdrop, Biblically, for Saints, further evidence for free will imagers, and if you read early catechisms, especially St. Cyril, you realize they’re full of this stuff. Satan is front and center the nemesis, with the fallen sons of God. It is even explanation for why there are other religions.
Heiser does a convincing job of combatting any view of the elohim in Psalms 82 that makes them human. I hope you can revisit. If you take a look over at Father Stephen De Young’s blog, he is tracking on the same trajectory. I’ll buy you the book if you’ll read it! It is chock full of Orthodox apologetic!
The Heiser book was mentioned to me by a dear priest friend. I think that the basic narrative he offers is flawed and constitutes eisegesis on a massive scale. That said, I am always happy to read another book!
I hated Heiser’s work at first. I think Unseen Realm is the only book I’ve gone through 6-7 times. I’ve been through the enitre podcast, The Naked Bible, and I come away with Orthodox apologetics almost every time. I’ve corresponded with him briefly several times pointing out where his work coincides with Orthodoxy. He seems fascinated at times, but he is something of a Baptist, at least that’s how I see him. He lays out throughout most all of his work, a Biblical anthropology, a Biblical view of the fall – from innocence, without Original Sin, and into death and dominion of the Devil, but once he gets into the NT, he is fine severing the umbilical cord between the Testaments – I just thought of that phrase.. I remember telling him that if access to Sacred Space was the goal in large part of the Sacrificial System – and he’s huge into Sacred Geography, that Israel was geographically Yaweh’s portion – this is why Naaman takes back dirt from Israel – but once you get into the NT, we are temples of the Holy Spirit, we are Sacred Space. He sees this, but then, the connection is obvious as day, what is one major function of the Eucharist? Keeping us as Sacred Space, preserving us as Sacred Space. It’s simple to see, but here he denies it. Our Temples are cleansed with repentance and with loyalty to the Holy Trinity, but also with the Body and Blood of Christ. We are not “unclean” anymore because death is defeated and the entire Sacrificial Systems is at rest in that sense, but we defile ourselves with sin, and this must be cleansed. Anyway, I know I’m not teaching you anything.
I just think, if you mine some of his work, arguments for Orthodoxy from the Bible, become easy.
For example, our Holy Mother. The reasons for veneration and prayer to Mary from within standard Orthodox apologetics, are often extremely sad and weak. But, once a Divine Council worldview, once Original Sin is out of the way, once our destiny to become gods by Grace is a reality, our Holy Mother becomes someone to venerate and the logic is clear, there is no cognitive dissonance holding us back. I largely owe more to Heiser in coming to Orthodoxy, and to NT Wright, and very much to Father Romanides – whose work just went hand in hand with Heiser’s than to anyone else. Conceptually, Orthodoxy functions within the worlds they describe, and – Protestantism and Catholicism, don’t. My library is not limited to their books, but now as I read early Fathers, I realize, this is their world, the world of free will, demons, death’s defeat, Resurrection, New Earth, etc. – and that these truths have little to no Biblical influence on other traditions. So, again, give him a chance.
I think the eisegesis you think is there, and surely there is some, will go away. But the easiest proof is in the NT. When Paul in Acts goes through the table of nations, and his goal of getting to Spain, it obvious Paul is reading the OT in a particular way – the regathering of the nations disinherited by God – he realizes this is over and the effort is to regather them. The Gentile/Jew distinction, created after Babel, the distribution of those nations to the sons of God, the 70 “heavenly beings”, and later those nations would be those living in the shadow of the land of death, living in idolatry and paganism, and Paul preaching that the “times of ignorance God overlooked but now commands repentance” – all of it ties together with no eisegesis. And actually, it all fits with Orthodoxy and with liturgical texts, the Fathers, etc. I could go on and on, but, there is an opening for explaining Orthodoxy within the worlds of Heiser/Wright/many others – where we wouldn’t have to do so much work, we would just be connecting the dots.
God bless you!
Anyway, thanks for all you do!