Psalm 82: Translation and Comments

This short series of posts is part of my preparation for my Psalms final. Here, I offer a translation and other comments about Psalm 82.

  1. Yahweh[1] was positioned within the assembly of El [2]; in the midst of the gods, he will judge.[3]

2. “How long will ya’ll judge injustice [4]
And raise the faces of criminals?!?”[5] [6]

3. “Judge the poor and the orphan; the poor and hungry cause to be righteous
4. “Save the poor and the needy; from the hand of the wicked, pull [the poor and                      the needy].”[7]

5. “They have not known and they did not discern;
in darkness they walk continuously;
they will be made to totter, the whole foundations of the earth.”[8] [9]

6. “Indeed, I have spoken [10], “You are gods and sons of the most high you all       are!”;
7. however, like humanity, you will be mortal; like one of the kings, you will                          fall!”[11]

8. “Rise, Yahweh, and judge the land, for you will take as possession all the

[1] In the Hebrew text, we read the word elohim, which can reference either to God (=Yahweh), gods, other deities, ghosts, etc. The reason we translate “Yahweh” rather than “God” is because this Psalm is part of the Elohistic Psalter (Psalms 42-83. The Elohistic Psalter is a series of Psalms which used the name “Yahweh” very sparingly, at least in comparison to other Psalms. For example, Psalm 53 is part of the Elohistic Psalter. This Psalm is strikingly similar to Psalm 14. They differ, though, in that Psalm 53 uses the term elohim instead of Yahweh. While it seems pretty clear that many of these Psalms replace the name “Yahweh” with the title “God”, there is no conclusive reasoning to explain why the editors did this.

[2] In West Semitic myth, the highest deity was El. Naturally, as a divine king, he had an assembly of deities. The name/title El, though, may be problematic. It could refer to multiple things. First, it could refer to “the council of El” in the sense of “the divine council. Second, it could refer to “the council of El” in the sense of “the council of El, the highest deity in the pantheon.” Third, it could refer to “the council of El” in the sense of “the council of Yahweh, who is referenced as El.” I choose the first option because El, as the highest deity, would be normal in the ancient context of this Psalm. There is no reason to oppose the notion of El being the highest deity because it is a common idea in West Semitic religion and culture. In Ugaritic literature, Ba’al is arguably the primary deity; however, El, his father, is still above him in terms of authority and power. Thus, the idea that El was thought to be above Yahweh at some point in history in continuous with other West Semitic conceptions of the divine pantheon.

[3] Another important issue in this Psalm is that of the speaker and addressee. Verse 1, I think, is pretty straight forward. Because the speaker is (1) not defined and (2) there are no allusions to who may be the speaker, it is best to assume that the speaker is the narrator. As the Psalm goes forward, though, later verses may change how we think about who the speaker is. Like, the addressee is not clear either. It is not obvious who vs. 1 is directed towards. I suspect that verse 1 serves to illustrate the context of the rest of the Psalm.

I suspect this for a few reasons. First of all, nobody takes any actions within the verse. The first verb is a passive verb, meaning that Yahweh was stationed/standing. The agent of this action is not Yahweh; rather, somebody else made him to be standing or stationed among the council. Likewise, the second verb, meaning to judge, is in the YIQTOL form. In other words, it is an incomplete action. In terms of the tense, it means that the action that will occurs in the future. It has not occurred yet, though. Therefore, it sets a scene for a moment in time.

[4] The phrase “how long” (עד מתי) occurs 26 times. The majority of these occurrences occur in questions with a negative answer. Because of this, the use of the phrase may be intended to suggest to the reader that the outcome of the question is not good.

[5] The statement “raise the faces of criminals” means “to show favor to.” In Number 6:25, for example, the same words are used: “lift your face.” As a popular paradigmatic blessing, the Aaronic benediction is asking that the deity, Yahweh, show favor to the people. Likewise, in Ugaritic literature, “Ba’al tells deities to “Lift up, O gods, your heads from upon your knees…” as a way of implying boldness and independence… and reestablishment of honor” (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament). Therefore, in this Psalm, the “council of El” seems to be accused of showing favor to the wicked. 

[6] Who is speaker of verse 2? Because Yahweh is positioned, standing, in the midst of the council of El, it seems reasonable that Yahweh is portrayed as the speaker. As for the addressee, vs. 2 uses two YIQTOL in the second-person masculine plural form. This means that the actions which he references have not been completed. They are ongoing. Also, the words are directed towards of group of characters, namely those in the divine council. Therefore, it is reasonable to view vs. 2 as Yahweh questioning the miscarriage of justice.

The verbs seem to be used in a sense of ongoing action in the moment. So, the deities are giving justice a bad-name currently, in an ongoing sense.

[7] Vss. 3-4 suddenly switch in presentation. Whereas vs. 2 was about what the deities currently do, vss. 3-4 use imperative forms. This means that in vss. 3-4, the deities are commanded to act in these particular ways. As imperative forms (commands), though, one must do something in the future in order to follow the command. So, is Yahweh now saying what they must do in the future? This is one possibility. First, he questions what they are doing now. Then, he commands what they must do in the future.

Another possibility is that he is quoting El’s words. In this situation, Yahweh first says, “What in the world are you deities doing!?!” Then, he following it by citing the original command to the council of Yahweh: “Serve justice to the weak and poor.” In the end, it is difficult to find conclusive evidence. For, there is nothing like, “Remember when El said.” Thus, the speaker is ambiguous, while the addressees, the deities, seem fairly obvious. For my translation, the best option seems to be Yahweh citing an older command of El.

[8] Before commenting on what vs. 5 means and the speaker/addressee, I will begin by commenting on verb structure of vs. 5. First, the first two verbs refer to a completed action. The actions of “not knowing” and “not discerning” seem to be situated in the past. Second, the next verb refers to an ongoing actions which describes their current state: they are in a state of continually walking in darkness, a metaphor for ignorance or lack of understanding. Third, the final verb, “to totter” may be understood as something which will be in the future: in the future, the foundations of the earth will totter.

The verbs in vs. 5, then, seem to cover a wide range of time by noting (1) actions in the past, (2) actions in this moment, and (3) actions which will take place.

As for the speaker, it seems reasonable to see Yahweh as the speaker. Recall, for example, that Yahweh asked “how long” in vs. 2. Now, in vs. 5, Yahweh may be describing that actions of what the deities actions do. The addressee, though, is harder to nail down. Unlike vss. 2-4, which were directed toward the deities through the use of second-person forms, vs. 5 references the deities in the 3rd person. Because the only other other character references (possibly) until vs. 5 is El, I suspect that the addressee of vs. 5 of El. In other words, Yahweh is now offering El a narrative of what how he saw his fellow deities behave.

[9] What does it mean for the “foundations of the earth” to totter? This has to do with the cosmogony of ancient Judeans. By “cosmogony”, I mean how they conceived of the mechanics and origins of the world and universe. In the ancient world, good behavior and justice was correlated to the state of created “stuff” (behavior did not cause good nature; it was simply correlated). So, by noting the tottering foundations of earth, the Psalmist (author) and speaker (Yahweh) express the miscarriage of justice on a cosmic scale.

[10] Vs. 6 returns to the issue of speaker: who says, “I have said”? If we assume from the beginning of the Psalm that El is not present (we only have Yahweh and the divine council), then Yahweh is the speaker. If we continue with the notion that El is the supreme deity in this Psalm, then the speaker must be El. For it only makes sense that they most prestigious deity would have the authority to deem deities “gods and sons of the most high”, namely El. As I mentioned previously, El was considered the father of Ba’al in Ugaritic myth. Thus, El seems to be the speaker here.

[11] Vs. 7 stand in contrast to vs. 6: “even though ya’ll are divine beings, I’m going to change that status.” How does this demotion take place, though? First, the root from “be mortal” is, in its simplest form, “to die.” So, El may be saying “like humanity, you will die.” While there is nothing wrong with this, I prefer “like humanity, you will be mortal.” I prefer this translation because humanity does more than just die. Humanity lives. In the future they die. Because the Psalmist says that they will be like humanity, it is reasonable to assume that they are going to be demoted in the sense that they are now mortal. Before, they didn’t have to worry about death because they were immortal. Now, being made like humanity, they must worry about death. Even though they have to worry about death, the underlying implication is that they are made to be mortal.

The second portion demotes the deities to be like kings who fall. One possibility for the metaphor is that it could be utilizing the notion of kingship throughout the ancient world. As any historian or reader would know based on a quick read of a history of the ancient Near East, there were always kings rising to power and falling to power. So, by noting that the deities will “fall”, the implication may be that they will no longer be in power. Unlike before, when they ruled over territories as divine beings, it is now made clear that they will lose their authority and right to rule.

This is accomplished through falling from heaven, demotion, and loss of social status (Is. 14).

[12] In vs. 8, Yahweh is clearly not the speaker because Yahweh is referenced. Because the other deities have been condemned, El seems to be the speaker. He addresses Yahweh. The idea of “possessing” the nations is important. In West Semitic religion and culture, individual deities ruled over particular regions. With the demotion of deities in Psalm 82, though, Yahweh is the sole remainder of the “council of El.” So, Yahweh is now the only one left to rule over the nations. Consequently, Yahweh will “possess” the earth in the sense of inherit. He will inherit the responsibility of kingship among all the nations.


Notes on My Translation of Psalm 82

For my Hebrew-II course, we are wrapping up the quarter with some Psalms. Previously, I posted some thoughts and notes on Psalm 93. These are my thoughts, notes, questions, and reactions for Psalm 82. I should also clarify that I never look at English translations as I am working through these Psalms. Errors are inevitable.

A Psalm of/by Asaph.

  1. Yahweh [elohim in the text] he has been stationed [N, 3MS, Root: NTsB; dagesh in Ts is the assimilated N] in the assembly [ B preposition= in, with patah is including the DA; in construct] of El [Semitic deity]; in the midst of gods [elohim] he will judge.
  2. How long [ad, until + mtay -> interrogative adv.] will  you judge [2MP, Q, Root: ShPT, Imperfect] injustice [Noun, Masculine, object of verb] and before the wicked ones you will lift up/raise [show partiality to the  wicked; Root: NSA, 2MP, Q, Imperfect].
  3. Judge [MP imperative] (the) poor and orphan; cause to be righteous [H, Imperative, 2MP, DO are the afflicted and poor] the afflicted/poor [substantivized Adjective] and poor [substantivized Q Act. Participle].
  4. Deliver [Imperative, 2MP Piel; especially of Yahweh(BDB) with accusative person] (the) poor and needy; from the hand of the wicked ones, you will snatch away/deliver [H, Root: NTsL, 2MP imperfect; DO is in 4b, poor+needy; dagesh=assimilated N].
  5. They will not know [3CP, Imperfect, Qal, Root: YDAyin] and they will not understand [Qal, Root: BYodN, 3CP, Hollow Root]; in the darkness [fig.=lack of understanding] they will continuously walk [Hithpael, 3CP] the whole foundations [Noun, construct; governing noun] of the earth [governed Noun] they will quake/shake [N, Imperfect, to shake/quake, hollow root].
  6. [I was unsure about how to work through vs. 6].
  7. But indeed [adv. with strong assertive force] like man you will die [Root: MWT, 2MP, binyan?]; and like one of the rulers ou will fall [Root: NPL, Q, 2MP, Imperfect].
  8. Rise [2MS, Imperative, Root: KWM, with paragogic H] Elohim [AKA Adonai/Yahweh]; judge [Q, Imperative, 2MS; irregular form?] the land; from now you will take as possession [Q, Imperfect, Root: NHL, 2MS] all the nations [BDB=”landed property”].